Eric Koch is spending two weeks in Europe. A number of his regular readers have generously volunteered to compose guest-postings – this is the first of several by Tim Lash.
The Warrior Emperor and China’s Terracotta Army is at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts ‘till June 26. The show’s website seems to suggest a pleasure tour through beautiful antiquities, like the graceful Treasures from China at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in 2007.
The Musée des Beaux Arts exhibit does have gorgeous things, but it’s mainly about the crafting of a civilization – the imperial unification that became China. The First Emperor’s rule was short – 11 years from 221 to 210 BC. He used startling military innovation – weaponry, strategy, tactics – and ruthless detailed centralization – currency, weights and measures, language, control of land and labour, universal conscripted military service, destruction of opponents in action or thought. One exhibit hall, red, has a suspended aimed crossbow, a kneeling terracotta archer, a small video alternating archaeological discovery with dramatization of horseback and standing crossbow techniques. The end wall is filled with the terrifying landed onslaught of mass-fired bolts.
He was the compleat megalomane, fully acted out. Around his palace he built smaller versions of the stately buildings of those he conquered. To assure his immortal supremacy after death, he’s said to have built an underground model of his entire empire, with rivers that flowed with mercury. It may lie, still unexcavated, in his immense burial mound. The estimated 8,000 larger-than-life terracotta soldiers, officers, chariots and horses are being found in orderly pits in the plain surrounding the mound.
It’s an easy guess the Emperor was familiar with the 13 chapter-lessons of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. He didn’t last, nor did his son. Over the next 2 millennia, through more familiar dynasties, came Taoism, Buddhism, and the beauties and sophistication of the arts seen four years ago at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.
Next: Part 2 – Canada