Published: November 2001

Treasures of Ancient China


Rising to Life: Treasures of Ancient China

By Peter Hessler
Photograph by O. Louis Mazzatenta

They make an odd couple, the archaeologist and the statue. Duan Qingbo stands in the restoration workshop of the Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses Museum, looking up at a statue he helped excavate in 1999. The terra-cotta figure is more than 2,200 years old, its life-size, naked upper body is powerfully muscled, and it has no head. Duan is 36 years old, his build is slight, and he has a face like an open book—quick-moving eyes and an easy smile. He laughs a lot. He is never far from a Stone Forest cigarette. Dwarfed by the massive figure at his side, he grins and says, "He's like Mike Tyson."

The statue absorbs the cultural non sequitur without comment. Silence and mystery compose his aura—nobody knows exactly what this statue represents, what the object is that he presses against his potbelly. The few known facts about the figure are little more than clues: It is the earliest example ever found in China of life-size statuary that shows the human form, apart from the face, in realistic detail, and it is part of a startling collection of new discoveries recently unearthed near the tomb mound of Qin Shi Huang Di, the first emperor to unify China under one dynasty, the Qin. In a burial complex previously best known for its regimented terra-cotta army, the potbellied statue is remarkably out of step—a mostly unclothed, nonmilitary figure whose head has been destroyed.

But like any good archaeologist, Duan isn't intimidated by uncertainties. Rather than guess at riddles, he simply points at what he sees—the bulge of a triceps, the subtle ripple of a latissimus dorsi—and the mystery fades away into awe. "Look at those muscles and bones," he says softly. "Most people have thought Chinese sculptors at that time didn't portray the human body as it really is."

For the past week I've been in Xian, hoping to gain a sense of the early stages of China's imperial history. This part of today's Shaanxi Province was where the first two imperial dynasties made their capitals, taking advantage of the natural defenses of the Huang (Yellow) River to the east and the Qin Ling Mountains to the south. The Qin ruled here from 221 to 207 b.c., and their collapse was followed by the rise of the Western Han dynasty, which ruled from 206 b.c. to a.d. 9.

Today these dynasties are being explored by excavations of two imperial tomb complexes, those of Qin Shi Huang Di and Han Jing Di, the fourth emperor of the Western Han, who ruled from 157 to 141 b.c. Because they saw the afterlife as a continuation of life on Earth, archaeology here is like dusting off a window to the past—a vision of what mattered to these rulers and their cultures.

Qin Shi Huang Di and Han Jing Di make another odd couple: a radical reformer, usually labeled a tyrant, whose dynasty collapsed only four years after his death, and a cautious ruler who relied in part on Taoist discretion to help solidify the power of a clan that reigned for more than four centuries. (After the Western Han collapsed, the same family reestablished the dynasty at a new capital and ruled as the Eastern Han from a.d. 25 to 220.)

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