The Terracotta Army

DH Lawrence once complained of how we only know of the Etruscan way of death, not their way of life. The tombs survived long after the cities had been destroyed. Visiting the British Museum exhibition dedicated to the First Emperor, the centrepiece of which being specimens of the Terracotta Army, it’s rather difficult not to be reminded of this observation. Even so, the comparison cannot be taken too far; Lawrence romantically portrayed the Etruscans as gentle artists overwhelmed by Roman imperialism whereas the Qin dynasty was depicted in Sima Qian’s history as one of despotism and conquest. Much of the exhibition accordingly dwells on the militaristic aspects of the Qin dynasty, from their origins as horse breeders to the Zhou dynasty to its overthrow of the Zhou through the development of superior military strategy, such as the use of cavalry. The exhibition includes mass produced examples of crossbows, spears, swords and the bells used to sound the retreat. A brass rubbing shows Jing Qe’s assassination attempt (the basis for the recent wuxia film – another example of contemporary Chinese pro-totalitarian and pro-reunification ideologies) The exhibition does tend to rehabilitate the First Emperor in so far glosses over earlier aspects of Chinese culture; the Zhou dynasty had after all produced Confucius, Lao Tsu and Mencius, creating a period for philosophy that had equalled Athens.

However, the exhibition does also contain examples of bells used for ceremonial purposes (lacking a clapper they had to be struck from the outside), various engraved bronze vessels, gold bowls, jade pendants and bi discs. Pottery tiles from the royal palaces show patterns of dragons, phoenixes, bi discs and sun flowers. It also dwells on some of the more functional aspects of Qin rule; the standardisation of weights, measures, coinage and of the language itself. Early coin designs were in the shapes of knives or spades. Yuan Yao’s hanging scroll of the mythical city of Penglai (resting place of the immortals sought out by the Emperor and one influence for his necropolis) and Yuan Jiang’s Ebung Palace are easily the most accomplished artworks in the exhibition. Both depict fantastical palaces set amidst the mountains and the exhibition also includes imperial inscriptions carved into the rock on the summits of various mountains. The Imperial tomb was itself designed to become one with the natural world, with the interior designed as a microcosm of his kingdom and the central pyramid having since become forested, thereby conferring the status of mountain spirit on the deceased. The principle is in most respects the opposite of the Western idea of architecture as a product of artifice, something to stand against nature.

This brings us to the statues themselves. Although mass-produced, each statue had to be completed by hand, adding details like moustaches and paintings, giving each of them a surprisingly individual aspect. A replica is included of how ones of the statues would have originally looked; like Roman sculpture it would have been painted and equipped with genuine weaponry. On some of the statues, paint has peeled away from the clay beneath creating an effect disturbingly like the decomposition of flesh from bone. The detail varies considerably in other respects, such as the wearing of hats or plain topknots. However, although the exhibition presents archers, generals cavalrymen and their horses and infantrymen, as well as a coach driver and four horses (the paint survives well here, with the the horses dappled and patterns decorating the coach) it also includes stable hands, civil servants, wrestlers, acrobats and musicians. Bronze geese and swans accompany them, as well as the bones of genuine horses and the tombs of real people; again, the difference between art and nature seems elided as with the intent to overcome the difference of life and death.

Afterwards, I have a look at the newly reopened Saint Pancras. It’s oddly situated between something gleamingly futuristic and its original Victorian industrial gothic. The platforms shine with metal and glass beneath Scott’s Venetian gothic brickwork and Barlow’s painted blue girders. The presence of a largely deserted champagne bar serves as an apposite testament to fading of the city’s years of plenty. It’s also pleasant to see the statue of Betjeman with its quotation from Cornish Cliffs at the base; even if he wasn’t a first class poet, it’s too rare to see statues of writers.

During the evening, I go to a Radio3 arts recording at Broadcasting House, where Toby Litt performed a pair of Oulipo style pieces. The first ‘Flatlish’ was a piece written without ascenders or descenders, the second ‘Japanglish’ using the Japanese linguistic structure of alternating vowels and consonants (‘y’ being allowed as a vowel here), which included phrases like ‘unopened ocelot’ and ‘aromatic ape;’ taramasalata was the longest word Litt had found. The following day is rather modest in its ambitions; I go for a walk at Silchester before visiting Butterfield’s church of St Mary at Beech Hill. The interior is like a chessboard with red, white and black bricks placed in alternating patterns and offset with Kempe stained glass and Minton tiles of fleur de lys and eagles.

Reading The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, I’m struck by some puzzling contradictions. Douglass notes that "the religion of the south mere covering for the most horrid crimes… of all slaveholders with whom I have met, religious slaveholders are the worst." I’m reminded of Robert Ingersoll’s more cynical quotation "the slave ship sped from coast to coast, fanned by the winds and the holy ghost." Douglass also asks "does a righteous god govern the universe? and for what does he hold the thunders in his arm if not to smite the oppressor?" Yet religiosity is also something embraced by the slaves, presumably either for its message of equality and justice (in the next life, if not this one). It’s an interesting question as to whether religion was genuinely liberating in this context or whether this is another example of the instances documented by Douglass of slaves embracing the ideologies that imprisoned them.

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