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China: The Terra-Cotta Army

One of the terra-cotta warriors

Cathy Stripe LesterVisiting the famous Terra-Cotta warriors near the city of Xian (pronounced SHEE-an) was the highlight of the trip for me. They were created because the first Emperor of China, Qin (pronounced Chin) Shi Huang, wanted his army to protect him in the afterlife, so he commanded thousands of his men to have a life-size pottery statue of themselves made, including some with horses. These were then buried in special underground chambers near the emperor’s mausoleum.

Figure and horses.

The bodies seem to have been mass-produced, but the faces, amazingly, are portraits of individuals – thousands and thousands of them:

The scale is amazing, literally overwhelming.

The largest pit has an estimated 6,000 figures (they haven't all been dug out yet.)

I couldn’t help contrasting the swarming throngs of tourists with their cameras, jostling to get a spot by the railings, with the still figures of the warriors, standing steadily in their ranks, gazing into infinity …

Near the entrance.

When the figures were discovered, the underground rooms had all been broken into, the bronze weapons that the figures originally held had been stolen, and ALL the figures smashed. The explanation was that there was a revolution about two generations after the Emperor Qin, and the rebels wanted the bronze weapons.

A section the archaeologists are working on. You can make out the hindquarters of a horse.

In my opinion, there was something more: If the Emperor believed the army was going to protect him in the afterlife, then other people, including the rebels, also believed it. In that case, once they themselves died, Qin’s army would be waiting for them in the afterlife to beat up on them. The obvious solution was was for the rebels to bust up the terra-cotta warriors, and their horses, while they could. Happy afterlife, guys!

Figures being put back together.

Archaeologists had to piece together the figures before the area was opened to the public. Even today, the process goes on. In the far end of the gigantic building that shields the pits from the weather, the air is redolent of glue and you can see figures being worked on.

Yes, he's wrapped in cling film. This warrior has been recently glued together and is being held together while he dries.

The Chinese retain the belief that images of things can become “real” in the afterlife. In Chinese funerals, “Spirit money” and paper figures of cars, houses, etc., are burned to provide the dead person with the necessities in the afterlife.

One of the famous Tang pottery horses. You can see why the owner wanted this handsome steed in the afterlife with him!

During the Cultural Revolution in Mao ZeDong’s time, religion was suppressed and statues and temples were destroyed. Several generations grew up not attending temples, so nowadays not that many Chinese are religious. Of those who are, the majority are Buddhists. We also saw several Christian churches which looked well-cared for. And in Xian, where there’s a Muslim population, there were mosques. Xian is in the west of China, and it used to be the staging point for the old Silk Road which brought trade goods in and out of China across the Takla Makan desert to Persia.

Towards the end of the 1970s, the Chinese were allowed more religious freedom. Part of the thinking was that only old people would be interested, but somewhat to the authorities’ surprise, younger people began attending temples again.

The Tibetan-style Lama Temple in Beijing.

Some temples had been converted into offices or government buildings. Many of those have been restored as houses of worship, especially ones that were recognized as “touristic destinations.” At the Temple of the Jade Buddha in Shanghai we were told the story of how the priceless jade statue of the Buddha was hidden during the Cultural Revolution. The monks sealed it up inside a brick wall. Then, to make sure the wall was undisturbed, they pasted a giant picture of Chairman Mao on the wall!

Worshippers burning incense and praying, in the courtyard of the Temple of the Jade Buddha. I had to admire their concentration in the middle of swarms of tourists!

Every temple we visited was stuffed with statues. There were symbolic kings, mythological characters, local spirits, demi-gods and bodhisattvas (either Buddha in his previous lives, or enlightened “saints”).

We weren't allowed to photograph the Jade Buddha itself, but these are two of the many other statues - one peaceful, one warlike - in the Jade Buddha Temple.

The exception to statue-filled temples was the Temple of Confucius. Set in a lovely garden, it has “spirit tablets” instead of figures. The message is that you do not worship the man, but instead you venerate his teachings. Incidentally, because it isn’t a “major” tourist site, the Temple of Confucius is wonderfully peaceful and calm.

Myself sitting under an amazingly gnarled tree in one of the picturesque courtyards at the Temple of Confucius.

An important element in both Buddhism and Tao is “Shen,” or local beliefs, many of them prehistoric. The very word “Shen” can mean either “gods,” “spirits” or simply “awareness.” I didn’t see any Shen temples. It seems that Shen beliefs are more like a cultural attitude; something that percolates into other religions, and infuses daily life as well.

I have no idea which tradition this heavenly spirit came from, and a couple people I asked didn't know either. The crown looks Indian, the instrument is a "pipa," or Chinese lute, the loops behind his shoulders indicate heavenly clouds, and he's wearing armor. And he looks like he's having fun. So, a happy celestial musical warrior with a foreign origin? Okay…..

I suspect Shen is behind what I’d call “folk belief” — strong beliefs which aren’t connected to any particular religion. Feng Shui, or the philosophy of harmonizing one’s house and surroundings with nature, is one such practice. It isn’t specifically religious, but the Chinese sure do have faith in it. Apartments with good Feng Shui command much higher prices than those without. Traditional bedrooms are small because of the belief that if there’s too much space around a person when they sleep, their soul can wander away from them. (With all their enthusiasm for sightseeing, the Chinese have been reluctant to take up camping under the stars.)

The bedroom of the last dowager Empress of China. Her other rooms are spacious, but this is only as big as it needs to be.

Another belief is “lucky numbers.” An old saying is, “Good things come in pairs.” So two of anything is better than one. Did you ever wonder why the Pandas all have double names? Ming-ming, Ling-ling and so on? Doubling a name makes it more auspicious. (Ming means bright, Ling means dawn, or jade.)

I didn't manage to get any decent panda-panda photos at the zoo, but but I found an auspicious pair of tidy-tidy rubbish bins at the Lama Temple in Beijing.

The very luckiest number is eight. In Chinese, “eight” is a homophone with “wealth,” or “fortune.” When written, the Chinese character for eight looks like “joy.” Eighty-eight becomes “Double joy.” Not surprisingly, 88 is put on wedding decorations. The Beijing Olympics officially started at exactly 8 minutes and 8 seconds after 8:00 on 8/8/08. There are also stories of numbers having a lot of eights being sold for astronomical prices. According to the BBC, Sichuan Airlines bought an all-8 telephone number for about $280,000. And according to the Aviation Safety Network, although they’ve been hijacked twice, there were no fatalities and they’ve never had a crash.

Good Feng Shui in a traditional garden: In a south-facing pavilion, the round window acts as a frame for a view that includes water, rocks, and trees.

  • John Pilon

    Cat – Refresh me on my history. What was the period of the first Emperor of China? It seems some of the soldiers, when they were alive, had armored tunics made of platelets. Wonder what the material was – leather, metal? Since they seem to have terra cotta production mastered, could those platelets have been ceramic?

  • Bobdisqus

    You make me feel guilty that I stayed in Nanjing on the weekend I could have gone. It looks like my sloth cost me a chance to see a wonder. Thanks for sharing.

  • Evelyn

    Cathy, I have really enjoyed all your article! The man whose tours we go on in Bulgaria, went to China to help document the site as part of a UNESCO team working on the Terra-Cotta Warriors.

  • John S. Porter

    This is just a wonderful compilation of photos and narrative that kind of ties together what people have told me about the Terra-Cotta soldiers. I haven’t been there or seen it. I hope to travel the silk road from Xian to the west. You have touched on a lot of history with your post. Like my friend the archaeologist, the more you dig, the more curious you become. Your post whets my appetite.

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