Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Terracotta tease

There is no denying that the First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum is a rare gift - many of us will never go to China (I think I'm first in the line marked 'Loud-mouthed dissident')
- but it is not an experience commensurate with its uniqueness.

The terracotta diplomacy practised by China in loaning 20 figures from the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi to London is both generous, in that this many figures have never left China at once before, and underwhelming, for there are 7,980 which are not here. This is not churlish, because I'm not expecting them to send over a fleet of 747s with the rest on, but the scale of the Emperor's project, which is a large part of its magnificence, is wholly lost. This is revealed most tellingly when you walk up to the central pit where the warriors are lit like cars in a showroom and a photo alongside them shows them in situ, rank after rank after rank, stretching back beyond vision.

The figures are certainly remarkable, the first incidence of a production line in history. The fact trumpeted about them is that each is personalised, with a moustache here and a pot belly there, and with 8,000 to be given their own faces, it is certainly an achievement. They are imposing too, standing tall for today, let alone for our smaller ancestors. However, they never entirely come to life, for individuality is not the same thing as animation. You could say that impassivity is the point, but why personalise if only to stand still? There is not sufficient artistic skill in a machine to imbue them with spirit.

There is some compensation for the sparseness of the figures and their unprepossessing gazes in the background the BM provides, which shows the achievement of Qin Shihuangdi in uniting the warring kingdoms of third century BC China. Essentially just a greater warlord rather than an enlightened unifier, Qin managed to standardise much within his new great country, including the abolition (unhappily, I think) of dagger-shaped money for your standard round coins, although with a rather natty square hole in the middle to represent earth in the universe.

Some wonderful examples of armour are present, including a still-glinting dagger which could give a nasty nick if you even so much as contemplated nicking it. It is a model of economical design, made from one piece of steel, tapering down to its fine point.

Even the very conception of the terracotta army gives me pause. As we stood under the Reading Room's rotunda, on the scaffold erected over the desks (which cannot be moved, as they are listed), it occurred to me that the British Museum was the gift of monarchs to their people, a fulfilment of the promise of the Age of Enlightenment. The terracotta army, however, took 300,000 slaves dozens of years to create, all to be stored away in a warlord's tomb, however magnificent with its rivers of mercury and recreated palace. The selfishness of the project would never have benefited the people, unlike contemporary Rome's public buildings, paid for privately.

When we are asked to admire our twenty warriors, we are asked to thank a warlord for his self-concern in wanting protection from his enemies after his death. We are asked to praise a man who took this project to his grave. But worst of all, we are asked to ignore the abuse that created them - and the abuse that lives on in the Chinese government which is trying to blind us with them.

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