Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor and His Legacy: Conference Review

It was the 21st August 2011, and Singapore, for one day, was witness to a small one-day long symposium on ancient China. Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor and His Legacy, was a conference organised concurrently with the like-named exhibition, which saw for the first time the treasures of the First Emperor’s tomb on display in Singapore. The exhibition and conference were jointly organised by the Asian Civilisations Museum and the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple at the Ngee Ann Auditorium at the basement of the museum. Seven internationally renowned scholars and researchers were invited to present on topics that really pertained more to the Qin dynasty – its archaeology, civilisation, and historical context – than specifically to the terracotta warriors and the tomb per se.

About fifty people attended the one-day conference, which was introduced and concluded by the Museum’s curator, Dr Alan Chong. He emphasised at the outset the exploratory and probing nature of the talks, and, as always, on the limitlessness nature of historical inquiry. Four of the seven speakers spoke before lunch, on themes mainly concerned with the archaeology and material legacy of the Qin period, while the other three presented on the cultural and spiritual aspects of the ancient Chinese world, from which the Qin had emerged victorious.

1) Dr Frances Wood: History’s Greatest Villain: Examining the Myth of the First Emperor

Dr Wood, who heads the Chinese section at the British Library, presented a paper which was in many ways the most appropriate for opening such a conference. A keen and popular educator, she recounted the history of the Qin emperor, and his achievements, which she considered to be worthy of admiration, rather than the reputation for being a tyrant which popular imagination has accrued. She led the audience through the material achievements of the Qin emperor – his unification of China, through the standardisation of coinage, script, and weights and measures, while noting the more positive voices of such near-contemporaries as Lu Jia and Jia Yi, who wrote in contrast to the harsh critiques of Sima Qian. She noted the role of Han Confucian scholars in vilifying the First Emperor’s reign, with emphasis on the infamous episodes of biblioclasm and pogrom of scholars, while drawing an analogy between him and the English King Richard III, whose reputation in history was immortalised in the eponymous play of Shakespeare, in suggesting a universal human need to create hate-figures. The First Emperor, she says, was such a hate-figure for the Han dynasty.

Part of her broad but incisive talk was the breaking down of the historical divide that has sharply differentiated the cruel, legalistic Qin with the ensuing Confucian, saintly Han dynasty. Qin laws and practices, notably the use of corvee labour, she says, continued almost unchanged under the Han. Such cruelty as alleged on the part of the Qin, as she draws on the legal evidence from bamboo slips, was arguably no more significant than any others in world history.

2) Professor Sun Zhouyang: Tracing the Footsteps of Qin Shihuang’s Ancestors: Archaeological Evidence

The second talk by Professor Sun was on a more sombre and complex issue, but was one which was for all to savour. It dealt with the contentious and intriguing origins of the Qin people, who eventually formed the kingdom that unified China for the first time in its history. Professor Sun identified some nine key sites in the early history of Qin. He thematised the talk with the notion that the Qin ‘originated in the east, but grew up in the west’, tracing quite adroitly the progression of Qin capital cities, from the first at Xichui in Gansu province, through Qinyi, Qianyi, Qianweizhuhui, Pingyang, Yongcheng, Jinyang, Yueyang, and the last at Xianyang, the First Emperor’s capital. He noted in each the distinctive archaeological remains his team has unearthed, highlighting the significance of the finds at Qianyi, where the remains of a palace survived till the Han era. The most impressive and surprising site was Yongcheng, the incredible archaeological wealth of which enrapturing the audience for a good fifteen minutes: city walls, palace complexes, the fourteen mausoleums, and even a giant ancient freezer that had remained intact, providing valuable and fascinating insights into the functioning of a city of the Warring States period before the rise of the Qin – a field which Professor Sun certainly considers to be much unexplored. The most valuable aspect of his talk were the images taken as records of the archaeological work that his team has been conducting. One might have liked to have been more informed about how he discerned the locations of the Qin capitals and made the discoveries in the first place, but overall Professor Sun suggested that a rich field of Chinese archaeology and aspects of Qin history await more future research.

