Magic Army for the Emperor"
Lothar Ledderose, Ten Thousand Things. Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1998, pp. 51 - 73.
s'hi va fer
In March 1974, subterranean pits containing the emperor's terra-cotta army were discovered in Lintong County, Shaanxi Province, some thirty-five kilometers east of Xi'an, the provincial capital. The excavated figures have been restored and now stand in situ in their original battle formation. Since the site opened to the public on October 1, 1979, a never-ending line of visitors have made their way there. Some two million arrive every year, of whom about 17 percent are foreigners. To accommodate this traffic an international airport was built, opening in 1991. Having come to light again, the terra-cotta army has played a part in changing the economic fabric of Shaanxi Province.
Millions of visitors have also seen selected terra-cotta figures in exhibitions outside China. In 1976 two warriors and one horse were shown in Japan. For an exhibition originating in New York in 1980, eight figures came to the West for the first time. (1) Since then terra-cotta figures have traveled to one foreign country or another almost every year.
The most extraordinary fact about this archaeological find is a quite simple one: buried were not a few, or even a few dozen, lifelike soldiers but several thousand. About two thousand figures have been unearthed so far, and it is estimated that there are more than seven thousand altogether.
The figures are not only lifelike but life-size, of various types, including armored and unarmored infantrymen, standing and kneeling archers, cavalrymen with horses, charioteers, petty officers, and commanders. Armored infantrymen appear most often. Each held a spear or halberd in his right hand, and some possibly held a sword in their left hands. The charioteers wear caps that indicate their rank as officers and extend both arms forward to grasp the reins. The standing archers, with turned bodies, are dressed in simple and light uniforms that allowed for speed and maneuverability. The kneeling archers wear waist-length suits of scaled armor that simulates leather; their arms are flexed for cradling the crossbow. All details of the clothing, the armor, and the faces are modeled with great care, down to the stippled tread of the sole of the archer's sandal. (2)
The lifelike quality of these warriors must have been even more striking when they were still painted with their original colors, which indicated precisely the different parts of their dress. When these figures are unearthed, their colors are still visible. Upon excavation, however, most of the pigment adheres to the surrounding earth and not to the figures. Moreover, once exposed to air, the lacquer in which the pigments are embedded tends to crumble rapidly, reducing the colors to powder. Only traces last thereafter. Only recently has a method been found to stabilize the polychrome coating. (3) Because the problems of conservation remain unsolved, excavation work now proceeds at a slow pace.
The following discussion of this army, which the emperor commissioned for his tomb, will consider three questions: What was done? Why was it done? And how was it done?
In 237 B.C., Lü Buwei fell from grace, and Li Si (ca. 280-208 B.C.), one of the ablest men of his time, followed as chancellor. He was instrumental in implementing the unification of the empire and in forging its administrative structures. He is personally credited with creating the stately, tectonic Small Seal Script for the imperial steles that were set up to glorify the emperor's unification of the realm. As mentioned in chapter 1, these steles set a precedent for the millions of stone steles that followed in succeeding centuries. It seems that Li Si also took extraordinary measures to prepare a worthy tomb for his ruler. It was probably he who, in 231 B.C., turned the area around the tomb into a government district with its own administrative center, named Liyi (District of Li) after the nearby Mount Li. The people in this district were responsible for the construction and later for the maintenance of the imperial necropolis. (5)
After the king became emperor in 221 B.C., the design for his tomb seems to have been expanded to a much larger scale. As the series of military campaigns had come to an end, large numbers of conscripts became available, and more than seven hundred thousand men from all parts of the realm were recruited to build the emperor's palace and his tomb. Most of them were forced laborers, slaves, and prisoners, "men punished by castration or sentenced to penal servitude," in the words of the Grand Historian. (6). Work on the terra-cotta army probably started at this time. (7)
In 212 B.C., Li Si had thirty thousand families resettled to the district, (8) but when the emperor died two years later construction stopped at once, even though his tomb compound was not yet finished. The laborers at the palace also ceased work to join the men at the tomb. All seven hundred thousand of them heaped earth on it during the following year. (9)
Today a large tumulus still occupies the center of the compound. (10) This artificial hill has the shape of a truncated pyramid, with a base of approximately 350 meters. The original height is said to have been about 115 meters. Erosion has taken its toll and reduced the tumulus to its present height of 76 meters, or less. The exact location of the emperor's tomb was thus known throughout history, even after the walls and halls above ground had decayed, since nobody could overlook the tumulus. The stepped profile of the tumulus is still clearly visible. (11)
Bushes and trees planted since adorn and protect the hill because Chinese archaeologists have decided not to excavate the tomb in our time. Knowing what wonders wait for them once they open the ground, they also know that they would be unable to preserve properly what they might find.
