Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Ten Thousand Things (and More)

Mutual combinations of the eight trigrams result in the production of ten thousand things.  
-Shao Yong (1011-1077)

The ten thousand things are produced and reproduced, so that variation and transformation have no end.
-Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073)

In his magisterial book entitled Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art (Princeton University Press, 2000), Lothar Lederrose discusses how modules form the essence of Chinese art, whether in terms of the writing system, bronze casting, ceramic production, architecture, printing, or painting.  The quotes above are from his book, which also explores the ways in which the creation of the terracotta army of Emperor Qin reflects similar aspects of mass production.  Much like the composite sculptures made in Egypt during the reign of King Akhenaten (the Amarna period, ca. 1350-1335 BCE), the terracotta soldiers were fashioned with separate heads, hands, torsos, and arms, all made in a sort of assembly line.  Inscriptions found on the figures show that some of the people fashioning these parts were the same artisans responsible for creating clay drainpipes for the imperial palace.  Yet, unlike the complete standardization required for effective drainage, the modularity of the terracotta army  introduced the possibility of endless variation - mannequins with interchangeable heads and poses.  

That this kind of mass production should occur in the Qin Dynasty is hardly surprising, considering that this is also the period in Chinese history responsible for the first standardized system of weights, coinage, the creation of the Great Wall, the standardization of the Chinese script, the creation of the first monumental stelae, and so on.  Modularity was newly employed on a massive scale as a responsive strategy for creating and controlling an empire (both present and future). Yet, far from having the reputation as a peaceful period, tradition holds that the reign of Qin Shihuangdi witnessed much bloodshed and harshness.   Perhaps this is in part because, like the case of Pharaoh Khufu who constructed Egypt's Great Pyramid, Emperor Qin's grandiose concept of his own funerary monument required such sacrifice on the part of the people, leading to legends about the ruler's cruel and despotic character.  Even the creation of the terracotta "army" must have come at an enormous human and environmental cost (think of the forests of trees felled to fuel the kilns!).  

Most early civilizations, including Shang Dynasty China, Early Dynastic Egypt, the Classic Maya, and the Uruk Period in Mesopotamia, not to mention by name several other cultures of Central and South America,  engaged in the practice of human sacrifice as part of the commemoration of a paramount ruler.  In most cases, it seems as though the ruler wished to bring various servants and courtiers along with him into the next world.  As distant as this practice is to us, we can all too easily imagine Jonestown-like scenes of suicide or ritual murder (acts which we associate with cults rather than prevailing organized religions and polities, but familiar to us nonetheless).   Eventually, the difficulty of the situation seems to have led to its abandonment- imagine the difficulties encountered by the "transition team" when the "institutional memory" had been erased, together with the previous cabinet and office holders!  While such a scenario might have appealed to some of us following the last US administration, it is not hard to see why the bloody practice would have been abandoned in favor of a symbolic gesture.  What is interesting in the archaeological record is to observe what replaces the burial of  sacrificial victims.  In Egypt, once human sacrifice is abandoned, what seems to take the place of killing members of the royal court to accompany the dead ruler during the Old Kingdom (ca. 2649-2100 BCE)  is the construction of a city of the dead - streets and virtual neighborhoods of tombs of princes, princesses, aristocrats, architects, treasurers, craftsmen, and priests, all allotted tombs around the base of the king's pyramid (presumably only requiring the presence of their intended residents once their natural lifespans had played out). 

Only later, as of about 2000 BCE, does the practice begin of the creation of small wooden or wax figures of the deceased (variously called shabtisshawabtis, or ushebtis), assigned with the task of taking on the duties of the dead person in the next world.  Here, however, instead of representing various members of a wealthy person's inner circle or his/her employees, the shawabti figures all bear aspects of the identity (and appearance) of the deceased, in some cases including a figure to represent every day of the year.  This has much to do with the avoidance of taxation in the next world (or its proxy, corvée or enforced labor),  and in that sense does not reflect the concerns of the royal sphere, which is quasi-divine and above such worries.  Royal proxies were likely not taxed with farm labor, but even so kings and queens adopt the use of these figurines by 1525 BCE, and the texts on them indicate that the royals were concerned to avoid any potential labor in the next world.  A curious case of the movement of a religious practice from the middle class to the royal sphere, but not one that can do much to explain why human sacrifice ceases, and what replaced it conceptually.  

