Published: November 2001
Rising to Life: Treasures of Ancient China
By Peter Hessler

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.)

Despite these two emperors' contrasts, they are nowadays linked by archaeology because no other imperial tomb complexes in the Xian region have been so extensively excavated. And their reigns span what may have been the most formative period in Chinese history, when a collection of warring kingdoms united into a single country with a strong imperial tradition. The Qin introduced this revolutionary concept of empire, and then the Han imbued it with a sense of tradition and order, setting the tone for more than 2,000 years of imperial rule.

Qin Shi Huang Di's achievement of a unified China has come to be represented by the more than 1,500 terra-cotta warriors and horses excavated since 1974, when a group of peasants stumbled upon a pit of statues while digging a well. Designed to accompany Qin Shi Huang Di in the afterlife, the regimented figures reflect the ruler's military strength. But the massive army, estimated to be a total of 8,000 pieces, occupies only a fraction of the largely unexcavated tomb complex, which extends over 22 square miles (57 square kilometers) and is said to have required a labor force of 700,000 to build.

One afternoon I climb to the top of the 250-foot (76-meter) high tumulus above the emperor's burial site. From the summit, low dusty hills roll northward toward the horizon; to the south, a green carpet of pomegranate trees leads to the foothills of the Li Mountains, whose blue-gray peaks are sharply shadowed by the setting sun. It's a beautiful scene—but I find myself thinking more about the unknown treasures that are buried beneath my feet. And I think about the path I took around the back of the tomb mound, where I stepped over shards of 2,200-year-old ceramic tiles that lie half-buried in the dust. There's so much history here that it literally rises out of the ground.

Recently archaeologists have been doing some additional prodding. Although officials say they won't open the tomb mound itself until they are satisfied that preservation techniques are up to the challenge, they have permitted extensive soil testing that has left the earth around the tomb pockmarked with tiny holes. Since 1998 the authorities have also granted permission for two small experimental excavations of pits 650 feet (200 meters) southeast of the mound. One of these digs uncovered 12 nonmilitary statues that had been smashed by vandals in the distant past.

Although all but one of the heads was damaged beyond repair, archaeologists have been able to reconstruct five statues, including the potbellied strongman. The statues might represent baixiyong—performers who entertained the court with acrobatics, singing, dancing, feats of strength, and sleight of hand. Similar statues of smaller size have been found in Han tombs, but never before have any been dated to the Qin. To experts these discoveries are at once exciting and sobering: a glimpse of something entirely unexpected but also a reminder of how little is actually known about the burial goods of Qin Shi Huang Di.

"We've realized there might be more varied figures in other pits," says Zhang Yinglan, vice-director of the museum's archaeological team. "These figures are concerned only with every-day life, while the others all have military aspects. The military ones are very stiff and formal, but these are so different."

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.

"Once we excavated a figure with the colors intact," remembers the soft-spoken Liu. "When we took it outside, though, the paint layer started curling up and peeling off right before our eyes. Within ten minutes it was gone. As an archaeologist I felt horrible about it, but there was nothing I could do."

Knowing that some sections of the site might contain more undamaged figures, museum officials slowed the pace of excavation, partly to focus on researching chemical compounds that would stabilize the lacquer layer. In 1988 the Shaanxi Province Cultural Relics Bureau signed an agreement to work with the Bavarian State Conservation Office, based in Munich, Germany. Chemists and art preservationists from both countries tested more than 30 possible compounds before arriving at a solution known as PEG, sometimes used to prevent excavated wood artifacts from drying out too quickly. A version of the compound proved effective on terra-cotta. In 1999 the museum performed its first on-site test, choosing a far corner of Pit 2 that hadn't been damaged by vandals. Working at a painstaking pace with fine tools—"like dentists," says Liu—the team of archaeologists and chemists spent more than a year uncovering six figures.