In a famous passage,
Sima Qian tells us of the tomb's content:
The tomb thus contains a microcosm, an ideal model of the realm over which the emperor had ruled and intended to continue to rule after his death. Doubtless it will be difficult for any future excavator to preserve quicksilver streams and heavenly constellations. Indeed, the tomb may have been looted long ago. The Grand Historian talks about the destruction wrought upon the Qin empire and its capital Xianyang in 206 B.C. by General Xiang Yu: "Xiang Yu led his troops west, massacred the citizens of Xianyang, killed Ziying, the last king of Qin, who had surrendered, and set fire to the Qin palaces. The conflagration raged for three whole months. Having looted the city and seized the women there, he started east." (13)
General Xiang Yu is also said to have dug up the emperor's tomb. (14) At the same time he may have destroyed the underground pits housing the terra-cotta army Excavations have revealed that they have been burned.
Above ground the rectangular
layout of the imperial tomb resembled that of a palace with an outer
and an inner wall. Except in a very few places, these two walls made of
pounded earth have completely vanished. The walls measured 8 meters in
width, and they are believed to have had an original height of 8 to 10
meters. The inner wall was 1,355 meters long and 580 meters broad. The
outer wall was 2,165 meters long and 940 meters broad. Watchtowers guarded
the four corners, and gates opened at the four sides.
According to literary
sources, in earlier times a retiring hall and a temple hall (miao)
belonged to an ancestor-temple compound in the capital, where all the
rulers of one lineage received sacrifices. Transferring the retiring hall
to the necropolis and making it the ceremonial center there was a means
to augment the importance of the ruler's posthumous presence.
Apart from these special occasions, routine sacrifices of food and drink were made three or four times a day These and other activities were administered by an office organized like the imperial household agency at the capital. Cooks prepared the sacrificial food. At the west side of the necropolis, between the inner and outer walls, the remains of three buildings have been located, and inscriptions on ceramic shards found there identify them as the provisions office (siguan) [núm. 3 al plànol]. Ceramic drainage channels, stone pillar bases, iron tools, and objects of daily use have been found here. (18)
About 20 meters west of the tumulus and 7.8 meters below ground, two bronze chariots, each drawn by four bronze horses, have been unearthed [núm. 4 al plànol]. They had been waiting there for the imperial Lord who, at some point in time, may have wanted to leave through the nearby gate and be driven around. Large quantities of hay were deposited for the horses. Although the chariots were badly damaged by earth that had fallen into the pit, it has been possible to restore them to their original splendor. They are about half the size of real chariots. The exquisitely made models exemplify the techniques of chariot building and horse harnessing in great detail. One of the chariots consists of 3,462 individual parts. (19)
Beyond and slightly to the south of the western gate of the inner wall, burials of thirty-one rare birds and animals in clay coffins lay in rows [núm. 5 al plànol]. In addition to the skeletons, the coffins contained clay dishes for food and collars attached to the animals. Clay wardens guarded them. (20). In life, the precious animals probably inhabited an imperial pleasure garden or the animal enclosures in the Supreme Forest (shanglin), the extravagant hunting park where the emperor kept rare specimens of flora and fauna from all over the world. (21)
An area about fifteen hundred meters long and fifty meters wide, to the east of the outer wall near the present village of Shangjiaocun, holds three hundred to four hundred pits, close to one hundred of which have been surveyed. Each pit either contains the skeleton of a horse or the lifesize terra-cotta figure of a kneeling groom, or both. The grooms are of exquisite quality and resemble the figures of the army The horses lie facing the center of the tomb. Most of them seem to have been buried alive. Some of the horses, however, have slashed limbs, indicating that they were first slaughtered before they were placed in wooden coffins. Inscriptions on ceramic shards prove that the animals came from palace stables. (22)
Test excavations in
the southwestern corner of the necropolis revealed an L-shaped pit, more
than one hundred meters long and nine meters wide. Another some three
hundred skeletons of horses were stacked in it and accompanied by terra-cotta
grooms [núm. 6 al plànol].
This pit must also represent one of the imperial stables.
The Army in Its
The pits' architectural structures were devised for solidity and permanence. The outer walls and the walls between the eleven parallel corridors in pit no. 1 consist of pounded earth. The earthen walls were originally held in place by wooden frames that also supported the roof beams. The roof, in turn, carried a layer of reddish mortar and a layer of earth three meters thick. The floor was also made of pounded earth as hard as cement, and altogether covered by some 256,000 tiles. It has been calculated that about 126,940 cubic meters of earth were moved to excavate the pits, and that 8,000 cubic meters of timber were needed. (30)
The solid wooden construction
must have been finished before the figures were put into place; otherwise
their installation would have been too dangerous. At the front side of
the pit, ramps have been identified down which the figures were hauled
into the long, probably torch-lit corridors. This prompts an intriguing
thought: nobody, not even the First Emperor, ever saw the terra-cotta
army in its entirety The breathtaking view of the now world-famous columns
of soldiers only became possible after excavation in 1974. Obviously,
the army did not need to be seen to serve its purpose. It was enough that
it was there, like inner organs concealed in a human body.
