For weeks I’ve been reading and learning Indonesian history, discovering all sorts of the intriguing things — then last week an article reminded me of something that interested me decades ago and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I simply had to follow through and find out what new had happened.
The article is “Discoveries May Rewrite History of China’s Terra-Cotta Warriors.”
“The 8,000 terracotta warriors that have kept watch over the tomb of China’s first emperor for more than 2,000 years were the result of outside influence, new evidence suggests. Based on DNA remains found on the site, archaeologists think ancient Greek sculptors could have been on hand to train local artists – a find that could overturn centuries-old assumptions about contact between the East and the West before Marco Polo.”
Thousands of clay soldiers stand in trench-like underground corridors, positioned according to rank, each soldier a unique individual with his own facial features, expression, hairstyle, the higher ranking of them outfitted with full bronze battle gear. Weapons (swords, daggers, spears, arrowheads) are included. Originally the statues were brightly colored but when exposed to air the paint and lacquer flaked off.
I once saw two of the terracotta soldiers. It was in 1988 and I had gone to the Cleveland Museum of Art specifically to see its collection of Indian paintings, unaware of the exhibition being held, “The Quest for Eternity: Chinese Ceramic Sculptures from the People’s Republic of China.” As I remember, the two statues were placed high, on display, maybe near the entrance, and walking by them, looking up, I was stunned by their presence. A friend had been waiting for me. She came over and hurried us on. Oddly, I can still see the statues in my mind’s eye, but not the paintings. Later, thinking of them and being outside the States, I somehow thought the terracotta army was from the Shang Dynasty and read a bit about it as background, all of which I’ve forgotten. An image of the soldiers returns as I read of them again, and with new information, they are even more interesting.
The evidence for Greek artists having participated in creating the statues especially interests me. I knew of Gandhara art, but this wonderful Greek-influenced statuary was much later, in the first and second centuries CE., too late for the terracotta statues. Besides, I wondered why a civilization sophisticated enough to produce the terracotta marvels would need input from a far distant culture and one less advanced than itself. Curiosity would not stop nagging at me so I finally decided that with this question, plus the importance of Chinese influence on Indonesia and its culture, I really should take the time to learn something of China and Chinese history.
Where to begin? I make sense of ancient civilizations by thinking in anthropological terms, beginning with the basic era, the Neolithic. It is a period of people living in villages, cultivating fields of a staple, usually a grain, with the hoe, raising domesticated animals, using stone tools, making pottery and weaving cloth. For China, the earliest known Neolithic was along the Yellow River c. 8500 BCE., based on millet and the pig. Silk was being produced by 5000 BCE.
By 7500 BCE a rice-based Neolithic had developed on the Yangtze River, but that is another part of China. I will return to it when writing about the origins of Indonesian culture.
The next historic era is the Bronze Age, meaning that within a landscape of farming villages there developed a military ruling elite and a religious elite who lived in cities, often walled cities, in palaces, surrounded by specialists and craftsmen, by servants and laborers while keeping control over the peasants who sustained them with food, goods and labor. The military protected their peasantry from raids and attacks by other rulers, and with the religious elite, served as the ultimate judicial authority. The invention of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, had made possible weapons more effective for warfare and axes and blades stronger and more durable than stone tools for clearing and working the land. Metal-working required new sorts craftsmanship, and since the ores are rarely found together, it created the need for trade and for traders, a new occupation of men, and some women, who ventured out beyond the community, in contact and negotiations with people in other societies.
In China, the smelting of copper was discovered early, c. 5000 BCE, in several Neolithic cultures. Tin ore is relatively rare but small deposits were found along the Yellow River, accessible to Bronze Age civilizations. The earliest was the Xia dynasty. c. 2070 – 1600 BCE, followed by the Shang dynasty, c. 1600 – 1046 BCE, the earliest dynasty for which there is archaeological evidence. The Shang dynasty, a period of small kingdoms, was followed by the Zhou dynasty, c. 1046 – 256 BCE, characterized as a feudal society, meaning one with a military hierarchy in which a ruler or lord offers mounted fighters a fief (medieval beneficium), a unit of land, with its peasants and natural resources included, to control in exchange for a military service. The individual who accepted this land became a vassal, and the man who granted the land become known as his liege or his lord.
Qin Shi Huang Di, the man whom the terracotta soldiers were to serve in the afterlife, came to the throne of the kingdom of Qin in 246 BCE at the age of 13. Within 25 years his military forces had conquered all of the other Warring States and unified all of China under the Qin Dynasty. He was the First Emperor of China. During his rule he standardized coins, weights, and measures; interlinked the states with canals and roads; and is credited with building the first version of the Great Wall. He died in 210 BCE.
The Han Dynasty, 206 BCE – 220 CE, followed the Qin Dynasty. It ruled for four centuries and is considered a golden age in Chinese history. China’s majority ethnic group refers to itself as the “Han people” and the Chinese script is referred to as “Han characters”
A good article on the Bronze Age with pictures of bronze artifacts is here.