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Review of "Washing the Book"!

I am pleased that the Hong Kong Blogs Review site has recommended this blog.  I also appreciate their comment about colonialist attitudes among foreigners here, which are far too prevalent in this former colony.  Cantonese has idioms for speaking only praises of Hong Kong (cheung ho Heung Gong, or "singing Hong Kong well"), or speaking ill of it (cheung seui Heung Gong).  When I sing of it, I hope to sing well, or at least in key- though I have lots of other songs to sing as well!

Friday, September 4, 2009

I don't want to neglect the important and highly relevant discovery described in this recent article.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Han Emperor's Pig Army

XI'AN   西安  (ancient Chang'anmeaning "Perpetual Peace") is an extraordinary reflection of human endeavor.  By now, we are all familiar with the seemingly endless ranks of terracotta soldiers in the pits surrounding the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi, the "First Emperor."  But how about the smaller-scale Han Dynasty "army" of Emperor Jing Di (ca 188-141 BCE), featuring not only male soldiers, but female courtiers, foreign horsemen, and legions of pigs, sheep, goats, dogs, horses, and the occasional chicken or rooster?!  This was for me one of the most extraordinary archaeological sites I have ever visited,  presented in a spectacular manner unmatched elsewhere.  Located to the west of Emperor Qin's complex, and discovered in 199o during construction of the new highway running to the Xi'an airport, this monumental burial site dating from the Western Han dynasty is in many ways even more interesting to me than its more famous (and bigger) Qin predecessor.  Yet, in order to put the Han Yangling site (as it is called) into context, I need to explain a bit about my visit this April to the "terracotta army" of Emperor Qin.  

Looking at the archaeological heritage of Xi'an provides a lot of opportunity for introspection and reflection.  I've already mentioned my visit to the Banpo Neolithic village, which was a project of the 1950s, and which reveals as much about that era in terms of the interpretive materials and site museum as it does about this important ancient place.  Emperor Qin's army, however, takes up where Banpo leaves off, in more ways than one.  Discovered in 1974, the pits containing the life-sized terracotta soldiers and horses have been under excavation ever since, and thus the site provides a kind of museum of Chinese archaeology and official attitudes over the past 35 years.  Pit 1 (above), expanded from the location of the first finds of the broken soldiers, has been open to the public since 1979, and is covered with a structure resembling in scale and construction a massive airplane hangar.  Here the lighting is bright and powerful, and one is confronted with the reconstructed ranks of the infantry and chariotry.  For most people, this is the "photo op" zone, a place to drink in the massive scale of this ancient project.  

I was intrigued not  only by the soldiers themselves, but by the massive rammed-earth partitions between the individual rectangular zones, which still bear impressions of the logs that were intended to protect the army.  Since, however, these have all caved in with the decay of the ancient wood, all of the terracotta figures (and the other ceramic items that accompanied them) have been smashed.  Just beyond the excavated area is a large portion of Pit 1 that is awaiting future work, as well as an open area where figures under reconstruction may be examined at eye-level (there is also the inevitable red carpeted "VIP" area for those special few!) It was while examining the conservation area that my suspicions were first aroused about the nature of what we see down in Pit 1.  Since all of the figures had been smashed, and were being restored with multiple struts, supports, and a massive amount of plaster, how could the perfect figures aligned in rows down in the pit itself be in such apparently perfect states of preservation?

Moving onto Pit 2, only 20 meters away, a slightly different state of affairs was apparent.  The lighting is low, adjusted to protect the fugitive pigments that began to be revealed in this area. Here, the archaeologists (who have been digging here since 1994) have left much of the broken material in place, and have only "cleaned up" portions of the more than 900 soldiers and 89 chariots.  

At this point, I became quite sure that the reconstructed figures placed back in the pits were modern replicas, although no signage anywhere might indicate this possibility.  Twenty years of observation and the developing techniques of the archaeologists and conservators responsible for Emperor Qin's burial place clearly have made an impact on the way that Pit 2 had been approached, for here figures were revealed with much of their original polychrome paint, which once covered not only their armored bodies, but also their faces, eyes, and even patterns on their clothing (the photo to the left is my poor-quality image of a photograph on display, taken at the moment of discovery).

