A judicious exploration of the circumstances and meaning behind the terra cotta army interred with China’s first emperor.
In 1974, a clutch of Chinese farmers digging a well unearthed an army of clay soldiers: Confucian in their aura of strength and tranquility, more than 8,000 strong, life-sized, carved to capture specific characteristics of individual soldiers, complete with horses, crossbows and bronze arrowheads. They were the army of King Zheng, the First Emperor, who unified China’s seven warring states (not to mention untold statelets and tribal areas) in a mere decade, from 230 to 221 BCE. They were never meant to be seen, avers historian Man (Attila: The Barbarian King Who Challenged Rome, 2006, etc.). The soldiers were symbolic sacrifices, a solution to the problem of conflicting, evolving Chinese beliefs and practices related to the afterlife. Traditionally, dead rulers were entombed with servants either killed or buried alive. This would not do for “a new, forward-looking dynasty”; besides, the First Emperor was a military commander trying to build a strong state, and “men dispatched into the next world cannot fight in this one.” Working with the records at hand, the author delves as deep as he can into the emperor’s Qin dynasty, everything from its laws and the Great Wall project to the import of bronze trigger mechanisms. Man draws the scene, summarizes, notes conflicts and conditions both before and after the immediate moment. He wonders about the cost and speed of the clay army’s manufacture. He corrals the intrigues, affairs and treachery marking Qin history. What role did these intrigues play in the burning of the tomb? How might they have affected its construction? Did the Red Guards later erase vital signatures? His virtuoso historical investigation is thorough and well-versed in the material, but also restless and informal, with an eye peeled for new ideas.
Scholarly yet spellbound, skeptical yet open to belief.