Currently on tour from Santa Ana, CA, to Atlanta, Houston, and Washington, DC, through March 2010, the exhibition The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army(with an alternative title, China's Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of the First Emperor, and a different curatorial approach, at some venues) is cause for rejoicing. These two brilliant and utterly readable books will thrill both those lucky enough to see the exhibition and those who must miss this stunning tour.
Emperor Qin shi huang (259-210 BCE) was China's first emperor. As a boy king, he began construction on his tomb; his rule saw many major innovations, including the development of writing and coinage and the construction of the Great Wall. Qin was an outstanding military leader who unified China, but he has been assailed for using forced labor, burning books, and killing scholars. Fast forward to 1974, when farmers digging for water near the emperor's mausoleum discovered pits holding the astonishing figures eventually known to the world as the Terracotta Army. Discovery of this army, which consists of about 8000 warriors, chariots, and horses, has forced us to reexamine the emperor's reputation.
With China's First Emperor and His Terracotta Warriors, Wood (head, Chinese Dept., British Lib.; The Silk Road) gives us a text that is wonderfully descriptive not only archaeologically but in reassessing the emperor, warts and all. Her book brims with outstanding illustrations. The Terra Cotta Army, by British historian Man (Genghis Khan), reads much like an adventure story that offers fine access to this highly detailed subject. Readers accompany Man as he walks into Pit No. 1and contributes fascinating information on just how these terracotta figures were shaped in sections, attached, individually detailed, and baked. Like Wood, he questions the information, arguments, and myths that have come down to us regarding Qin's reign, instead offering his own analysis. Royal records and contemporary stone inscriptions are among the primary sources surveyed by both authors, who admit that interpretations will always be a matter of dispute, e.g., does this army represent a kind of repression by the emperor or an acknowledgment of communal talent? These books should be purchased by all libraries, whether or not in the cities lucky enough to get the exhibit.
[The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army, published in the U.K. by the British Museum and in the United States by Harvard University Press in 2007, is the exhibition's official companion volume and is also highly recommended. The illustrations include many haunting studio shots of the figures, as well as documentation of the tomb site and extraordinary images of the pits before and after excavation, and the accessible and fascinating text is contributed by experts in the field. End material, including a chronology and glossary of Chinese characters, add to the book's considerable value.-Ed.]
David Lee Poremba
A judicious exploration of the circumstances and meaning behind the terra cotta army interred with China's first emperor. In 1974, a clutch of Chinese farmers digging a well unearthed an army of clay soldiers: Confucian in their aura of strength and tranquility, more than 8,000 strong, life-sized, carved to capture specific characteristics of individual soldiers, complete with horses, crossbows and bronze arrowheads. They were the army of King Zheng, the First Emperor, who unified China's seven warring states (not to mention untold statelets and tribal areas) in a mere decade, from 230 to 221 BCE. They were never meant to be seen, avers historian Man (Attila: The Barbarian King Who Challenged Rome, 2006, etc.). The soldiers were symbolic sacrifices, a solution to the problem of conflicting, evolving Chinese beliefs and practices related to the afterlife. Traditionally, dead rulers were entombed with servants either killed or buried alive. This would not do for "a new, forward-looking dynasty"; besides, the First Emperor was a military commander trying to build a strong state, and "men dispatched into the next world cannot fight in this one." Working with the records at hand, the author delves as deep as he can into the emperor's Qin dynasty, everything from its laws and the Great Wall project to the import of bronze trigger mechanisms. Man draws the scene, summarizes, notes conflicts and conditions both before and after the immediate moment. He wonders about the cost and speed of the clay army's manufacture. He corrals the intrigues, affairs and treachery marking Qin history. What role did these intrigues play in the burning of the tomb? How might they have affected its construction? Didthe Red Guards later erase vital signatures? His virtuoso historical investigation is thorough and well-versed in the material, but also restless and informal, with an eye peeled for new ideas. Scholarly yet spellbound, skeptical yet open to belief.
Roanoke Times 5/11/0
“If you can’t make it to China anytime soon to see the warriors, do the next best thing: Grab a warm cup of tea, sink into your favorite reading spot and open The Terra Cotta Army to the preface. And begin.”
Library Journal, 6/15/08
“Brilliant and utterly readable…Reads much like an adventure story that offers fine access to this highly detailed subject.”
Houston Chronicle China book roundup
“Provides essential background reading...Man is a genial guide…learned but not dry.”
Toronto Globe and Mail, 7/19/08
“[Man’s] travel journalism evocatively describes the terra cotta warriors as artifacts, and appropriately overwhelms us with their scale…Man’s prose attains precision and genuine awe.”
Charleston Post & Courier
“[Man] uses his skills as a travel writer to set the scene and fill it with vignettes...The folk stories and humorous incidents that salt the text prevent the dust of history from obscuring the glory of the story.”
Roanoke Times, 8/18/08
“[An] engaging foray into Chinese history.”