Of the mighty timber construction only traces of ash remain. As mentioned, it is believed that general Xiang Yu, when looting the First Emperor's capital Xianyang in 206 B. C., also set his necropolis on fire. The burning beams collapsed and subsequently the earth slid down and smashed all the terra-cotta figures. None has come to light intact.
The army in pit no. 1 was set within the corridors in rows of four soldiers, many of them clad in heavy armor, all modeled in clay In six of the corridors, wooden war chariots, each drawn by four terra-cotta horses, are spaced in regular intervals among the infantry The army is facing east. Three rows of warriors form the vanguard, two rows protect the army at its sides, facing north and south respectively, and a rear guard of three rows faces backward.
The movements of this awesome fighting machine would have been controlled by audible signals from drums and bells, which have been found at the site. When the drum sounded once, the magic army moved forward, on the second drum roll, it attacked. On the sound of the bell, the troop stopped, and when the bell rang again, it retreated. (33)
The figures were kiln
fired between 900 and 1050 degrees centigrade. (34) At this relatively
low temperature, the unglazed clay remains porous and is called "terra-cotta,"
literally baked earth. Although several kilns for making tiles and other
utensils have been explored in the area of the necropolis, no kiln for
firing the figures has yet been excavated. (35) About two hundred meters
to the southeast of pit no. 1, fragments of terra-cotta figures indicate
a kiln site that is estimated to have been large enough for firing two
horses or six warrior figures at a time. (36).
To completely coat thousands of large clay figures in lacquer is an astounding achievement in itself, but certainly not beyond the imagination of an emperor, whose son once considered lacquering all the city walls of his capital. (40) In some areas of the figures, such as the faces, two separate coatings were applied. The mineral pigments were also mixed with lacquer and painted with a brush on top of the coating. The geometric patterns are very intricate, like those of the textiles of the period. (41)
The terra-cotta figures carried real weapons, such as spears, halberds, dagger axes, swords, crossbows, and arrows. Almost five hundred weapons and more than ten thousand scattered arrowheads have been found in pit no. 1. Save for four iron pieces, all weapons were cast of bronze. Some of the blades are still razor sharp. (42)
The lock mechanism of the crossbows is ingeniously devised. After the archer discharged his arrow he brought the lock back into the original position by quickly jerking the bow backward. The four mechanical parts are cast with such precision that they fit together perfectly The tolerance for error lies within fractions of a millimeter. It was this precision that helped the Qin state overpower the rival feudal states.
Yet precision alone was not enough. It had to be matched by the ability to produce large quantities of weapons. The Qin could do this, too. Indeed, their weapons industry was another early example of mass production in China. It is known from inscriptions on the weapons that many came from state factories capable of churning out huge numbers of technically perfect products. (43)
Mass production of weapons started in Qin long before the time of the First Emperor. Inscriptions began to appear in the middle of the fourth century B.C., the law decreeing that each weapon had to be inscribed. (44) For more than a century these inscriptions identified the chancellor as supervisor of weapons production, testimony to the importance attached to the weapons industry. The weapons carried by the terra-cotta army date from the early years of the king's reign to 228 B.C. As later weapons have yet to be found, they may all have been used by real warriors before being entrusted to the hands of the clay soldiers.
As late as 239 B.C., the chancellor was still named as the supervisor, but at this date the names of individuals from lower ranks in the production hierarchy began to appear on the weapons as well. The inscription on one such blade reads: "17th year [230 B.C.]. Government Workshops, produced by master Yu, worker Diao." The characters for "Government Workshop" (sigong) occur once ore on the other side of the blade and on the guard as well. Engraved on the shaft is the serial number: "Series zi, five-nine." (45)
The Government Workshops produced not only weapons but also carriages and utensils for everyday use. Their products are among the first in China on which an individual inscribed his name. It would certainly be naive to try to detect budding individualism here, nor do the names indicate any personal pride on the part of the maker. These inscriptions had only one purpose: quality control. (46)
This visit to the
First Emperor's necropolis has shown that it was laid out like the palace
of a living emperor, with the private quarters under the tumulus and a
main hall above with various palace offices, a pleasure garden, horse
stables and carriages, tombs of family members and loyal retainers, and
with a mighty army, ready to attack any intruder.