3) Mr Shi Jie: All Merged in One: The First Emperor’s Tumulus

A PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, Mr Shi Jie continued the emphasis of the day on archaeology, by addressing a key question which concerned the First Emperor’s mausoleum – how unique, or consistent with the tradition of tomb construction, was it? Examining tombs from the Eastern Zhou to Han periods he sought their common features, and saw in the First Emperor’s Lishan tumulus mausoleum the synthesis of previously localised traditions, which he names as shrine tombs, and earthen mound tombs. Rising above the squabble of the detailed arguments surrounding aspects of tomb construction, and the terrace buildings surmounting the tumuli of Zhou tombs, was a powerful argument: the Lishan mausoleum of the Qin Emperor was designed as a vivid symbol of the unity he had imposed on China and its varied traditions. Qin Shihuangdi had sought novelty in his titulature (which Shi Jie quite aptly translates as ‘August Thearch’, something more than the typical rendition of ‘Emperor’), and in his most lasting mortuary complex he similarly sought to combine the varying traditions of tomb construction, in a monument that has truly stood the test of time.

4) Professor Nancy S. Steinhardt: Rewriting Chinese Architecture from Qin to Han

Professor Steinhardt, Professor of East Asian Art at the University of Pennsylvania, clarified from the outset that the perception of the history of ancient Chinese architecture changes; that such history has to be rewritten, almost every year – such is the furious rate at which new discoveries are made. Her talk was focussed very much on the Han period, which immediately succeeded the Qin. She began by tracing the persistence of timber frame architecture from its beginnings in the Neolithic age all the way through to the Han and beyond, and examined with exquisite scholarship, the major Han tombs (of which some 20,000, mainly non-aristocratic, have been uncovered), and the forms of architecture and artefacts that have been discovered in them. In the main she sought in the Han the reflections of a mentality that must have dominated the architectural thought of the Qin First Emperor, short as his reign may have been. Her purpose in studying Han city-planning (which, as a cosmological notion, centred the capital Chang’an at the centre of the Chinese universe) and imperial mortuary culture, was to understand what we might find, as she says, ‘if the tomb of the First Emperor were ever opened’. This has yet to happen, but Professor Steinhardt has outlined some of the key features of Qin tomb culture that are likely to be revealed should it ever be opened.

5) Associate Professor Guolong Lai: Religion and Empire in Early China: The Legacy of the Qin and the Chu

After an hour’s lunch break, the program continued with the next three speakers. The first two topics of the talks were conceptually rather more rigorous. Professor Guolong Lai, from the University of Florida, spoke first on the relationship between religion and empire in the Warring States and Qin periods. It was a deductive analysis, based on his research on the Chu bamboo slips (of which some 1600 are at the Shanghai Museum) – specifically, a dialogue between King Jian of Chu and a priest, who forbids him from performing certain ‘strange sacrifices’ (shaji) to save the country from drought. The first half of Professor Lai’s talk dealt with this contentious and sticky problem of strange sacrifices, through inquiries into the linguistic cognate, finally surmising that shajiwould relate to sanji, or ‘inferior sacrifices’. Patiently he examined the larger context, and sought to fit this story within the world of the Warring States, of which Qin was the final victor, which melded religious, spiritual norms with political and military ambitions. He noted the problematic issue of defining what ‘religion’ was in ancient China, and of imposing occidental notions of religion in the study of Warring States beliefs. Professor Lai produced a paradigmatic outline of the process behind the usage of beliefs in support of a political agenda – using Chu’s own conquest of Ju as an example. Professor Lai’s mastery of classical Chinese literature was very evident throughout, with ample quotations from the Confucian classics toZuozhuan in corroboration of his linguistic hypotheses. In all, his talk was most illuminating in demonstrating the way in which new and revolutionary textual discoveries (the Chu bamboo slips) may continue to broaden our understanding of existing topics of academic debates (the role of religion and belief systems in early Chinese polities).