The much smaller Pit 3, still under excavation, revealed a similarly advanced state of affairs: archaeologists are clearly now working at a much slower rate, and are not attempting to reveal the extent of the army at the expense of the data retrieved, but instead are doing their best to squeeze the maximum amount of information out of every area encountered.  This is as it should be - and it is a very familiar progression to me. After 16 years working on my own excavation, I am more and more eager to derive the maximum data out of each small area, and less willing to sacrifice detail for broad areal coverage.  These are the stresses and conflicts of archaeologists worldwide, and I am very pleased that our Chinese colleagues are making enormous strides forward in the approach to Emperor Qin's army.  That having been said, I am still confused about the apparent policy of placing replicas on site.  

 As I looked closely at examples of actual reconstructed soldiers and horses on display in cases alongside Pit 2, it was very clear that the perfect examples down in the pits were modern.  
Reconstructed soldiers and horses (below)?  Or replicas to increase "visitor experience"?

Even more surprising to me was the huge crowd surrounding the reconstructed half-size bronze chariots found in 1980 (not my photo):

Since these had also been smashed to tiny pieces, the perfect chariots on display seemed to me either to be the most over-restored examples of ancient bronze I have ever seen, or (more likely) replicas intended for public view.  Debates have raged in the course of international loan exhibitions of the terracotta army regarding the potential inauthenticity of the examples sent abroad, and I now believe that the doubt is well-founded.  Conservators can indeed do much to hide joins in reconstructing ceramic vessels and sculpture, but I just don't think that most of what was re-erected and put on display down in the pits was given that kind of attention. More likely, over-cautious attitudes prevailed, and full-size replicas were made on commission for use in display (and, I might add, for sale in the museum shop!) The actual, reconstructed figures are probably those displayed here in glass cases, as well as in the Shaanxi History Museum.  A strange approach, if I am correct, but not one that matters to most visitors, I suspect.  Still, this irregularity (if it is correct) does not and should not take away from the spectacle of one of the most massive ongoing excavations anyone can imagine.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Why We Keep Searching...


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one, 
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops, 
angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them: 
you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body. 
Laistrygonians and Cyclops, 
angry Poseidon - you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.  
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind -
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities 
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island, 
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, 
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Constantine P. Cavafy 

From Collected Poems.  Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.  Edited by George Savidis.  Revised Edition.  Princeton University Press, 1992.  


Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάκη,
να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος,
γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον θυμωμένο Ποσειδώνα μη φοβάσαι,
τέτοια στον δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δεν θα βρεις,
αν μεν' η σκέψις σου υψηλή, αν εκλεκτή
συγκίνησις το πνεύμα και το σώμα σου αγγίζει.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον άγριο Ποσειδώνα δεν θα συναντήσεις,
αν δεν τους κουβανείς μες στην ψυχή σου,
αν η ψυχή σου δεν τους στήνει εμπρός σου.

Να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος.
Πολλά τα καλοκαιρινά πρωϊά να είναι
που με τι ευχαρίστησι, με τι χαρά
θα μπαίνεις σε λιμένας πρωτοειδωμένους,
να σταματήσεις σ' εμπορεία Φοινικικά,
και τες καλές πραγμάτειες ν' αποκτήσεις,
σεντέφια και κοράλλια, κεχριμπάρια κ' έβενους,
και ηδονικά μυρωδικά κάθε λογής,
όσο μπορείς πιο άφθονα ηδονικά μυρωδικά,
σε πόλεις Αιγυπτιακές πολλές να πας,
να μάθεις και να μάθεις απ' τους σπουδασμένους.

Πάντα στον νου σου νάχεις την Ιθάκη.
Το φθάσιμον εκεί ειν' ο προορισμός σου.
Αλλά μη βιάζεις το ταξείδι διόλου.
Καλλίτερα χρόνια πολλά να διαρκέσει
και γέρος πια ν' αράξεις στο νησί,
πλούσιος με όσα κέρδισες στο δρόμο,
μη προσδοκώντας πλούτη να σε δώσει η Ιθάκη.

Η Ιθάκη σ'έδωσε τ' ωραίο ταξείδι.
Χωρίς αυτήν δεν θάβγαινες στον δρόμο.
Άλλα δεν έχει να σε δώσει πια.