Many factors came together to allow for Qin's success. Among the technological advances made during the previous centuries, smelting, forging and casting iron had developed apace. (In the West, iron was not cast until the fourteenth century A.D.) Farmers began to use iron ploughs, which allowed them to break the earth deeper and faster, thereby boosting agricultural pro. duction. Blades for spades and hammers were also fabricated of iron. (48)
Metal technology was equally vital for producing weapons, the very tools by which the Qin destroyed their neighbors. Crossbows and other deadly weapons in the hands of the terra-cotta soldiers show how successful the Qin were in this domain. Yet other feudal states had made advances in iron and weapon technology as well. The crossbow was actually invented in Chu, and the swords of the states of Wu and Yue in the lower Yangzi region were praised throughout the realm for their supreme quality Qin, however, surpassed al other states when it came to organizing masses of people and coordinating their efforts toward ambitious goals, in the civil as well as the military sphere
In the civil sphere, law and order were Qin's major values. Households were organized in units of five and ten and were held jointly responsible for misdoings committed by any member. A law code promised draconian punishments but also equal justice to everyone. The code, fragments of which archaeologists have discovered written on bamboo slips, has been ranked among the most influential legal systems in world history. (49)
The Qin administrators knew how to foster efficiency through standardization. They developed commerce by regulating weights and measures and the axle lengths of carts; they forged a monetary union by standardizing coins; and, as seen in chapter 1, they created a uniform system of script.
Extensive building activity also testified to the Qin's capability in successfully organizing huge labor forces. After ascending the throne, the First Emperor embarked on a number of large construction projects that served to consolidate political, commercial, and cultural unity, and to glorify his achievements. He connected existing portions of walls built by some feudal states thereby anticipating in effect what has become the most famous of all Chinese monuments: the Great Wall. A network of highways radiating from the capital of Xianyang linked together faraway places in the new empire. One such road that has been archaeologically identified led from Xianyang straight north over a distance of eight hundred kilometers into present-day Inner Mongolia. Canals were renovated and newly dug, completing a system of waterways from the Yellow River in the north to the Huai River in the south. The emperor had a giant palace, called Apanggong, built for himself, which, although destroyed soon after construction, has been remembered since as the epitome of ostentatious architecture. Last, but not least, the emperor could look forward to moving into the greatest necropolis China had seen to date.
The Qin were also more successful (and probably more ruthless) than their competitors in forging efficient military organizations. They pushed to the limits a process that changed warfare fundamentally: the deployment of mass infantry This momentous development has its parallels in the West. In his epic poems of the eighth century B.C., Homer extols the virtues of the aristocratic warrior whose strength, skill, and courage decide the outcome of the battle. Achilles slaying Hector with his spear and then dragging the corpse behind his chariot through the dust is one of the most memorable scenes from the dawn of European history
In the fifth century, however, the Greeks prevailed over the Persians thanks to their development of the phalanx, which was composed of infantry citizen-soldiers trained to act together. (50) Large bodies of infantry, in addition to cavalry, also formed the core of Alexander's fighting forces when he set out to win the Orient in the fourth century B.C. With their infantry legions, the Romans conquered the Mediterranean world. The flexible, disciplined, and obedient cohorts of anonymous mercenaries marching under a unifying command proved invincible.
In China, infantry existed as early as the Shang period. Oracle bone inscriptions mention forces of up to 13,000 men. (51) Fighters on horse-drawn chariots accompanied the foot soldiers and directed their movements. The precious chariots were status symbols to the aristocrats and consequently they were buried next to their owners' tombs. After the Shang, this type of warfare continued and the number of chariots increased. The state of Jin mustered 700 of them in a battle of 632 B.C. (52) It has been estimated that an army with chariot warriors would not have far exceeded 10,000 men in the seventh century, and that it may have reached a maximum of about 50,000 men in the sixth century
Then, after the mid-sixth century B.C., the size of armies increased dramatically and they consisted mostly of infantry formations. In the Period of the Warring States, infantry armies could deploy several hundred thousand men in the field, because soldiers were now recruited from lower social levels, especially from the rural population and from larger territories. (53)
Conscripted men in those armies could not possibly possess the martial skills that the aristocratic fighter acquired through years of training and constant testing in hunts. Nor could the lower-class warriors boast expensive equipment such as a technically sophisticated chariots, custom-made armor, and ornamented weapons. Nevertheless, the infantry armies won out through sheer mass, standardization, organization, and discipline.
These soldiers' uniforms were not fancy but they were efficient. The same can be said for the standardized, mass-produced weapons. An army was organized into a composite body of units, each with its different weapons and tasks: vanguard and rear guard, hand-to-hand fighters, crossbow archers, spearmen, and swordsmen fought simultaneously in a force marked by its "division of labor." Single fighters and groups of fighters became interchangeable, modular units.
Discipline and absolute obedience were the supreme virtues of the soldier. Outstanding individual courage and unchecked bravery were not called for. One story tells of a bellicose soldier who, before battle began, charged over to the enemy lines and returned after having killed two of the foe. His commander had him executed on the spot for disobedience. (54)
The commander directed all movements and actions of the mass army He took all the credit for victory, and all the blame for defeat. His authority was absolute, mirroring that of the ruler of the state. The commander's standing was based, in part, on his knowledge of military treatises. He was a master of texts and did not even need to excel as a fighter himself. Above all he was an integrator of men and an organizer. (55) His role, in some respects, resembled that of a manager or even a bureaucrat.
