Innovations and Creativity in Ancient Qin: Symposium Review

Early on a quiet Saturday morning the symposium Innovations and Creativity in Ancient Qin began at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It was held in conjunction with the Art Gallery’s significant exhibition The First Emperor: China’s entombed warriors, and organised jointly by the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the University of Sydney.

The session was attended by approximately 100 people; from a variety of backgrounds, members of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, academics in the field and members of the public with an interest in Chinese History.

As the symposium was held in conjunction with the Art Gallery’s First Emperor exhibition containing a number of Qin Shihuangdi’s terracotta warriors, the symposium was an attempt to help promote awareness of an interest in the study of Chinese history, while also bringing together academics from the field. Overall it mirrored the exhibition’s emphasis on Qin archaeology and artefacts.

Day One

Day one of the symposium was held in the Art Gallery of New South Wales Domain Theatre, a large lecture hall with tiered seating, which enabled all attendees a good view. The first day of the symposium allowed the attendees a treasured first viewing of the First Emperor Exhibition. With the darkened, intimate and silent rooms the exhibition items were viewed with intense interest and each marvelled at the terracotta warriors. Their proximity and their impressive size left an impression on all, even seasoned academics. Later in the day remarks were made on the quality, variety and significance of the objects contained in the exhibition. It was certainly an inspiring beginning to the first day.

Art Gallery of New South Wales Director Edmund Capon introduced the exhibition and the symposium with a discussion of Naturalism, Realism or Symbolism in the Art of Qin. Dr Capon gave a context and a framework to the discovery of the terracotta warriors, the sudden strangeness of their discovery in 1974. He also highlighted the apparent realism of the figures. It was a realism, he said, that marked a deviation from prior Warring States, Spring and Autumn and Bronze Age Chinese imagery of humans. Previous human representations had been largely symbolic and ritualistic. He did not however explore the question of the relativity of realism. The size and detail, however, of the warriors would perhaps render discussion of realism as relative somewhat a semantic question. Dr Capon discussed the number of stereotyped styles of terracotta warrior, and remarked that the types in many ways may have been used to communicate Qin hierarchy. This was certainly something borne out in the attendees’ own observation of the size of the Qin General in comparison to his underlings. The General was taller, plumper, and generally more impressive while his soldiers were thinner and shorter. Dr Capon also remarked that there was no move in the Han dynasty to replicate the realism or the scale of the First Emperors undertaking, highlighting the unique nature of the figures.

Senior Curator of Chinese Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Liu Yang next gave a lecture on Inheritance and Innovation: Recent Discoveries in the archaeology of the Qin in Shaanxi with a focus on an archaeological perspective of Qin Art. Dr Liu’s lecture discussed the continuity between Qin practice and examples of the earlier Warring States period, particularly with the Western Zhou and its kings. A key example he used was the proliferation of the serpent design, a western Zhou design which the Qin further developed. Moreover, the Shang dynastic practice of burying individuals with horses and chariots also continued with the Qin. Overall he argued that the changes in material, style and composition techniques of many artefacts did not mark a lack of continuity between the Qin and its predecessors.

Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology at Merton College, Oxford University Jessica Rawson gave a lecture entitled Creating Universes: manufacturing the afterlife for the first emperor and that of his successors in the Han period. Dr Rawson focussed on Qin perceptions of the universe and specifically the Qin conceptual universe. Viewing Qin Shihuangdi’s mausoleum as a model universe was an interesting approach and indeed one which, as Dr Rawson pointed out, was corroborated by Sima Qian’s history. The burial site can be viewed as a model of the world, revealing a need to recreate the world for the dead and the ancestors. While the Qin example had its precedents in smaller and more in the style of vertical pits, Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb went above and beyond all others before it. The tombs of the successors of the Qin, the Han dynasty, also incorporated world-models in their tombs, as Dr Rawson demonstrated by her discussion of the carved mountain tombs of the Western Han Princes.

Professor in the Department of Archaeology in Northwest University, Xian Dr Duan Qingbo gave a Report on Archaeological research of the Qin Shihuang mausoleum precinct, 1999-2003. Dr Duan disputed the long-held belief that the mausoleum complex was a long and labour intensive building project. Although Sima Qian states that the complex took 40 years to build, Dr Duan outlined that their recent studies suggested a much shorter 3-4 years building time, which must have begun after the Qin unification. That Sima Qian should have been in error on this point, writing in the later former Han dynasty, might be due to the anti Qin sentiments that proliferated after the Qin dynasty’s demise. Interestingly, Dr Duan outlined that the 180 pits found in the Qin Emperor’s mausoleum are now believed to represent the political institutions of the Qin dynasty. While much emphasis had been traditionally lain on the militaristic elements of Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb (indeed the Art Gallery exhibition also focuses on this) Dr Duan discussed the sculptures of acrobats, which had also been discovered along with the civil servant figures uncovered. Another pit contained birds and water pools, and another images of what might be elderly individuals of musicians. Dr Duan went some way to redressing the traditional focus on the militaristic aspects of the Qin as exemplified in the First Emperor’s Tomb.