Κι αν πτωχική την βρεις, η Ιθάκη δε σε γέλασε.
Έτσι σοφός που έγινες, με τόση πείρα,
ήδη θα το κατάλαβες οι Ιθάκες τι σημαίνουν.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Lost Worlds- Emperor Qin's Hidden City

There is no greater temptation for an archaeologist than ancient places which seem offer a window into the inner workings of the ancient machine.  Imagine peering into a tomb mound containing a miniature city of palaces and offices, with rivers of mercury running into an ocean, and the starry firmament shining above!  Such is the description,  by the Grand Historian Sima Qian (born 145 BCE), of the sight which might one day face those who enter the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi, China's "First Emperor."  

Herbert Eustis Winlock, the great curator and archaeologist associated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had the fortune in 1920 to experience something like this thrill.  As he recall, when he moved the blocking to the tomb of Meket-Ra:

"My beam of light shot in to a little world of four thousand years ago, and I was gazing down into the midst of brightly painted little men going this way and that.  A tall, slender girl gazed across at me, perfectly composed; a gang of little men with sticks in their upraised hands drove spotted oxen; rowers tugged at their oars on a fleet of boats, while one ship seemed floundering right in front of me with its bow balanced precariously in the air.  And all of this busy coming and going was in uncanny silence, as though the distance back over the forty centuries I looked across was too great for even an echo to reach my ears..."

The great University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Loren Eiseley's essay "The Innocent Fox" describes an experience of nature that is also in essence the recovery of a lost world.  Part of his book entitled _The Unexpected Universe_ (1969),  Eiseley here recalls a transcendent encounter with a young fox in its lair:

"It has been repeatedly said that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe.  Man is destined only to see its far side, to realize nature only in retreat.  Yet here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed innocent fox inviting me to play.  The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.  It was not a time for human dignity.  For just a moment I held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone...It was, in reality, a child's universe, a tiny and laughing universe."  

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Getting That Neolithic Feeling

Like many others, I have been fascinated by Chinese archaeology since childhood- oracle bones, bronzes, silk banners, jade burial suits, terracotta soldiers.  My first exposure to this world was the ground-breaking "Exhibition of Archaeological Finds of the People's Republic of China", which I saw in 1974 in San Francisco with my family.  My mother likes to remind me how my father and brother went through the exhibition in under an hour, while she stayed behind with me, transfixed for hours by the fantastic items (I was 8 years old).  

35 years later, this April, I was able to  visit Xi'an (ancient Chang'an), together with Perry, my mother Joy, and my sister Kathy.  In preparing for the trip, I used the excellent guide entitled China: Museums (M. Clifford, C. Giangrande, and A. White, Scala, 2009) - and I was pleasantly surprised to find that, aside from the famous "terracotta army" of  Emperor Qin Shihuangdi's tomb complex, there were several other major archaeological sites worth visiting.  I think it's worth mentioning these, not only in case others try to make the trip to Xi'an, but because the Chinese deserve credit for some very innovative ways of displaying and preserving ancient places.

Our first stop was Banpo Neolithic Village, the most famous site of the Yangshao Culture (ca.  5000-4000 BCE).  Now enclosed entirely within a roofed museum, the man-made moat surrounding the village is visible (above), as are the many circular pit houses with the impressions of the wood posts that once supported their ceilings.  Kilns, ritual areas, and tombs of various sizes were excavated during the main period of research (the 1950s), and I was quite excited to see such a large and well-preserved site of this early date.  A fascinating (and quite chilling) element was the skeleton of a man interred entirely face-down, one of the only examples of such a burial position I can think of worldwide.  I couldn't help but imagine that this was someone who broke cultural norms, and was not granted the right to a proper burial (talk about losing face!).  A curious aspect of the antiquated display were the modern clay figures meant to illustrate life in Banpo.  Strangely, these were conceived as hairy,  knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, rather than as the anatomically modern humans they surely were! 

 Traces of old ideological interpretations were also very evident in the labels and texts, which tried to make the case that the Banpo people were matrilineal.  Possible, but not something very easily retrieved from the pre-literate record.  As strange as the clay "knuckle-dragger" figurines were the modern (and somewhat erotic!) bas-reliefs adorning the roofs of the reconstructed village.  As much as I applaud the Chinese authorities for acknowledging the sex lives of Neolithic folks, none of us could work out why this was particularly germane to Banpo! 

Next time, I will post about one of the most exciting archaeological experiences of my life (other than my own excavations, of course!):  visiting the Han Yanling Museum in Xi'an, site of the shorter, but infinitely more diverse terracotta army of men, women, pigs, dogs, and chickens!