The shift from warrior elite to mass army occurred in all the feudal states in China, but most radically in Qin. Qin forged a social order in which civil administration and military structures converged. The rise of an individual in a system of aristocratic ranks, the amount of land allotted to him by the state, or his salary as an official depended on the number of enemies he had killed as a soldier. (56) The organization of the civilian population into units of five for mutual surveillance and liability also applied to the military sphere. Members of one unit were held mutually responsible for one another's performance in battle. (57)
Seen in this context, the terra-cotta army is a monument glorifying Qin's superiority in military organization. At the same time, this advanced war machine, which proved so irresistible to its neighbors, is a model of Qin society itself.
None of this, however, yet explains why the figures were buried underground, and why they were made of terra-cotta. As far as we know, this was the first terra-cotta army To appreciate what that meant, one must take a look at the tradition of burials installed alongside and around Chinese royal tombs.
Fitting out Burials
The early rulers of the Qin State, like their rivals in other parts of China, indulged in the construction of large tombs. Thirteen tombs have been found in a cemetery in Fengxiang County near the ancient city of Yong, the capital of the Qin State from 677 to 384 B.C. Tomb no. 1, which is believed to belong to Duke Jing (577-537 B.C.), is the largest tomb in pre-imperial China known so far. The pit of this gigantic structure, including the ramps, is 287 meters long. Skeletons of 166 men and women buried together with the duke have been identified. Another 20 skeletons were found in the earth used to fill the pit. The excavators had to dig 24 meters down to reach the bottom, after which they were so exhausted that they were not able to publish a report. (60)
By this time a trend was under way in China that eventually led to fundamental changes in tomb contents and methods of construction. Ultimately, the very concept of what a tomb should be began to change. Vessels made specially for burial replaced bronze vessels that had actually been used in ritual, and objects of lesser quality or cheap copies in clay became acceptable as burial items. These substitutes were called spirit utensils (mingqi). The first such items occur in the late Shang dynasty, and their numbers increase after the eighth century. (61)
Similarly, real humans
and horses were sometimes replaced by figures of humans and horses. Early
examples made of ceramic or wood occur in the sixth century B.C., and
the custom gained acceptance during the Period of the Warring States.
(62) The largest numbers of tomb figures that have been preserved are
made of wood and found in burials in the state of Chu. (63)
An early example of a chambered tomb is that of Marquis Yi of Zeng (after 433 B.c.). Found intact and excavated in 1977-78, it yielded fifteen thousand artifacts, including as mentioned earlier, an enormous quantity of bronzes. The tomb has four chambers built of wooden logs and connected through small doors. Each chamber has a different content and function. The central chamber with the famous set of sixty-five bells and ritual vessels is modeled on a royal ceremonial hall. Then there is an armory with various weapons and chariot trappings, a harem with the coffins of thirteen female attendants, and the private or retiring quarters of the lord of the tomb, containing the coffins of the marquis himself and of eight more of his female companions in death. Painted on the lord's inner coffin were two doors and a window. (65)
As tombs began to resemble dwellings of the living, they also came to contain more utensils of daily use, such as dishes. In addition, miniature models, usually made of clay, substituted for actual items that the buried person had needed or cherished in life, including stoves, granaries, and animals.
A shared pattern of thought is evident in burying effigies instead of living beings, clay copies instead of bronze vessels, and in laying out a tomb like a house. All this turns a tomb into a replica, a model of reality The tomb represents, idealizes, and perpetuates the reality of life on earth. By making ideal versions of the world, the tomb designers of the first millenium B.C. created the first paradises in Chinese art.
At the time of the
First Emperor, the shift in the function of the tomb was not yet complete.
His necropolis represented his palace, and the main chamber under the
tumulus contained a replica of the universe. Pits represented imperial
stables, with models of imperial chariots and an army in replica. Yet
not everything was a substitute: the pit stables contained the skeletons
of real horses and real nobles and forced laborers were buried in
Apparently, man-made replicas were not seen as being less effective than real things or living beings, nor did material or size matter. Terra-cotta grooms guarded the burials of real birds and horses. Half-size bronze chariots and bronze horses were as useful as life-size clay soldiers with real weapons and clay horses drawing wooden chariots. All served their emperor equally Why then did the builders of the necropolis choose terra-cotta figures for the army instead of real soldiers?
Pragmatic considerations may well have influenced this decision. Rationalists surely pointed out that dead men and horses, chariots, bronze utensils, and weapons buried underground simply could not be used anymore, and that burying them was wasteful rather than pious. Humanitarian feelings probably also came into play The great humanist Confucius (551-479 B.C.) lamented the practice of burying people and professed ignorance about the workings of the netherworld.
