An encounter worthy of Shelley

“Art for art’s sake” is the theme that motivates most contemporary artists.

Yet paradoxically, much of history’s most striking classical artwork has been created for “heaven’s sake,” to celebrate the divine or to accompany deceased royalty into the hereafter. Among the most remarkable examples from the 20st century were those excavated from the tombs of the pharaohs of Egypt and the emperors of China, most recently the treasures of Tutankhamun and the realistic life-size terra-cotta soldiers and horses buried with China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, in 208 B.C.

Twenty-two centuries after the emperor joined his ancestors, I became an eyewitness to his virtual reincarnation. His spectral army was found in 1974 when well-diggers stumbled onto a  huge subterranean vault, a part of the grave complex. Archaeologists soon discovered a life-size, battle-ready, terra-cotta army that had been buried with Emperor Qin to guard his tomb.

When the 13-year-old prince of the Warring State of Qin inherited the throne and  became king, he ordered 700,000 conscripts to begin building his tomb, which took 36 years to create. During that time, according to Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian, Qin’s armies fought for 25 years and conquered the six other warring states “like silk worms devouring a  mulberry tree.” In 221 B.C., King Qin anointed himself Qin Shi Huang, China’s first divine emperor.  Qin ruled by the authoritarian “Legalist’’ philosophy. He united China, quashed the opposition, burned the classic books and buried 460 Confucian scholars alive. He built the Great Wall, standardized the gauges of chariot wheels so he could travel across the nation on a network of new roads and standardized laws, script, coinage, weights, measures and the languages. Yet for all his power, he lived in fear of his life, moving secretly among the 260 luxurious palaces he had copied from royal residents in conquered states. Although the emperor sent his wisest Taoist priests to seek the fountain of youth, he met his demise  in 210 BC  at age 49.

The scurrilous act happened one hot day during a royal inspection tour. A conniving  eunuch in cahoots with the emperor’s ambitious son poisoned him by slipping quicksilver and powdered jade into his food.  To keep his death secret, they hitched a wagon of rancid fish behind the emperor’s golden chariot to disguise the stench of his putrefying corpse. He was finally entombed in a dazzling sepulcher guarded by 7,500 pottery soldiers. Centuries later, some were exhibited in The Metropolitan Museum of Art and other museums worldwide.

I was assigned by the National Geographic and The New York Times to report on the discovery. This occurred when the United States had not yet established diplomatic relations with China and Americans couldn’t get visas. Nonetheless, my father, Chester Ronning, a retired Canadian diplomat, and I with daughter Lesley, sister Meme and nephew Richard were invited because Chester was an old friend of  Premier Zhou Enlai.

When we reached the ancient capital of Xian, it was raining heavily. Escorted by an entourage of Chinese officials, we drove 40 miles east to the site. Locals waved at the foreign devils traveling in a caravan of  black limousines along the same stretch of the Silk Road where centuries ago their ancestors had witnessed camel caravans loaded with silks and other luxury goods en route to the Roman Empire.

We parked near the emperor’s tumulus on the edge of a millet field. The rich, red soil of the Yellow River Valley had been freshly slashed open and rolled back like a Chinese scroll, revealing a dramatic tableau resembling an ancient battlefield. The sight of the broken and battered terra-cotta warriors, horses, charioteers and kneeling archers still arrayed in battle formation was breathtaking. Standing in the rain, viewing these primeval combatants reaching out from the wet earth, we were moved almost to tears as one is in the presence of great art in service of death. Here and there a life-like hand and a booted foot jutted out. Proud heads, fallen from broken bodies, looked up from their ancient grave with haunting eyes brought glisteningly alive by the rain. Some of the figures were upright, intact and poised as if waiting for a command to attack. Others lay smashed and scattered.

Sima Qian described the “desecration” of the underground army three years after the emperor’s death when the Han Dynasty defeated the Qin Dynasty and usurped “The Mandate of Heaven.” Weapons were confiscated and wooden chariots burned. It was like something out of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” So much for power and greatness.

When we visited the site in 1975, only 591 soldiers, two life-size terra-cotta horses with curled forelocks and knotted tails and four chariots horses — four abreast, hitched  with leather harnesses and brass fittings, drawing wooden chariots — were being excavated. Some were incredibly intact, while others sagged sadly against one another with broken backs and necks, though their magnificence remained undiminished. Five hundred life-size terra-cotta horses were later excavated — 100 cavalry horses and 350 chariot horses. The striking features and the spirited expressions of the horses have led scholars to reappraise the beginnings of realism in Chinese art, hitherto attributed to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-208). Did the sculptors of Emperor Qin’s army invent this style, or will some equally vivid works be found in an even earlier tomb?

A thousand years later their clean, curved jawline became the mark of the famous Tang dynasty horses (618-907).

Perhaps the greatest “art for heaven’s sake” is yet to come. The emperor’s tomb, a cosmic designed three-layered tumulus called Mount Li is still to be excavated. His dragon-shaped sarcophagus may still float on a river of mercury inside the 15-story tumulus. Sima Qian described the legendary splendor of a microcosm of China:

They dug through three subterranean streams and poured molten copper for the outer coffin. The tomb was filled with models of palaces, pavilions and offices. Crossbows were fixed to shoot grave robbers. The Yellow River and the Yangtze were reproduced in quicksilver and made to flow into a miniature ocean where the dragon sarcophagus floated. The heavenly constellations  above were depicted in precious stones and the regions of the earth below.”

Although Qin prophesized that his dynasty (221-208 B.C.) would last 2,000 years, it was the shortest in Imperial China. When I visited the museum complex containing the excavated sites in 1998, President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary were among the millions of tourists viewing the army exhibited in a three-acre vault. The soldiers were lined up in “Sword Formation,” with the frontline archers representing the tip of the sword, the chariots and columns of foot soldiers forming the blade, and the rear guard the handle — like a spectacle designed for review by Emperor Qin in his heaven.

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