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Many of the newly unearthed figures are in motion. One appears to be in the act of lifting, another might be spinning something on his finger, and the potbellied statue may be using the object in his hands to grip a pole upon which an acrobat could perform. These figures suggest a lighter side of court life under Qin Shi Huang Di, but, most important, they represent a major artistic breakthrough in a culture whose traditional art never emphasized the anatomy of the human body.

"You wouldn't believe that they were Chinese if you didn't know where they'd come from," says Wang Tao, a lecturer in the department of art and archaeology at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. He compares the statues' style to that of the ancient Greeks—and indeed these figures may reflect Qin cultural exchanges with non-Chinese peoples. Before unifying China, the state of Qin was on the western fringes of what would eventually become the empire, and Qin Shi Huang Di's ancestors were in contact with a number of foreign tribes whose art may have been influenced by interactions with ancient Greece.

The terra-cotta statues are also a powerful example of how archaeology can refine and sharpen views of history. The traditional view of Chinese history has stressed Qin Shi Huang Di's "unifications": standardization of the writing system, currency, weights and measures, and axle widths (to facilitate transportation). The emperor is also known for building the first version of the Great Wall. The dynasty name, pronounced "cheen," is probably the source of the English word for China. But despite their enormous impact, Qin Shi Huang Di and his state have been written off as not much better than barbarians.

"Qin has the same customs as the Rong and Di," complained an official of the neighboring state of Wei in 266 b.c., comparing the rising Qin state to barbarian tribes. "It has the heart of a tiger or a wolf.... It knows nothing about traditional mores, proper relationships, and virtuous conduct."

Over the centuries most Chinese historians have agreed, but the new discoveries suggest that the growing confidence of the Qin state may have allowed for the creative freedom to experiment with artistic concepts like realistic depiction of the human body. "Here we have a representation and an artistic language that's unique to this period," says Wang Tao. "And it was lost in later periods of Chinese art. It's like a rediscovery of something completely new."

One morning I visit Pits 1 and 2 of the Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses Museum with Liu Zhan-cheng, an archaeologist who has spent upwards of 20 years working at the site. Looking out over the first pit, I'm struck by the scene's regularity: the neat rows of more than a thousand regimented statues, their ranks divided by the carefully excavated compressed dirt walls of the pits.

But Liu knows that this order is something of a mirage. Most of the statues in this pit were damaged centuries ago by vandalism, fires, and moisture, leaving thousands of terra-cotta shards that had to be pieced together. Some damage was too great for even the most patient reconstruction. All the army's warriors were originally colored, but the Qin painting process involved applying pigments to a layer of lacquer that deteriorates in humid conditions. Most of the figures in Pit 1 lost their color long before archaeologists started work. And for the statues whose pigments survived the centuries, excavation proved to be too great a stress.

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