Yet the Qin rulers had traditionally liked large companies in their graves: 166 human skeletons were in the tomb of Duke Jing, and 177 persons accompanied in death Duke Mu (659-621 B.C.) (67) Human sacrifice was widely practiced in the Warring States Period, and although a king of Qin attempted to ban the practice in 383 B.C., princes and workers were still slaughtered at the First Emperor's necropolis. (68) As the Grand Historian and others tell us, the First Emperor was a cruel megalomaniac, ordering all artisans and laborers to be imprisoned in his grave and buried alive after they had finished their jobs. (69) Had he been convinced that this was the best way to protect himself in his tomb, he might conceivably have sacrificed seven thousand men.
There must have been other reasons why the emperor preferred figures to real soldiers, and why they were not made of wood but of clay, which may never have been used before for life-size sculptures. As no written sources are extant, one must deduce these reasons by examining the army itself and asking what its makers set out to achieve. Apparently they pursued three goals: the army had to be durable, it had to be finished within a reasonable time, and it had to look "real."
The emperor was obsessed with immortality. Unlike his palace in life, his posthumous residence was to last eternally What he needed, therefore, was everlasting protection. He and his advisers may already have been sufficiently accomplished archaeologists to know that human bodies decay fast, even in sturdy tombs. Certainly, figures made of clay would be more durable than humans of flesh and blood, and also more durable than wooden figures. Subsequent history has proven this reasoning right. The army is still extant-at least so far. The clay figures were smashed but did not burn during the conflagration of the necropolis. Nor did they decay in the water that seeped into their subterranean hideout. Only after men who no longer believed in the figures' magic power began to unearth them did their final, perhaps irrevocable, decay begin.
The workers also met their deadline-almost. Although the emperor fervently tried to acquire the elixir of immortality in his lifetime, the makers of his army did not take any chances. Working on a tight schedule, they filled three of the four pits in the subterranean garrison with figures, which shows that they had given themselves only a few years to complete everything. Clay was the most expedient material to do this.
Clay is found in loess, and large areas of China's northern plains are covered with layers of loess, three hundred meters deep in some places. Where loess has been washed by water in the course of the millennia it may become enriched with clay and suitable to be formed and fired. Clay-bearing loess was and has always been available in China in almost limitless supply and could be formed into bricks or tiles or pots. (70) At the time of the First Emperor, wood was more abundant in China than today; nevertheless, it was probably cheaper and logistically easier to use wood for firing rather than for carving. Clay can be brought into a certain form more quickly; it does not require metal tools to do so, and it also lends itself better to division of labor. If the emperor's artisans had ventured to carve thousands of life-size soldiers in wood instead, their task would have been more laborious, and they might not have finished in time.
A lifelike appearance of the army must have been an urgent concern of the emperor. Probably only insofar as the army looked "real" could it successfully fulfill its magical function. No written evidence explicitly confirms this assumption, but the history of religious sculpture after the Han dynasty makes it evident that realism and the efficacy of magic went hand in hand. (71)
The wish to equip the clay soldiers with real weapons that had proven their usefulness in earlier battles must have been the main reason why the figures were made life-size. Yet for the entire army to look real, two more features were essential: numerical significance and credible variety. In order to be convincing as a fighting force, the number of soldiers had to be considerable, approaching or equalling that of a real army On the other hand, enough variety among figures was needed if they were to be more than lifeless mannequins. But the makers of the army worked hard and ingeniously to achieve these goals, and clay was the material best suited for the task.
The emperor's order
thus might have read, "Make me a magic army It must never decay but
protect my residence for eternity it must look like a real army in all
respects. Only then will the magic work!"
No less demanding was the task of organizing the labor force. Once the workers were recruited, they had to be fed and given shelter. Their efforts had to be coordinated and the results supervised. Moreover, the makers of the terra-cotta army were but a small group among several hundred thousand busy men at the site. There is no doubt that all this activity necessitated detailed planning and an organizational framework.
Inscriptions confirm this observation. The foremen of the palace workshops used to stamp their names on floor tiles and roof tiles. Some of the same names have been discovered on the terra-cotta figures. (72) This indicates that the makers of the terra-cotta army, rather than being sculptors, were potters who knew how to manufacture ceramic architectural parts.
The inscriptions on
the terra-cotta figures also enhance our understanding of the organization
of the workforce. When the first 1,383 warriors and 132 horses were excavated,
archaeologists gathered preliminary statistics. They counted 477 inscriptions.
