An Agency Worker Sees ‘The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army' at the British Museum (13 Sept 2007~ 6 Apr 2008) and wonders at the significance of their standing on Karl Marx’s old desk
The editorial staff are proud to announce that, even in this new young-people-friendly ‘blog’ format, Lucid Frenzy is not abandoning its dedication to the completely out of date. Its on-line life kicked off with a 1955 film, and now progress with a review of a set of action figures created in 210BC.
Well… sort of. As the subhead gives away, China’s Terracotta Army will actually be standing guard in the British Musuem’s Reading Room until early April next year – tickets still available! And it’s not really a proper review, so much as a reaction to something Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian about it.
“The First Emperor… is not the star of his own show. These nameless soldiers are the stars…How Brecht would have loved the terracotta army, and how he would have enjoyed this exhibition. How Marx's ghost might enjoy rising up from the desks below to savour it….This exhibition does the opposite of what it promises, and is the better for that... The emperor is gone. The human endures.” (1)
The reference to Marx comes from the fact the exhibition is directly above the Reading Room, the very place where Charlie took advantage of the quiet and the free heating to scribble down Kapital. And Brecht comes from A Worker Reads History where he says… well, you can read that one yourself…
“Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?” (2)
It’s true everyone is calling this show by its subhead – The Terracotta Army not the First Emperor. But, while it’s a supreme irony for me to say it, Jones is quoting Brecht inappropriately. In fact the great thing about the First Emperor is that even in death he remains so larger than life. He’s such a classic case of the megalomaniac ruler that if he didn’t exist you’d have to make him up. The fact that we still only have his guardsmen to view, that his own tomb remains unexcavated, merely adds to his mystique. He becomes like Citizen Kane keeping his Rosebud, like the directing yet unseen (and therefore all-powerful) Lord of the Manor in Miss Julie. I even started to wonder at points whether the whole thing was some elaborate jape, that all there’ll turn out to be in that mausoleum was a note reading “fooled you, archeologists”.
Proclaiming himself Emperor not only of China but the whole universe, he speaks through this show of his divine mission to standardise. He sought to impose both order and his image on the universe, and probably didn’t distinguish much between the two. He defined a doctrine of Legalism, that man was inherently wicked and needed rules and regulations to keep him in line. Weights and measures, the script people wrote in, the axle width of cards, even (most contentiously for today) a single currency… all had to be unified. For this unifier, everything reduced down to one.
The exhibition is as keen to propound this myth as Jones to knock it down. Chinese history becomes a simple before-and-after case. Before, primal chaos. (The Warring States Period.) After, order, stability, that sort of thing. Jones is on his best foot when decrying this, “what seems to me to be a strangely simplified version of Chinese history... It gives the impression there was nothing much before him, and continuity after him. Neither impression is correct.” The First Emperor conquered the surrounding states, true. But they were surrounding civilizations. And even his own clay guardsmen were vandalized and looted in a period of chaos which erupted very soon after his death.
But Jones’ argument seems to rest upon a kind of alchemical transformation, where the very burden of labour power becomes its own escape. The workers, told to build so many warriors, obeyed their orders so supremely well that they were able to bring their own creativity, their very individuality to the regiments they were charged with churning out. (“The love that endures in this art is above all the passion of the creator. What makes it a living art, despite lying in the cold grave so long, is that anonymous artisans…put their own selves, their feelings, their love of life, into these sculptures.”) So we have over seven thousand warriors, of which every one is in some way unique, humanised. Their faces become, by proxy, the otherwise lost faces of their artists. (3)
It’s a romantic notion, but not a terribly convincing one. For one thing, the work seems to have been mostly carried out not by artisans in quasi-autonomous craft unions but by prison labour. And the warriors’ production was an early example of mass production, of which identikit legs and torsos were assembled, and only at the very end given individualised touches. The pieces were all signed, but not out of some artistic pride. Both workman and foreman were obliged to sign each kit-part piece, so he could be tracked down and hauled up should defects emerge. Even the craft elements of those ‘finishing touches’ were more than likely an extra imposition upon bonded labourers, a final chore upon a long list of backbreaking tasks they could really have done without.
With notions so well-meaningly flimsy, we may be forgiven for wondering what really underpins them? At one point Jones mentions how the visual aids and notation have a ”rhetorical spin that might be mistaken for a glorification of the authoritarian state.” Others have commented more bluntly on why these figures have been released. Eying the world stage, is China now keen to reposition itself as the cradle of civilization? There’s some validity to this, it certainly felt fitting to see Zhang Yimou’s movie Hero (which earnt many similar criticisms) on sale in the kiosk. (4) But to merely nay-say is to side with the little Englanders and Paleocons. And after all, China can make quite a credible claim for itself as such a cradle. So Jones instead leaps for a third place which looks a pleasanter spot - without checking whether the ground there is solid underfoot or not.
So if not Brecht, who should be our guide to this show? Of course the ultimate example of the chaos inherent in life is death. It comes and goes as it chooses, sticking to no rules, obeying no timetable. Dictators dish out death, but they don’t like the way it can’t be put on the payroll. To modern minds, this leads to some fascinating yet perplexing contradictions in the First Emperor’s thinking. We often assume people in the past had an irresolute faith in the afterlife, something we lost only recently. The First Emperor built a city tomb to rule in it. Yet he spent much of his life thinking up schemes to cheat death. (Almost all absurd, and almost all doubtlessly hastened it.)
It’s widely held that the Chinese then held to a Phaorah-like concept of physical resurrection. Grain and other foodstuffs were stashed for his reawakening. Yet everything else is curiously jumbled up. The warriors were terracotta, yet brandished real metal weapons. (All since stolen.) Terracotta stable boys have been found by the bones of real horses. And in other places, terracotta horses were made. Jones writes convincingly how he “was fascinated by the idea of model worlds”. Certainly, despite the headline-getting warriors the tomb was a terracotta city with figures of all types and quite possibly designed as a microcosm of the universe. Did the real and the ideal become so jumbled in his megalomaniac and mercury-addled mind that he ceased to distinguish between a real and a clay horse? Or were the warriors really intended for a far more prosaic purpose, a massed army of scarecrows, a hex to scare off superstitious tomb robbers?
But of course the tombs were quickly robbed and, temporarily at least, the empire fell apart. (5) Ruling after death turned out about as successfully as cheating death. What we now see is awesome, but a supreme monument to folly. It’s like one of those mass parades they still put on in North Korea. There’s no secret inside his unopened tomb, it’s one of the oldest stories of all. And our guidebook to it is not Brecht’s Worker Reads History but Shelly’s stinging ode to mortality Ozymandias (“Tell that its sculptor well those passions read/ Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things”). (7) In that way at least the emperor is gone and what is human endures.
Digest Version: The Terracotta Army – an Autonomous Workers’ Soviet?
(1) www.arts.guardian.co.uk/art/visualart/story/0,,2162551,00.html (The link also takes you to some cool pictures.)
(3) Disclaimer - Slightly less than seven thousand have been shipped over for this show.
(4) The exhibition hints this mass production was an invention of the First Emperor, but notably declines to say so outright. While the scale of production may have been new, it seems doubtful the form was.
(5) A section of the Wikipedia entry, Terracotta Army Outside China, would seem to suggest these figures have always been shown in Europe and Canada over the more antagonistic America. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terracotta_warriors
(6) This accidental effect actually adds emphasis. The fact the figures have lost the objects they once held goes to make their poses all the more ritualised, like mimes displaying the significance of what they are doing by not holding the encumbering tools that would be necessary to literally do it.