6) Associate Professor Lo Yuet Keung: From a Dual Soul to a unitary Soul: Buddhism and the Transformation of Soul Belief in Han China

The most intellectually rigorous and taxing presentation came from Professor Lo Yuet Kueng of the National University of Singapore. As an expert in early Chinese thought, he carried on in the tone established by Dr Lai in studying early Chinese thought on its own terms. He dealt, however, with a topic that seemed at first to have derived from our understanding of Western religion – the idea of a soul in early China. Although Professor Lo arguably imposed modern psychological conceptions in defining the soul in terms of mental and emotional faculties, he nevertheless discerned in early Chinese literature two terms – hun and po. The latter he finds more prevalent in the north, denoting the mental aspect, while the former, in the south, denoting an emotional aspect. This idea of two conceptions of the soul, hun andpo, would lead one to discover slowly a unified concept (signified by a binome hunpo, which Professor Lo surmised to be indicative of the meaning of hun by the time of the Han, with Wang Yi in the 2nd century AD equating thebinome hunpo with the duality of yin and yang, which was only then an emerging cosmology). Hunpo, or hunqias it was subsequently alternatively known as, was eventually superseded by jingshen, which then re-assumed the emotional aspect of ‘soul’ that hunpo once had. Professor Lo then advanced into the territory of Sino-Buddhism, as he sought the final fusion of this Han concept of soul with the Buddhist notion of vjinana, or ‘consciousness’, which formed one of the key components of Buddhist ideas of reincarnation and the continuance of the soul’s existence. It was a talk that was remarkable, as was Dr Lai’s, for its linguistic mastery, and the depths of the question into which Professor Lo probed. It was, on the other hand, of all the talks probably the one least directly related to the First Emperor’s tomb, although it certainly laid the conceptual and ontological foundations for the others.

7) Carol Michaelson: Luxuries of the Late Zhou, Qin and Han Periods

The final talk, by Carol Michaelson, curator of the Department of Asia at the British Museum and a doyenne of Asian antique enthusiasts, was a welcome and skilful re-living of the vivacity with which the day’s proceedings had begun. In a similar vein to Dr Frances Wood‘s talk, Carol’s presentation provided a substantive overview of the material remains of early China with special emphases on the notions of their luxury and opulence, straddling the late Zhou, Warring States and Qin-Han periods. It was the talk most relevant to the contents of the exhibition with which this conference was associated. She noted in her opening remarks that while the Warring States and ancient Chinese had a predilection for militarism, there existed at the same time rivalries in opulence, among the contending powers. She divided her attention among the various artefacts precious to the Chinese – jade, lacquer, silk by examining in some detail the finds in the tombs of the Marquis of Yi and the Marchioness of Dai. Carol also examined some of the cultural ideas that one might deduce from such artefacts – the thought-world of the aristocracy and its aspirations to Confucian gentry, for instance, or the search for immortality embedded in the elaborate jade body suits of the Han. In all, her presentation was largely more descriptive, and an exhaustive, if only rather brief, overview of the early Chinese culture and art. She was a wonderfully eloquent and entertaining speaker, nonetheless, who draws on detailed and illustrative anecdotes – that Warring states lacquered vessels have inscribed on them the details of production to a man, or that the Marchioness of Dai’s corpse was found still with some traces of skin on it, all contributed to a lively and suitable ending to the conference.


The presentations could have stuck closer to the main theme of the conference, straying slightly from it at times, but on the whole it was a productive day, with the presentation of perspectives of many kinds. Speakers were invited from Western and non-Western backgrounds, to lecture on themes related to the material remains, the state of their accumulation and interpretation, as well as the cultural world that can be discerned from them. Two discussion sessions held – before, and after lunch, that stimulated keen questions, from the complex issue of discerning trends in Han tomb architecture, to the trivial yet no-less important question of how the Marchioness of Dai was able to be preserved in her skin all these years. The talks were thought provoking and entertaining, and all in all proferred a good opportunity to explore the multitude of issues that have arisen out of the single archaeological discovery of the First Emperor’s Mausoleum at Lishan.


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