The characters had either been incised with a stylus or stamped before
firing, mostly on inconspicuous parts of the body Two hundred thirty inscriptions
consist of serial numbers only. Most frequently, one finds the numbers
five (40 times) and ten (26 times). This indicates that the figures were
counted in groups of five and multiples of five, as was customary with
real men in civil and military administration. (73)
A second group of 23 foremen put a place-name in front of their names. In all but three cases it is the capital Xianyang. One such inscription reads "[Foreman] Ge of Xianyang" (Xianyang Ke). This type of inscription is always incised and never stamped, which makes it somewhat less official than a seal imprint. It is believed that these masters came from local factories.
The third group is the largest, comprising 48 men who neither added the name of a factory nor a place-name to their own names. Most of these names occur only once. Those men probably also belonged to either one of the first two groups.
The inscriptions reveal that staff members from state factories and workers from local workshops pooled their efforts in one big project. This is common in later periods, too, for example in Han-dynasty lacquer workshops or Qing-dynasty porcelain factories. Typically, workers from state factories set standards of quality and enjoyed a somewhat better position than private workers. They were allowed to use seals and were given a higher proportion of the work. The names of the eleven men from the palace workshops are found on 87 figures; two of them made 21 figures each. By contrast, together all 23 local foremen produced only 56 figures.
Yuan Zhongyi, the chief excavator of the terra-cotta army, has described stylistic differences between the figures made by the two groups. Not surprisingly, the figures from the palace factories are more static, their bodies more sturdy, and their expressions stern and heroic. They also show a more consistent level of workmanship and greater stylistic uniformity Figures from local workshops are more varied in their postures and faces, and tend to be more realistic. Yuan Zhongyi even talks about the styles of individual masters. (74)
It was hardly artistic pride, however, that caused the foremen to put signatures on the figures they had made, nor did those who commissioned the figures look at signatures in this way As in the case of the weapons, quality control was the sole purpose of the inscriptions. The numbers served to verify how many figures had been completed; the names guaranteed the quality of craftsmanship. If the overseers found a figure to be faulty, they were able to track down a man whom they could hold responsible. Precise laws specified the fines in such cases. (75)
The foremen did not work alone, of course. They probably had the status of masters (gongshi), and each of them controlled a team of perhaps ten workers. (76) The 85 foremen identified so far would then have directed 850 men. Since many terra-cotta figures have not yet been excavated, presumably more names of foremen will come to light. The total workforce may have comprised a thousand men. Assuming they set up shop only after the unification of the empire in 221 B.C. and continued until the emperor's death in 210 B.C., they would have completed more than 7,000 figures in eleven years, or close to 700 figures in one year, which is quite conceivable for a workforce of about a thousand men. Yet in the first years the workers certainly produced less than the average, due to their lack of experience. Firing figures of such dimensions was tricky, especially as the thickness of the clay walls varied considerably, and in the kiln the figures shrank in size by about 10 percent. Presumably there were frequent misfirings.
When fabricating cylindrical parts, such as torsos and arms, the workers first kneaded clay into thick slabs that they then rolled into tubes. In other cases they built up the circular forms from coils of clay. They also formed the wet clay in molds composed of dried or fired clay Although not employed for all parts of the body, molds were an important means by which to standardize and speed up production. The molds for the plinths may have been made of wood in the shape of a flat open box, a simple device the workers would have known from making tiles. The basic form of a head was put together from two halves formed in hemispherical molds. Usually the seam runs vertically over the head in front of or behind the ears. [There had been found] two halves of a head that broke at the seam. Still visible is the imprint of the hand of the worker who pressed the wet clay into the negative mold. Heads of horses were similarly formed with paired molds.
Once the basic form of the figures was completed, the workers took additional clay to shape details such as those on the shoes and the armor. The greatest care was lavished on the heads. The workers attached or reworked by hand the headgear, hair, ears, eyebrows, eyes, mustaches, and lips. Some parts, like the ears, were formed in molds first. Similarly, the ears and forelocks of the horses were preformed in standardized shapes.
A division of labor certainly existed. The signatures indicate that one foreman and his team were responsible for making an entire figure up to the point when it was handed over for firing. Beginners in the team or laborers of little skill could perform simple jobs like preparing and mixing the clay or forming the plinth. Experienced team members may have concentrated on more delicate tasks such as modeling the faces. The firing was undoubtedly a job for specialists, as was painting the fired figures.
Correct timing must have been vital. The different parts of the body had to be joined when the clay was neither too hard nor too soft. The heavy torsos, for example, could only be hauled onto the legs after they had dried to such a degree as to be sufficiently firm. On the other hand, reworking had to be done while the clay was still somewhat damp. The members of the team had to set up their schedule accordingly Probably they could solve these problems more easily when they worked on several figures simultaneously One explanation for the frequency of serial numbers that are multiples of five could be that five figures were made at a time.
Thus, there were no long assembly lines with many workers, each performing one small operation. Rather, the team under each foreman formed its own small, self-contained assembly line that saw a figure through all the production stages. Nevertheless, the teams worked according to similar blueprints. All workers assembled their figures from the same small number of basic parts. There were variations, to be sure. The shoes could be fixed to the plinth, for example, and the lower legs could be made from rolled slabs or coiled clay Yet the basic structure remained the same.
