Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 27, 2017
Liu Yang, ed. Beyond the First Emperor's Mausoleum: New Perspectives on Qin Art Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2015. 252 pp.; 200  color ills. Paper $49.95 (9780989371865)

The terracotta army pits of the First Emperor’s (r. 221–210 BCE) mausoleum in China remain one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century; yet the story of the First Emperor, his tomb, and the rise of the Qin state did not end with that excavation. Instead, continuous archaeological activity in Shaanxi and Gansu Provinces has brought to light new sites, artifacts, and texts that have radically changed our understanding of the Qin state and its dramatic climb to power during the third century BCE. Beyond the First Emperor’s Mausoleum: New Perspectives on Qin Art, edited by Liu Yang, consists of papers presented at a symposium that accompanied the China’s Terracotta Warriors exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) in the fall of 2012, and presents a wide array of new research related to the Qin state from the eighth century to the third century BCE. The volume takes an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together art historians, archaeologists, and historians to shed light on a host of issues.

One of the challenges in assembling a conference volume that deals with artifacts dating to such a broad time span is ensuring that its chapters speak to one another as parts of a coherent whole. This concern is heightened when the volume’s authors hold such a diverse array of disciplinary perspectives. Inevitably, perhaps, this volume struggles to achieve a sense of monographic unity; in particular, the second and third sections bring together essays that seem to have little relationship to one another. Oddly, essays that seem to have much in common are placed in different sections. As a result, in this review I will address the chapters not in the order in which they are placed in the volume, but rather based on themes that they share.

The first theme addressed by the volume is that of how to define the Qin artistic tradition. Qin tombs, as noted by Alain Thote, feature “many objects produced in other principalities,” making it difficult to define a distinctive Qin artistic tradition (17). Despite this impediment, Thote still attempts to trace the development of a Qin style of decoration from the eighth century BCE to the death of the First Emperor in 210 BCE. He concludes that “several different traditions seem to have blended with the ultimate result of an artistic domination over the territories conquered by Qin Shihuangdi” (14).

Liu’s essay takes a different approach, documenting the artistic impact of the movement of vessels into Qin from other states such as Jin and Chu. The acquisition of bronzes made outside of Qin, he argues, became acute during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) when Shang Yang (390–338 BCE) opened up the state and newly emerging military aristocrats obtained them through trade and warfare. This strongly impacted Qin bronze-making. Even after Shang’s reforms, when bronze production was “quite firmly controlled by the state,” the nobles still commissioned bronzes that strongly followed the leading fashions of other states (185).

Secondly, the volume addresses the theme of the ideologies that were conveyed by Qin art and architecture. Martin Powers seeks to explain why the naturalistic style suddenly became popular during the Qin. He contends that this approach was selected because it meshed well with a political administration that operated on the basis of a “rational system of verification” (40). The Qin bureaucracy judged individuals on the basis of their execution of specific duties rather than on their birth (32). The art commissioned by this administration, then, focused on presenting verification for the claims made by the emperor—in particular, the claim that the emperor possessed a “mighty army” that was formed of men selected based on their individual talents rather than heredity (40). Lest readers accuse him of Winckelmannian proclivities, Powers explains that he does not mean to argue that rational political systems cause rational art. He instead argues that “naturalistic style was well adapted to the Qin understanding of how we determine what we know” (35).

David Pankenier’s essay outlines the cosmological ideologies conveyed by the Qin imperial city at Xianyang. Pankenier proposes that the First Emperor designed Xianyang as a “simulacrum of the heavens” and as the “Cosmic Center” of the empire (53). He shows how the First Emperor reoriented the Zhou scheme of astral-terrestrial correspondence so that the Wei River replaced the Yellow River as the analogue of the Sky River (Milky Way). He details how specific palaces, tomb mounds, and monuments were all designed with respect to this reference point.

Eugene Wang proposes a new conceptual scheme for the First Emperor’s Mausoleum based on his reading of the enigmatic Pit K9901, which is also dubbed “the acrobats’ pit.” Because Wang was my graduate school mentor, I will leave Wang’s essay for others to evaluate.

A third theme in the book is that of how new data from archaeology can be used to inform our understanding of accounts of the Qin in textual sources. For example, Anthony Barbieri-Low evaluates the Han historian Sima Qian’s (145–ca. 90 BCE) account of the First Emperor’s tomb in light of recent archaeology. Questioning various details of Sima’s account, he paints his description as highly fantastical, provocatively contending that except for passages based on legend and official government documents, Sima’s version “likely sprang from his imagination” (101). He argues that Sima’s description incited a long tradition of wild imaginative retellings by later authors such as Wang Jia and Victor Segalen, whose tales of the tomb Barbieri-Low outlines in great detail.

Kuang Yu Chen focuses specifically on the rivers of mercury that Sima claims flowed through the First Emperor’s tomb. Kuang outlines how mercury and cinnabar, the ore from which mercury was derived, were used and processed in ancient China. He paints a picture of intensive demand for cinnabar ore and uses archaeological data to estimate the total quantity of mercury used in the First Emperor’s underground palace: twenty-two tons (151). This quantity, he notes, is astonishing, particularly since world mercury production in 2008 was only 1,320 tons (154). However, the mercury surveys upon which he relies do not measure the amount of mercury on the tomb floor, but only the amount of mercury that “evaporated, diffused, and created an uneven imprint in the mound soils at the opening,” rendering the estimate highly speculative (151).

The last essay to address recent archaeological finds is Edward Shaughnessy’s fascinating study of dating conventions in newly excavated annalistic texts. He reveals that many Warring States period annalistic texts such as the Biannianji, discovered in the third-century BCE Shuihudi tomb, can be divided into two parts: first, a list of years keyed to major state events; and second, a personal record of events in the life of a member of the local elite, typically added by that person. Since the great events used to mark years are often referenced identically in different sources, this indicates that great events were likely used as a dating method in the Zhou. It is likely that a central “command document” was kept at the capital where the years and dates of significant occasions were recorded. Official state record keeping likely began as early as the Western Zhou period.

The volume’s final two essays comprise its last and most cohesive section and focus on how Qin’s interaction with northern and western pastoral tribes impacted their cultural products. Jenny So’s essay focuses on the “foreign” elements within the Qin artistic tradition, arguing that the Qin acquired a taste for gold, inlaid objects, belt ornaments and plaques, spacer beads, and even naturalistic, life-size bronze sculpture through contact with Steppe peoples. Her essay also details the metallurgy techniques that the Qin acquired from contact with the Steppe, such as sheet-gold working, tinning, chroming, etc.

Wang Hui reports on the stunning finds from the fifty-nine graves of the Majiayuan cemetery in Gansu province, located in the southern part of the Northern Steppe near “the western edge of pre-imperial Qin territory” (198). Large tombs in the graveyard contained an impressive number of gold and silver items including pectorals, wide-cuff bracelets, and cast-plaque belts. The chariots placed in such tombs were also extravagant, featuring fine gold and silver ornamentation. Wang proposes that the graveyard belonged to a branch of the Xirong people, who traded heavily with the Qin and possibly other cultures such as the Scythians. The essay is a relevant and valuable contribution to the book, though its value is diminished by its paucity of citations.

Beyond the First Emperor’s Mausoleum is a stimulating work that highlights current research trends in the study of the First Emperor’s tomb. It reveals the degree to which new finds related to the Qin state provide fresh avenues for research and alter current understandings of China’s first unified empire. Scholars of early Chinese art, history, and archaeology will certainly benefit from this volume.

Allison Miller
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Southwestern University