Suddenly Qin Shi Huang Di's world appeared in Technicolor. The colors—reds and greens and blues and purples—vary from soldier to soldier, and experts have yet to find a connection between color and rank or function. There are unexpected touches like contrasting shirt cuffs. And then there's the strangest discovery of all: one figure whose face is painted green. He may have been intended to frighten the enemy, or possibly the touch was purely artistic.

"You might ask why there aren't other quirks in the soldiers—for example, why do they all pose the same way?" asks Liu, standing in the test excavation site. The pudgy, round-faced archaeologist looks vaguely out of place in the midst of the six fierce warriors, who are kneeling at attention, crossbows at their sides, prepared to rise and fire at the command that still hasn't sounded after 2,200 years. "They can't be disorganized, because they're soldiers," says Liu. "But the colors might have provided some individuality and artistic flair that the form could not. This suggests that when these figures were made, the question of whether they were beautiful or not was even more important than whether they were standard."

But like all the archaeologists I've spoken with, Liu is quick to emphasize that this is only a preliminary theory that must wait until further excavations are done. It's like working on a puzzle where adding new pieces makes the picture larger rather than more complete.

This sense of an expanding mystery is especially vivid at the two experimental pits. In addition to the performers, these digs have yielded a massive 467-pound (210-kilogram) bronze cauldron, the largest ever found at a Qin-period site, and a pit of ceremonial armor made of carved pieces of limestone. The stone-armor pit is strewn with thousands of limestone plates that are charred by a fire nobody can explain. Tests show that the pit containing the cauldron and the entertainers covers about 960 square yards (800 square meters), but officials granted permission for less than 9 percent of it to be opened by the 1999 test excavation. A full-scale excavation will wait until authorities feel that the time is right.

Meanwhile the land has already shifted back from archaeological time to the ageless rhythms of the countryside. Local peasants have planted pomegranate trees on the site, and the fruit is coming into season 20 feet (6 meters) above the unknown treasures. The archaeologists have already moved on. They have opened a third experimental pit, in which they found 12 life-size statues. It's another breakthrough: the nonmilitary figures wear hats and long robes; their hands are crossed at their waists. Perhaps they are government officials. And so the puzzle expands, piece by piece emerging from the red Shaanxi soil.

Twenty-five miles (40 kilometers) west of the Terra-cotta Warriors Museum, I find a harvest of a different sort: carefully arranged rows of terra-cotta pigs, sheep, goats, and dogs excavated from the tomb complex of Han Jing Di. This site is one of Xian's newest tourist attractions, open to visitors since the end of 1999. It too is an excavation in progress—as I can see from the animal pit, where some of the sheep are still half-uncovered, wading in dust up to their fattened flanks.

"In the first level we've found more than 400 terra-cotta dogs, 200 sheep, and we're still not sure how many pigs," says archaeologist Ma Yongying. "They were put in the tomb to feed the emperor."

Perhaps this is to be expected from a dynasty whose founder, Liu Bang, rose to power with the assistance of military supporters who had been dog butchers. Despite its humble beginnings, the Han has always been seen as one of China's most successful dynasties, ruling through a combination of pragmatism and precise organization. Indeed these characteristics are reflected in the relics that are emerging from the tomb complex, which is known as Han Yangling. Since 1990, when a construction project accidentally came across a pit of terra-cotta soldiers, archaeologists have excavated a large collection of burial items that say more about everyday life than war: animals, chariots, spades, saws, adzes, chisels, plowshares, miniature granaries, ladles, stoves, steamers, and measuring devices. Considering that Han Jing Di came to power only 53 years after the burial of Qin Shi Huang Di and his terra-cotta army, these preliminary discoveries seem to indicate a change in philosophy—and, quite possibly, a reaction against the earlier dynasty.

"Qin Shi Huang was a tyrant. Whatever he wanted, he got," says Liu Qingzhu, director of the Chinese Institute of Archaeology in Beijing. "His tomb didn't have to follow a system, so you might have certain figures over here and different ones somewhere else. But what we've found at Han Yangling is very orderly—each pit contains certain objects arranged in a certain way; it's all very regular."