Professor of Chinese Art History, University of California, Los Angeles, Dr Lothan von Falkenhausen gave a lecture entitledArchaeological Perspectives of the Qin unification of China. Dr Falkenhausen sought to correct the popular view of the Qin as sudden unifiers of China. There had been, he said, a long standing political heritage of unification. Prior to the Qin dynasty China was culturally and politically unified, with coinage being interchangeable, and although different scripts existed there was a common language which mediated the problem of different script styles. It was specifically the Zhou system which engendered the ideology of unification. Dr Falkenhausen maintained that the Qin were in many ways the imitators and the successors of the Zhou. The Qin bronzes were a homage to the Zhou; Qin inscriptions mirrored Zhou inscriptions. The Qin according to Dr Falkenhausen saw themselves as the Zhou of their own time, an ambition which had emerged in the Qin state long before they defeated their colleague states and unified China. Indeed, considering the Warring States period after the Zhou Dynasty, the Qin unification, Dr Falkenhausen argued, was rather a reunification.

Day Two

Day two of the symposium was held at the New Law School Theatre in the University of Sydney. This was a very modern, spacious and impressive venue for the second day of the symposium. Professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian Languages at Stanford University Albert Dien gave a lecture on The Qin Military and the place of arms and armour in Qin culture. Dr Dien outlined the progressive improvements in military arms and armour, with the Zhou taking over the developments of the Shang, enabling their success. The Zhou’s parcelling out of land to relatives, however, decentralised power; Dr Dien outlined that this enabled the federation style political system of the Spring and Autumn period. Also, the development of the crossbow had an enormous impact on the military and led to the decline of the chariot and the elite warriors who used them. In their place the crossbow enabled extended range, while the user did not require the same level of training. Furthermore, as the professional soldier emerged, states required increased resources to support ever increasingly large armies. Dr Dien agreed with Dr Falkenhausen that the Qin were the successors and imitators of the Zhou.

Professor of Chinese and head of the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sydney, Jeffrey Riegel presented a lecture entitled Five decisive events in the rise of the state of Qin. Dr Riegel outlined these five factors which enabled Qin success and ultimate domination of the other Chinese States:

  • The move of the Qin capital from eastern Gansu province to ancient Yong in Shaanxi. The shifting of the capital east meant it held a more central position.
  • The reign of Duke of Mu of Qin; 659 – 621 BC during which time the Qin State gained the upper hand in a long time competition with the state of Jin.
  • Qin conquest of Shu and Ba in the 4th Century BC territorial expansion which increased the territory and strength of the Qin State.
  • Shang Yang and Fan Ju’s political and social changes, economic and agricultural reforms and the establishment of military titles based on merit.
  • The rise of Lu Buwei and the establishment of the Qin Academy and bureaucracy in the 3rd Century BC.

Professor of Chinese History in the Department of History McGill University, Robin D.S. Yates discussed Qin law and its legacy: family law in the early Chinese dynasties. Dr Yates began with the sobering thought that the cruelty of the Qin was the source of the rebellion of Liu Bang and the early demise of the Qin dynasty. Although the Han largely based their laws on the Qin predecessors as Dr Yates highlighted, several particularly harsh punishments were abolished, most notably that where 3 sets of a criminal’s relatives were killed. Dr Yates also outlined newly discovered Han legal texts in tombs which have permitted further research and analysis. One element of investigation has been the importance in Han law of filial piety and the punishment of intra-family crimes, something originating under the Qin but further embraced by the Han dynasty. An interesting element was the encouragement the state gave to families establishing separate nuclear households instead of single multi-generational ones. The small nuclear family unit was the basis of society and state under the Qin and Han.

Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and cultures at Stanford University Liu Li presented Food for the ancestors of the Qin: evidence from starch on pottery vessels. It was an in-depth study of food remnants that revealed what food people in the Qin dynasty were consuming and using for ritualistic purposes. Various types of millet dominated, according to Dr Liu, although food for the living and for the dead varied.

Professor at the Graduate Institute of Art History at the National University of Taiwan Chen Fang-Mei delivered a lecture entitled The buckles of the Taerpo Graveyard: Belt ornaments for the afterlife of the Xianyang citizenry. An examination conducted by Dr Chen revealed three belt buckle types among the terracotta warriors. Belt buckles could themselves reveal the status of individuals, serving as indicators of wealth long after clothing has decayed. The more expensive buckles an individual was buried with, the larger was the number of grave goods which accompanied them. Dr Chen also outlined that the continuity and similarity between belt buckles from different regions were evidence for cultural homogeneity throughout the Qin territory.


Innovations and Creativity in Ancient Qin was a successful symposium and a brilliant occasion for academics and others with an interest in Chinese History. A great variety of highly qualified individuals presented on a good range of informative topics close to their hearts. Overall the symposium, in conjunction with the exhibition The First Emperor: China’s Entombed Warriors, served as another building-block in the ever growing house of interest and research into Chinese History in Australia.


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