The NGV International’s 2019 winter masterpiece exhibition Terracotta Warriors: Guardians Of Immortality was concurrently run with an exhibition by modern Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. The contrast between ancient and modern China was brought to life in an original way, that tickled my fascination with ancient Chinese history. It also reminded me about how history repeats.
This wasn’t the first time I had seen these incredible images. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) had hosted the world’s first exhibit outside of China back in 1982. It stands out in my memory as being one of the things that formed my love of archaeology and ancient history.
My memory as a child was that these figures were quite imposing. Not so much this time around — then again, I am taller nowadays. The exhibit itself was quite small, and I was expecting something very different. The key difference this tie however was the contrast with the works that contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang created for the exhibit, titled ‘the transient landscape’.
Instead of a stale display of ancient artefacts, what we got instead was something succinct and poignant. It got me contemplating on what it is about China that intrigues me — and disturbs me.
By far the most important aspect of (ancient) Chinese culture that grips my consciousness is the foundations of their epistemology: that there is nothing stable or constant in this universe. This is the culture that produced the I Ching, and a scientific paradigm that had this civilisation centuries ahead of the rest of the world for almost 4000 years.
Before they fell away
It seemed to matter all the same
But it was only the start
— Steven Wilson
The notion of transience can be found in nearly every aspect of Chinese art and culture. What’s more, the idea of it is nothing other than an observation of natural phenomena. Everything changes. It’s as simple as that.
In Cai’s installation Murmuration, ten thousand porcelain swallows blasted with gunpowder create a swirling movement that resembles traditional Chinese paintings. His idea was that the murmuration of the birds would resemble the undulations of Mount Li, which is thought to be an important geological meridian. Thus it was was considered by Emperor Qin Shihuang as the most auspicious location for his tomb and vast army of terracotta warriors.
Mighty will fall
Holy must rise
Saying it all
As hellfire freezes over
— The Tea Party
The scope of this tomb is truly astounding. Like all good archaeological discoveries, it was found by accident. Historically, it had been recorded that Qin Shihuang (259‒210 BCE) had built a large tomb (he had started building it before he became Emperor), but it wasn’t until it was discovered in 1974 that the scope of it was known.
An estimated 8000+ figures, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses, as well as uncountable ‘non-military personnel’ buried in three pits over approximately 98 square kilometres (38 square miles). These ‘guardians of immortality’ stood before his mausoleum, ready to defend their Emperor even in the afterlife.
Qin Shihuang became the first Emperor after his army defeated all the other states in China in 221 BCE, and unified all the various kingdoms that were vassal-states under Zhou Dynasty rule.
This period of ‘unification’ came at a cost however. Under Qin rule, everything became standardised: currency, weights & measures, language & writing, and education. A large, monolithic Imperial bureaucracy was created, and a strict rule of law was implemented. In short, it was an autocratic dictatorship that sought to consolidate power through the active persecution against scholars, artists, philosophers, scientists, or anyone intelligent enough to voice dissent.
Nothing lasts forever
The dynasty was short-lived however, with civil uprisings after Qin Shihuang’s death in 209 BCE, with the Han Dynasty eventually taking the throne three years later. While they maintained much of the status quo, the Han Emperor’s did not treat the people harshly, nor did they act out ‘culture wars’ against scholars. The Han times are the ‘classical period’ in Chinese history, with a great flourishing of art, culture, literature, scientific and technological discovery over four centuries.
In many respects, this period in China paralleled what was occurring in the West (Athens and Rome) at the same time. In time, the Han Dynasty also came to an end, and for the next two thousand years China experienced alternating periods of disunity and unification. Their political history emulates the ancient idea of transience and change.
Given this was a culture founded on the paradigm that everything changes, the fascination with immortality is uncharacteristic. How is it that kings, emperors, and aristocrats were so obsessed with living as long as possible? How is it that they could not accept the change that comes with maturation and death?
Qin Shihuang’s tomb and his guardians of immortality are a testament to the palpable human desire to live forever. The development of Chinese herbal medicine, the 養生 Yǎng Shēng practices, martial arts and meditation, and Taoist alchemy all emerged out of the centuries-long project to find the keys to longevity. It seems paradoxical — but then, that too was a cornerstone of the ancient Chinese paradigm.
You and I are going to live forever
Time after time
Qin Shihuang’s reign has significant parallels with both Adolf Hitler’s and Mao Zedong’s. This week, China celebrated 70 years of Communist Party rule; at the same time, the people of Hong Kong took to the streets to protest against China’s autocratic rule, seeking the democracy they were promised: yīn and yáng.
I can’t help but see the parallels between the Qin Dynasty and Maoist China. More-so, I can’t help but feel that the state of our global civilisation seems to be going along similar routes to what was happening in the two centuries preceding Qin Shihuang’s domination and ‘unification’ (read: homogenisation).
All these kinds of regimes are obsessed with their own historical importance. Their coming into power is always framed as an initiation for an eternal empire (e.g., Hitler’s ‘thousand year Reich’). The megalomania of these leaders always ushers in a time of darkness. There is no room for dissenting opinions; anything that promotes independent thought is literally burned; and culture becomes sanitised, mediocre, and pushing the ‘party line’. They all like to create their own ‘guardians of immortality’.
Is our world heading in the same direction?
My fear is that it will; my hope is that it won’t.
I cannot stop the thought I'm running in the dark
— Pearl Jam
Here’s the thing though: if we look at history to see the cycles repeating, and see that we may be heading towards a time that brings someone like Qin Shihuang into power globally, then we also can trust that the cycle will shift yet again and see their downfall, and the ushering in of (yet another) renaissance of art, culture, science, and technology.
We’ve also learned a lot in the past few thousand years. Whilst the development of civilisation in the West has gone down a different path, we can look to the example of what happened in China to understand what may happen, what may not happen, and how we can act to preserve our way of life and prevent the unspeakable horrors that accompany despotism.
We may well be reflections of what has occurred in the past, but we don’t need to completely surrender to the tides of history.
We can be our own guardians of immortality; at the very least, we can trust in transience.
It's been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
— Sam Cooke