Over the course of a 17-year reign that ended in 141 b.c., Han Jing Di governed by the most unpretentious of slogans: "Wu wei er zhi," a Taoist saying that means "Do nothing in order to govern," or, essentially, rule as unobtrusively as possible. Historians claim that whereas peasants paid half their crops in taxes under Qin Shi Huang Di, Han Jing Di levied only 3 percent. Mandatory corvée was dramatically reduced. There were no major building projects on the scale of the Great Wall. And the empire, according to historical texts, flourished.

Archaeology may very well reinforce this view, providing an unprecedented look at political organization under the Han. While Han Jing Di's tomb mound, like the burial site of Qin Shi Huang Di, won't be opened anytime soon, experts have been excavating a series of 11 of the 86 satellite pits that surround the tumulus.

"We think that every pit might represent a specific government bureau," says Wang Baoping, who has worked at Han Yangling since 1990. "In two pits we've even found official chops that give the names of specific departments." One of these chops, or seals, identifies the office in charge of the imperial kitchen, which may explain why there are so many animals in this part of the tomb complex. Other relics include hundreds of terra-cotta figures of soldiers, eunuchs, and women. Unlike the statues of Qin Shi Huang Di, which were mostly formed by hand, the figures at Han Yangling were made entirely with molds—although craftsmen retouched the faces to give them individual expressions. The biggest difference, though, is simply size: most of the Han Yangling figures are roughly one-third life-size.

"We think of the early Han dynasty as a period when the emperors were thrifty," says Ma Yongying. "The objects here are much smaller than the Qin, probably in order to save materials and manpower. And some of the gold relics we've found are merely plated with gold."

But while the Han may have seemed thrifty compared with the Qin, the discoveries at Han Yangling reflect a culture that still valued extravagant burials. Archaeologists have already uncovered more than 40,000 objects from the satellite pits, another group of pits to the south, and a cluster of nobles' tombs. There's still the untouched emperor's burial mound, as well as two separate tombs for Han Jing Di's empress and favorite concubine. The entire tomb complex is expected to yield between 300,000 and 500,000 relics.

"There are 31 more pits surrounding the empress's mound," says Li Gang, the youngest archaeologist at Han Yangling. "And we're testing the concubine's tomb, where we expect to find more pits. Whenever we're finished with all of that, there are still more than 5,000 other Han tombs scattered across this area. That should give you some sense of how much work we still have to do."

He gives a tired grin, a 28-year-old going on 100. And suddenly I have a sense of how many people like this young man have been involved in the constantly expanding puzzle of Xian's imperial past. I imagine those who built these two imperial tombs centuries ago—artisans, planners, laborers—and then I think about all the present-day archaeologists, chemists, historians, and art experts who are uncovering and making sense of the new finds. Somewhere in the midst of all this effort are the touchstones of a civilization: the brilliant creativity that first inspired the concept of a unified empire and the steady pragmatism that kept it going for more than 2,000 years.

But this is a lot to think about, and once again I focus on the finest detail—the bulge of a terra-cotta muscle, the curve of a sculpted bone. I remember Duan Qingbo standing awestruck next to the potbellied statue, and I recall a sunny afternoon when the two of us sat on top of Qin Shi Huang Di's tomb mound. We were facing south, gazing toward the Li Mountains. Directly below, a group of peasants were planting corn. Next to the peasants, a cluster of archaeologists conducted soil tests. Duan could identify with both—he was the son of peasants, and he had spent more than a decade excavating around the Xian region. A Stone Forest cigarette hung from his lip. I asked him if he'd like to open the tomb on which we sat.

"The truth is, even if we do excavate it, we might not completely understand what we find," he said, laughing. "We need to move slowly with our excavations. After all, we have children, grandchildren. Let them open it."