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.  


4 comments:

  1. Hi Steve,

    Dropping you a comment to let you know we’ve just posted round two of our Ancient World in London Bloggers Challenge over at Heritage-Key.com - this time we’re looking for a blog about the best ancient site in London. It’d be great to see an entry from you!

    The grand prize is a holiday in Turkey. The best entry in this round – picked by a panel of judges at Heritage Key – will also receive five books of their choice from Thames & Hudson’s current catalogue.

    http://tinyurl.com/yaauty4

    Thanks,
    Malcolm

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