Uniformity is also evinced in the measurements. The respective parts of each clay body have similar dimensions, although oversize limbs or heads appear from time to time. The overall height of the standing soldiers, including the plinth, varies between 180 and 195 centimeters, the length of the feet from 25 to 29 centimeters, the circumference of the torsos from 85 to 107 centimeters, the breadth of the head from about 19 to 23 centimeters, and the length of the face, normally, from 19 to 20 centimeters. (78) The soldiers thus are large, but life-size. This is confirmed by the fact that they carry real weapons, and it is also apparent in comparison to the size of the clay horses. The variations in all measurements remain within a consistent range.
Even more important, only a small and quite limited repertoire exists of different types for all parts of the figures. The authors of the archaeological report have, for example, identified three types of plinth, two types of feet, three types of shoes and four types of boots, two types of legs, eight types of torso, and two types of armor, each category having three subtypes. The most elaborate repertoire exists for the heads, for which the report identifies eight different types. (79) The components of the face are also standardized and the number of types is limited. (80)
In spite of this uniformity of the body parts, the army still conveys an overall impression of extraordinary variety, for two reasons: first, although standardized, the parts are joined together in a multitude of combinations. This allows for large numbers of units that differ from one another. Following the authors of the report in distinguishing eight types of heads, and further, identifying various types of eyebrows, lips, mustaches, and so forth, one soon arrives at a huge number of possible combinations. Second, the workers went over the figures and their parts by hand. They had to do this anyway in places where they luted parts of the body with wet clay Again, the possibilities are exploited most fully in the faces. The makers reworked the physiognomical features when attaching small parts such as eyebrows or mustache, and they added further structure through the use of small incisions. In this way they achieved the truly endless variety that was necessary to make the army appear real.
We are not, however, dealing with portraits, as the English text of the report wants us to believe. (81) By definition, a portrait must attempt resemblance of an individual in a comprehensive creative process. A production method that divides figures and faces into standardized parts does not operate within the holistic concept of a personality that cannot be dividedthe "individual."
Yet it was precisely the creative achievement of those who designed and made the terra-cotta army that they developed a system that allowed them to assemble the figures from a limited number of clearly defined parts. These parts of the body are modules according to the definition presented before, as a final look at the hands will confirm.
The workers formed the hands separately and then inserted them into the open sleeve, sometimes affixing them with a plug. [This figure] shows the perforations for such a plug in the cuff and the wrist. Among the approximately fifteen thousand hands of the terra-cotta soldiers, there are only two main types: hands with extended fingers, and hands with bent fingers. The standing warrior shows these two types. (82)
Hands with a flat palm were made in two molds. A break can reveal the original joints. The joint often runs horizontally through the hand and the fingers. (83) Both parts were fitted together while the clay was still soft, and probably bonded by liquid clay or slip. One mold could also be used to form the back of the hand and the fingers and another mold was employed for the inner palm and the lower part of the thumb.
Hands with bent fingers are half open in order for them to hold a weapon or another object. Palm and fingers could first be made separately in molds and then joined together. (84) Or two molds were used, one for the palm with the thumb, and one for the back side of the hand and its bent fingers up to the second joint. The fingertips were then modeled separately and joined to the rest of the hand. (85)
Some thumbs were formed separately in a bivalve mold. In [this figure], the joint is visible on the backside of the thumb at the left. In the example on the right, the joint runs parallel to the thumbnail. Still visible in both cases are the fingerprints of the worker who pressed the soft clay into the negative mold.
The angle at which the finished thumb was affixed to the hand varied. Thus it was possible to make different types of hands for different functions, as the hand of the kneeling archer demonstrates. Moreover, varying with the angle of the arm, the same hand type could be used for different functions. The standing archer also has the familiar hand with stretched fingers. A chariot driver holds the reins in a hand with bent fingers. Although there are only two basic types of hand, all hands look different because they have been worked over before firing. [This figure] allows us to gauge the diversity.
The observations on the hands can be summed up thus: the hands are prefabricated parts; they are composed of several elements; their measurements are standardized; the number of types is very limited; and the same type of hand can assume a different function in a different context. Hence the hands are modules. The same applies to the other parts of the body of the warrior figures.
Only the use of modules
made possible the most extraordinary feat of the terra-cotta army: the
enormous quantity of diverse figures. Only by devising a module system
could their makers rationalize production to such a degree that, with
the material and time available to them, they were able to meet the expectations
of the emperor-the creation of a magic army that would protect his tomb
jinmin kyôwakoku kodai seidôki ten, cat. nos. 127-29,
and discussion of the terra-cotta army by Maxwell K. Hearn in Fong, ed.,
Great Bronze Age, 334-73.