The Iron Age, the era when iron objects were first produced, is a third archeological Age based on technology but less consistently related to a type of social organization. Iron tool and weapon use began between c.1200 to 600 BCE, depending on the region and on when the knowledge was developed for smelting iron ore, removing impurities, and for steel, regulating the amount of carbon in the alloy. Other Iron Age innovations were the potter’s wheel, the rotary quern for grinding grain, and the wood lathe.
In the Mediterranean region, c. 1300 BCE, iron technology developed during a time of disorder and violence known as the Bronze Age Collapse. Trade routes for tin ore were disrupted and bronzesmiths responded by turning to the more abundant and accessible iron ore. Meteorite iron had been known and used for making swords. As the technology evolved, iron became cheaper, stronger, lighter and forged iron implements eventually superseded cast bronze tools and weapons. For some reason, the process seems to have been slower in China than in Europe. Nevertheless, in the Yellow River region during the Spring and Autumn Period, 722 – 481 BCE, farming was revolutionized by the use of cast iron tools and oxen to pull the plow. The food supply increased and population increase followed. Iron objects, such as handcuffs and collars for slaves or criminals, were found in Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb but the terracotta warriors’ weapons were bronze, not iron.
The Chariot and four horses fascinates me. I have here a picture and discussion of a similar chariot and charioteer in India being taken into battle by four horses, possibly in the 4th century BCE.
From the Cleveland Museum of Art website —
“Some of the most famous ceramic horses are those found in the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (reigned 221-208 BCE). In three separate pits, more than 7,000 pottery soldiers, horses, and chariots and tens of thousands of bronze weapons (swords, daggers, spears, cross-bow triggers, and arrowheads) were excavated. They would have been brightly painted, though much of the color is now lost. In the center of the chariot, a chariot driver holds the reins in both hands. On either side of him are two chariot soldiers. Standing with their feet placed to balance their weight while the chariot is in motion, one hand holds the side-rail of the chariot the other a weapon. Since the charioteer has both hands on the reins, he cannot protect himself. He wears a special uniform with long-sleeved armor to protect his arms and hands and a high collar to protect his neck.”
From a Shang Dynasty archeological site —
“The light chariot, with 18 to 26 spokes per wheel, first appeared, according to the archaeological and inscriptional record, about 1200 BCE. Glistening with bronze, it was initially a prestigious command car used primarily in hunting. The 16 chariot burials found at Xiaotun raise the possibility of some form of Indo-European contact with China, and there is little doubt that the chariot, which probably originated in the Caucasus, entered China via Central Asia and the northern steppe. Animal-headed knives, always associated with chariot burials, are further evidence of a northern connection.”
In later centuries, about 200 BCE, other Indo-European contacts, this time Greek artists from the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, today’s Afghanistan, traveling north of the Taklamakan Desert, arrived in Xi’an, Qin Shi Huang’s city, to show his artists the art and science of modeling the human body. Men of Bactria had already led expeditions into Xinjiang, northwestern China. The historian Strabo wrote: “they extended their empire even as far as the Seres (Chinese) and the Phryni.” Several statuettes and representations of Greek soldiers have been found north of the Tien Shan, and are on display in the Xinjiang museum at Urumqi.
How often in considering the history of this region of the earth we are led back to Alexander the Great. In 330 BCE, with an army of Macedonian and Greek soldiers, he invaded territory in today’s Afghanistan as part of his war against Persia. Greek soldiers settled down in this fertile realm, defeated enemy armies and founded the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. Although cut off from Europe, for three centuries they carried on with Greek culture. Greek was the language of government and the elite. One of their cities, Ain Khanum, excavated in 1970s, showed a complete Greek city with an acropolis, amphitheater, temples, and numerous statues. Their coins are among the most beautiful ever made. The Greeks of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, which included Gandhara, transmitted the art of sculpting human likeness to India, and most likely to Qin.
Quoting Lukas Nickel —
Ancient Chinese records tell that 12 giant statues, clad in “foreign robes” “appeared in Lintao” in what was the westernmost part of China. (The word “Lintao” can also mean any place far to the west.) The records do not say how this appearance happened, who brought them there, or who exactly the statues depicted; they do reveal the statues were larger than life and so impressed Qin Shi Huang that he decided to build 12 duplicates in front of his palace by melting down bronze weapons that had been used for war. Thus, we know that he, unlike other ruling elites in China, knew of and favored a foreign mode of sculpture.
In separate pits near his mausoleum were found a few dozen statues of half-naked acrobats and dancers on which the sculptors attempted to render a bone structure, muscles and sinews to depict a person in movement. Further, “This comes close to an understanding of the human body that was employed at the time only in Hellenistic (Greek influenced) Europe and Asia.” Nickel argues that creating this sort of realistic sculpture is not something that a sculptor could learn without some practice, that it took the ancient Greeks centuries to master it, and “The creation of a believable human body preoccupied generations of Greek sculptors. It was a complex artistic and intellectual process that did not happen overnight.”
Researchers salvaged traces of European mitochondrial DNA from skeletons buried near Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, confirming the Greeks were there.
China had no tradition of building life-size figures with realistic details before the construction of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, and none since then.
I love the 1st and 2nd century art of Gandhara, much of it Buddhist. More on that in another essay.