Chinese Terracotta Army: Chinese or Greek?

What is the Terracotta Army?

The Terracotta Army consists of thousands of life-like terracotta sculptures, estimated to contain over 8000 soldier figures, 130 chariots, 520 Horses, 150 cavalry, and numerous sculptures of non military people, such as officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians. The army itself is a part of a massive necropolis, the tomb for first Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang, which is estimated to span an area of 98 square kilometers, or around 38 square miles, or around 18300 football fields, the most American unit of measurement. The purpose of such a large structure was to protect the Emperor in the afterlife. The soldiers were first discovered by farmers in 1973 outside modern day Xi’an, Shaanxi, China, and have since then been considered the 8th wonder of the world.

All of the terracotta figures are life-sized, with variation on their individual size. Soldiers are between 5.74ft to 6.6ft tall, and the officers tend to make up the taller end of the spectrum. Sculptures also vary in uniform and even hairstyle according to their rank, and each have enough detail to have a unique face. Soldiers are divided into categories depending on equipment: armored and unarmored infantry, cavalry, chariot drivers and spear wielding charioteers, kneeling and standing archers, low ranking officers and generals. Even among ranks the warriors differ in detail, having diversity in armor and padding and in position. There are even terracotta horses among the figures.

Chinese Historian Sima Qian documented the construction of the mausoleum in Records of the Grand Historian, albeit written a century after the necropolis’ completion. Emperor Qin Shi Huang began production of his future grave in 246 BCE at the age of 13 after succeeding his father as the King of Qin. To build the structure, over 700,000 workers were conscripted, identified by modern science to be men between the ages of 15 and 40 years old.
Sima Qian wrote that the first emperor was buried with everything that was of comfort and of use to an emperor: palaces, towers, officials, valuable artifacts and wondrous objects. In addition, he noted that 100 flowing rivers of mercury simulated the real world, intertwined with carvings of the Chinese land into the soil of his tomb, and the ceiling above was decorated with heavenly bodies: the stars, planets, and sun. Sima Qian’s account of the necropolis is accepted to be true, as high levels of mercury have been found in the soil of the tomb mound. However, it also does not mention the terracotta army.
The tomb itself, where the emperor lays at rest, is the size of a football field, and remains sealed for the sake of preservation. The terracotta figures have been noted to have their paint peel upon exposure to the dry Xi’an air, and quickly flake off within four minutes.

Did the Greeks and Chinese even know each other?

The Greeks are well documented and proved to have interacted with the Chinese, despite being dominant powers on opposite sides of the then known world, the Greeks in the west, and Chinese in the east. A Graeco-Indian kingdom dwelled in modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwestern India, from 200 BC to c. 10 AD. This kingdom existed between the death of Alexander the Great and the death of Cleopatra VII (the famous one). The Chinese referred to this kingdom as “Dayuan”, or the Great Ionians, one of the four tribes Greeks split themselves into.

The Book of Han, Sima Qian’s Records of the Great Historian, and famous explorer Zhang Qian all mentioned the Dayuan as urbanized dwellers with Caucasian features, living in walled cities with identical customs to other Greek kingdoms. In 104-101 BC The War of the Heavenly Horses occured between the Chinese Han Dynasty and the Graeco-Indian kingdom. In fact, these Greeks had made it to China over 1500 years before Marco Polo, with mitochondrial DNA supporting that Europeans had already interbred with the Chinese when the statues were created. And though silk road was only created in 3 AD, during the time of Augustus Romans were already wearing silk, a product from China.

Terracotta Army: Greek or Chinese?

The question of who created the terracotta army stems from the Hellenistic or Greek style of the time that seems apparent in the terracotta soldiers. Indeed these statues observe incredible realism and individualism, as each statue has its own distinct features. This connection was first noted by art historian German Hafner in 1986, noting an unusual naturalism in contrast to other Qin dynasty sculptures. Hafner concluded that the statues must have originated from Western contact, an idea supported by Duan Qingbo, the excavating director in 1998, and Professor Lukas Nickel, chair of Asian Art History at the University of Vienna, who notes that Chinese sculptors had no prior tradition of creating life sized statues.

In opposition to this is the argument that Eurocentric speculations cloud the possibility of the Chinese to create the statues themselves without outside inspiration, as old western ideas assumed that foreign civilizations outside of Europe were incapable of sophisticated art, and that any foreign artistry was actually western tradition that was in someway carried over. Darryl Wilkinson of Dartmouth College argues that the terracotta soldiers of the Qin Dynasty, as well as sculptures from ancient cultures in Peru were a natural result from observance of nature, not necessarily “naturalism” from the Western World. Wilkinson remarks that “the Greeks did not invent naturalism” and that “naturalism is not the product of any one culture’s civilizational ‘genius.'” Researcher Raoul McLaughlin also claims there is no Greek influence on the Emperor’s clay soldiers, pointing out differences in artisanship, construction material, and symbology.
These two opinions are best bridged by Li Xiuzhen, a senior archaeologist at the Mausoleum Site Museum, where the terracotta army is located. While she acknowledges Western influence, she believes that the creation was still that of the Chinese, pointing out the lack of Greek signature signing of their ceramics. “We now think the Terracotta Army, the acrobats and the bronze sculptures found on site were inspired by ancient Greek sculptures and art”, but though “the terracotta warriors may be inspired by Western culture, they were uniquely made by the Chinese.”

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