Saturday, August 11, 2012

Terracotta—More Than Just Cookware

Terracotta warrior stands guard over the museum.
More than 2,000 years ago, the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, decided to build a necropolis filled with life-sized minions so he would have subjects to protect him and rule over after he died (a necessity for any self-respecting despot). As the most powerful man in China, he had the clout and resources to create this city of the dead, which included more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 670 horses and a throng of obsequious civilian officials, acrobats, strong men and musicians.

Today, the clay army in that tomb is known as the Terracotta Warriors and fortunately, an exhibit of them is currently on loan to a museum in New York City. Steve and I decided to visit that venue, the Discovery Times Square Museum, to see this unparalleled expression of funerary art.

Mr. Ed's ancestor warily watches passing tourists.
Emperor Qin ascended to the throne when he was 13 years old and, no doubt tapping on his adolescent angst, proved to be a powerful leader. Within the space of his lifetime, he unified seven warring states into the seed of what is now known as China. 

As the story goes, the emperor was afraid of death and constantly trying magic elixirs to achieve immortality. Eventually, around 210 BCE, he died anyway at the age of 49, most likely from the mercury contained in some of those potions. But before he passed on to legend, he ordered some 16,000 workers (700,000 according to ancient historian Sim Qian, perhaps exaggerating a tad) to create his necropolis where he was buried.

Drums meant charge, and bells, like
the one above, sounded retreat.
The emperor died while touring his vast kingdom. His Prime Minister, Li Si, who was traveling with him, decided it would be dangerous to let people know he was dead because it might trigger a general uprising in the Empire. (Apparently, not everyone was a fan of his unification project.)

Unfortunately, the emperor and his entourage were two months away from the capital when he expired, so only some subtle ingenuity would cover up that fact in the sweltering heat of summer. Most of the imperial entourage was not told of the emperor's death. Only a younger son, a trusted eunuch, Li Si and five or six other carefully chosen confidants knew.

I swear this warrior's eyes kept following me.
Li Si ordered that two carts loaded with rotten fish be carried immediately before and after the wagon of the emperor. What better way to prevent people from noticing the foul smell emanating from the wagon of the emperor, where his corpse was happily decomposing in the summer heat? A shade was drawn on the emperor’s wagon, so no one could see his face. They also changed his clothes daily (must have been a fun job), brought food and conferred with him on important issues. (This may be an early competitor for the Vacations from Hell competitions held annually by certain travel websites.)

Smaller warriors from a later emperor.
Interestingly, a year before the emperor died, a large meteor is said to have landed in a province near the lower reaches of the Yellow River. On it, an unknown and perhaps hostile soothsayer inscribed the words "The First Emperor will die and his land will be divided.” Unfortunately, this got back to the emperor who was none too happy about it. He sent an imperial secretary to investigate this prophecy and when no one in the area would own up to having etched it on the stone, everyone living nearby was put to death (thus proving that old realtor adage of “location, location, location”). The stone was then burned and pulverized. Sadly for the emperor, this precaution was ineffective. He died the next year and through some treachery, his younger  son became the next emperor. The son proved to be a rather incompetent ruler and the prophecy came true.
Barbie-sized warriors from a later dynasty.

According to historian Sim Qian, who lived from 145–90 BCE, the second emperor of China decided that after his father died, it was time to do some housecleaning:

The Second Emperor said: ‘It is inappropriate for the wives of the late emperor who have no sons to be free,’ ordered that they be put to death, and many died. After the burial, it was suggested that it would be a serious breach if the craftsmen who constructed the tomb and knew of its secrets were to divulge those secrets. Therefore after the funeral ceremonies had completed, the inner passages and doorways were blocked, and the exit sealed, immediately trapping the workers and craftsmen inside. None could escape.” Basically, it may have been good to BE the emperor, but not necessarily to marry or work for him.

Lanterns light the way at the Chelsea Market.
The tomb was planted over with vegetation, so it would resemble a nonassuming hill. As a result, it lay undiscovered for more than two millennia until a local farmer, digging a well, found it in 1974.

After wending through this fascinating exhibit, Steve and I capped off the day by having a late lunch at The Green Table at the Chelsea Market—great organic, locally grown food—and then we sat in a park and watched a man create really big bubbles. 

Nothing says New York like bubbles in the park.
Such was our foray into the city. First we spent the better part of the morning peering more than two thousand years into the past. Then we whiled away an hour watching mammoth bubbles float up into the air, pop and vanish. All in all, a day layered with the essence and absurdity of transience.

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