The Terracotta Warriors

Many museums and galleries across the UK, as well as offering virtual tours, have begun to reopen but for those of us unable to visit them, a new series of blogs focus on some of the fascinating artefacts and collections that have been displayed in British museums. Here, Classics Ambassador Liv S tells us about what she saw in the Liverpool World Museum in 2018.

“The droughts of March 1974 had brought significant challenges to the farmers of Lintong County, an agricultural province east of the ancient Chinese city of Xi’an. In a desperate attempt to save their failing crops, a pair of brothers decided they must dig a new well. As one of the brothers forced his spade deeper and deeper into the ground, he suddenly found himself face to face with a life sized clay head. He had never seen anything like it, and he was not alone. News of this strange discovery spread, and it was not long before archaeologists from Beijing had descended upon the countryside to undertake a full scale exploration. Over the following four decades as many as 8000 figures, 700 horses, and most recently an exquisite golden camel figurine, have been excavated from three enormous underground pits – and the most famous of these discoveries are the Terracotta Warriors.

The Warriors were not the only historical puzzle to emerge from Lintong County. Only a mile from where they were based, a mound 76 metres high dominates the landscape. Thirty metres below is the tomb of Shi Huangdi. Shi Huangdi or Ying Zheng as he was originally known, was a key figure in Chinese ancient history. Only a few years before Hannibal Barca would cross the Alps and head for a terrified Rome, this King of Qin had pulled off an extraordinary feat. In 221 BCE, through military might and a determination which was central to his character, he had, for the first time, united a multitude of warring states into one empire, an area of land that we recognise as China today. And so Ying Zheng became “Qin Shi Huangdi (“Divine August Emperor of Qin”). He was the First Emperor, long before anyone had heard of the likes of Augustus and his dynasty.

Imperator Caesar divi filius Augustus

But like Augustus, Shi Huangdi paid attention to every detail in his role as ruler. After forcing peace upon his subjects, he ordered the mass construction of walls, roads and canals, standardised weights, measures and currency and attempted to unify the Chinese script and language. But like many figures of history who insisted on absolute control, when he died in 210 BCE, his empire fell too.

Qin Shi Huangdi (“Divine August Emperor of Qin”)

Much of what we know about the Qin dynasty can be confirmed from artefacts found in museums around the world; however details of his final resting place deep within the ground depend on the descriptions in the ancient texts of Sima Qian, a historian writing a century later in the time of the Han dynasty. His writings give a fascinating insight into the splendour in which the first Emperor lived, and reflect the power he exerted over his people.  His tomb was alleged to contain a large scale model of the palace quarters, complete with a domed roof studded with gems to symbolise the stars, and surrounded by pools of mercury representing the rivers and oceans of the earth. Recent scientific investigations, using radar and soil sampling (the ground levels of mercury are high) seem to back up this description, but as the tomb remains sealed to this day, we can only speculate about its true nature.

And with the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors so close to the emperor’s tomb, a connection with Shi Huangdi could be made. It is now believed that these military statues were not for the eyes of the living. They were created simply to guard Shi Huangdi’s tomb complex, his empire in the afterlife, where he would rule for eternity. Siam Qian doesn’t mention the warriors, perhaps because neither he nor the people of ancient China had ever seen these pieces of funerary art.

With the collapse of the Qin dynasty, the enemies of the First Emperor tried to destroy his tomb and the vast surrounding area.  The corridors and roofs which enclosed the pits of the Terracotta warriors, made from wood and reed matting were set on fire, collapsing and crushing many of the figures into the soil. Again it seemed it was our destiny never to stare into the faces of these magnificent sculptures. Yet after the chance discovery of that single clay head in 1974, a final stroke of luck meant that we would.

Zhao Kangmin

Enter Zhao Kangmin, an archaeologist who unlike household names such as Howard Carter and Heinrich Schleimann, is far less recognised or celebrated. His story is that of a humble man, an ex-farmer and self – taught historian, whose passion for China’s imperial past had resulted in him becoming a curator in the local museum in Lintong; however his interests had in the past also attracted the unwelcome attentions of Chairman Mao’s Red Guards, destroyers of archaeological sites and artefacts, who regarded Zhao as a traitor of the Cultural Revolution. Yet when Zhao heard of the farmers’ discoveries in the spring of 1974, his response was not caution but elation. Leaping on his bike, he headed for the site, accompanied by a colleague. Later he recalls “Because we were so excited, we rode on our bicycles so fast it felt as if we were flying.”            

By the time he arrived, some of the pottery had been taken home by the villagers as trophies or used as toys by the local children. Zhao immediately recognised the remaining artefacts as dating from the Qin dynasty and arranged for them to be taken to his museum. He then began the immense task of piecing them together. Despite some of the fragments being no larger than a fingernail, within two months he managed to reconstruct two life-size warriors, and later two more, as well as a horse. Although he worried that news of his work would be received badly by the authorities in Beijing, this turned out not to be the case, perhaps as by this time Mao’s influence was in decline.

But as the Terracotta Warriors became box office news around the world, the name of Zhao Kangmin faded into the background. Yet even in old age, Zhao’s delight in discovering the Warriors never left him; it is said that even after his retirement as curator of the Lintong Museum, he visited the figures which he had reconstructed in his younger days. And five months after this modest man’s death in 2018, my dad and I were fortunate enough to acquire tickets to meet a few of the Warriors ourselves, at the World Museum in Liverpool. Here are some of my photographs from that great day, which now seems a lifetime ago – I hope you enjoy them.”