The terracotta army

June 22, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog

Today I visited the amazing terracotta army near Xian, China, which they bill as the eighth wonder of the world.

I also had some geeky fun you might enjoy reading about after the pictures.

I haven’t read the Wikipedia page on it yet, but from what I understood from I understood from our guide, who didn’t speak English so my co-worker had to translate, an emperor about 2,200 years ago had an army of about 2,000 life-size terracotta warriors, horses, chariots, and more made, which he buried with himself when he died. As best I could tell, in the intervening 2,200 years, nobody knew it was there.

A farmer found some sign of it while digging a well in 1974. Archeologists dug up the rest. I’m not sure how that fit with China’s Great Leap Forward.

Anyway, it’s amazing. Who could believe someone would put so much work into it? Each figure is unique. It makes you wonder about the power and superstitions someone would have to create it. Did a leader motivate people to do it? If so, did they do it unwillingly, like it was a big tax on society? Or did he inspire them, so everyone loved contributing? Or something else?

I couldn’t help recalling Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of my favorite poems (probably because I understand it). For some reason, thinking of the poem at the site choked me up. Probably something about recognizing our collective mortality.


I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Anyway, here are some pictures of the terracotta army. Afterward my geeky stories.

Exhibit exhibit

The museum mostly presented and gave background on the terracotta warriors. It also had an exhibit on the museum itself. Geeks love meta and recursion (at least I do), which a museum exhibiting on itself does.

In particular, why not have an exhibit on the exhibit on the museum? Terracotta warrior armies are rare, so of course they deserve a museum. Museums, on the other hand, are common, so an exhibit on one isn’t that special. But exhibits on museums are rare, so it seems to me it would warrant an exhibit more than the museum would.

In other words, by this logic they should have an exhibition exhibition.

Whether they should then make an exhibition exhibition exhibition or where they should stop I leave for you to figure out.

Wikipedia Wikipedia

I told my coworker, who is Chinese, that I would look up about the army on Wikipedia that night. She asked what Wikipedia was. I couldn’t believe someone wouldn’t know about the site. Even with the government censoring some of it, it’s still so useful I’d expect people would know it.

Anyway, when I was trying to describe it I actually caught myself saying “just look it up on Wikipedia!”

Lost in Translation

As I mentioned, our guide didn’t speak English so my coworker had to translate for me. Over and over the guide would talk for minutes at a time. Then my coworker would say something like “The figures are hollow” with no explanation or hint of irony about how minutes of Chinese could be reduced to a few words. It was hilarious. I wonder what I missed.

I’d put a link to Bill Murray’s scene in Lost in Translation, but China blocks YouTube.

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1 response to “The terracotta army

  1. Pingback: Xian! » Joshua Spodek

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