Friday, September 28, 2007

The FIRST EMPEROR: China's Terracotta Army.

Just recently something seems to have happened to time. Incidents that I just vaguely remember and assume to have occurred at least a week ago turn out to have taken place yesterday. It is disorientating and somewhat worrying.

Yesterday I rang someone to find out if my letter had arrived. 'When did you post it?' she asked. The evidence is here in my computer: the dates, the times all in front of me. 'Must have been 26th.' I said.
There was a pause. 'But that was just yesterday,' she said, 'it won't have come yet.'

So I put the phone down trying to remember. I must have printed it out, folded it, walked along the road to the post office...I must even have got dressed at some reasonable time because presumably I did not do all this in my dressing gown and slippers. But I can't remember it at all. Was the sun shining? Did I see anyone? I can't remember. Yet I can remember the terracotta warriors I saw the day before that. I can remember all the details: the way they all looked blankly ahead; the way their hands made perfect circles around poles that had long rotted away; the squares of clay armour joined together by clay threads over clay jerkins and trousers (since we were not allowed to take photographs in the museum I have used photographs of the exhibition brochure instead);
the graceful curves of a bronze swan and a bronze crane dipping their beaks into long dried-up pools;

the odd squat horses and their harnesses with cruel-looking pointed cones keeping one apart from the next;

and the chariot with windows made from beaten-out bronze to a lamella-like thickness so that light came through to the despot inside - the First Emperor Ying Zhen, King of the Qin (pronounced Chin).

Ying Zhen wanted to govern forever - in this life and the one he thought would come next. His tomb took 30 years to complete and contained 7 000 pot soldiers, several clay entertainers (also here - a strong man with an incongruously feminine roundness, and a thinner man who juggled something that had long-ago rotted away), officials with the knives and cutters of their trade (their hands hidden away in long rippling sleeves, pampered and well-cared for) and musicians that we can only guess are playing some sort of zither and some sort of drum.

Some artefacts, however, were preserved: bronze bells, beautifully embellished belt buckles, moulds for coins and the coins themselves - a square representing the earth cut out from the circle that was the galaxy.

Like Napoleon Ying Zhen was fond of standardisation. His standard measure for liquids is exactly the same as the measure of a litre today (I found that remarkable but there was no explanation if this was coincidence or whether the Chinese measure was the precursor of the European), the components for his weapons of destruction were of a standard design and therefore interchangeable and repairable throughout his empire, and the written language is still very much the one used in China today - although people in the different provinces of China cannot understand each other when they speak their script is universal.

The setting of the exhibition was dramatic; the reading room darkened so that the statues stood out strikingly with lights. There were small clips of films and photographs of the beautiful Chinese scenery including the wall that Ying Zhen built - connecting smaller walls to keep his empire in or invaders out. It was the first great wall of China - but this one made from mud rather than bricks and stones. But still it was impressive. It traced along the peaks of hills and mountains like a raised seam in buckled cloth. The ground looked smooth and felted and as I looked at it all I wanted was to be there in this kingdom of a despot, imagining how it must be to dig through all the layers to where there are thought to be mercury rivers and stone-lined vaults. However it is unlikely to be uncovered in our lifetime. The Chinese, quite correctly in my opinion, want to be careful and preserve what is there. Thousands of people died making this tomb - their names are scribbled on stones in hurried memorials and I suppose it is a tribute to them to preserve their labours in the most suitable way possible.

Even though we shall probably never see him Ying Zhen has already achieved a sort of immortality - not just for himself but for thousands of his anonymous citizens too. When we look at their faces we can imagine how they were even though we never knew them. Then, once we have seen them, we take an impression of them away with us in our heads and remember their exhausting, punishing lives building Ying Zhen's empire - even if we remember very little else from that otherwise unremarkable week in our thankfully mundane little lives.

(A final shot of the roof of the British Museum which thrills me with its light and space each time I see it).


Blogger Marly Youmans said...

Perhaps you went deeply out of your time at the British Museum, and so it's a little hard to return to the tickticktick!

Fri Sept 28, 03:45:00 pm  
Blogger Jan said...

This is a marvellous posting.
I haven't booked yetr but it's something I want to see.

Sat Sept 29, 11:01:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've not been and will no doubt not have the opportunity to do so in the near future; so, thanks for a remarkable reflection on what we can see and appreciate with this exhibit.

You gave it life, Clare; an excellent representation for those who can't see it at first hand. Bravo!

Sat Sept 29, 11:16:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes you're probably right, Marly, either that or I've done the same thing so often recently it has become so familiar it has become comepletely unmemorable.

Thanks Jan and CFR!

Sat Sept 29, 06:32:00 pm  
Blogger Kay Cooke said...

Sounds marvellous - stunning ... memorable!

Mon Oct 01, 10:53:00 am  

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