The Celestial Empire

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The first traces of geographically stable cultures in today's China are located on the banks of the Yellow River and can be dated from about the year 2800 BC. The first imperial period, however, is that of the Xia (c. 2100-1600 BC) and Shang (c. 1600-1000 BC) dynasties, whose capitals were in the Valley of Henan. To this period belongs also the first evidence of a Chinese astronomy, such as, for example, the first recording ever of a solar eclipse. This information was discovered in a strange way. In 1899 an army officer, Wang Yirong, intrigued by a medicine called "dragon bones,'' which was suggested by a healer from the Henan province, discovered that the bones were very ancient turtle shells, with carved inscriptions, found in digging excavations near Xiaotun, home of the Shang capital during the second millennium BC.

These shells were used for divinations; a question was written on them and then the inner part was punctured and placed over a heat source. According to the cracks produced on the outer part of the shell, the diviner made his predictions, which were later recorded on the same shell, together with the date. Often, the success or failure of the prediction was also recorded, together with important celestial events that happened in the meanwhile, such as eclipses.

The Shang were followed by the Zhou (1000-221 BC). Under the Zhou dynasty the imperial domain expanded toward the north, beyond the Yangtze River, and the celestial foundation of the emperor's power acquired its definitive form. The emperor, the ""son of the sky,'' was considered responsible for the cosmic order, while the temporal power was in the hands of a feudal bureaucratic structure, and the effective control of the territory was ceded to local families. Due to fragmentation and internal fights, however, the imperial power steadily decreased, and between the fourth and the second century BC, China fell into a constant state of war between small states, each one trying to affirm his hegemony. Finally, in the year 221 BC, the king Qin managed to unify the country and to proclaim himself emperor.

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Figure 5.5: The mausoleum of Qin: 1—The three Warrior's pits discovered so far 2—external wall 3—internal wall 4—tumulus

Under Qin, China established firm borders, and Qin himself accelerated the construction of one of the greatest and most visionary structures in the history of mankind: the Great Wall, which is over 5000 kilometers long. When Qin died in 210 BC, the empire was taken over by the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD); during its reign, Confucianism, which was previously opposed, became the state religion, and Chinese written history began with the work of a historian named Sima Qian.

Emperor Qin was one of the key figures in Chinese history, and his name is indissolubly linked to one of the most fascinating discoveries in the history of archaeology. In Lintong, 35 kilometers east of Xian, in a spectacular position between the Wei River and Mount Lishan, there is a hill that is 76 meters tall. According to ancient tradition, the landscape of the area, when seen from above, recalls the profile of a dragon, with the hill as the eye. It has been known for ages that the eye of the dragon is not a natural hill but rather the funerary tumulus, as well as the ideal center, of the gigantic funerary complex of Emperor Qin. The tumulus, with a square base almost 500 meters wide, is one of the largest ever built on our planet, and it was once probably much higher than it is now. Even though archaeologists knew that this was a funerary complex, no one ever wanted to or was able to excavate its interior, and legend states that it is guarded by gigantic stone animals. Sima Qian described the interior as a true palace buried in the hill, full of traps and pitfalls. According to him, in the central chamber there is a lake of mercury upon which the bronze coffin of the emperor floats. Sima Qian also stated that a ceiling studded with precious stones reproduces the starry sky, and this assertion is reasonable because we have many wonderful ceilings frescoed with a starry sky in tombs of the Han and of the following dynasties.

But what is really hidden inside the structure is a mystery. Anyway, Sima Qian chose not to mention another spectacular element of the Qin complex—something that, on the day of its discovery in the spring of 1974, made reality so much greater than any fantasy regarding the content of the tomb.

The area of the Qin tumulus is not isolated: the whole Xian Valley is a gigantic sepulcher in which emperors and nobles were buried, often inside huge mounds that are scattered in the fields and are visible today. As a consequence, farmers are used to finding here and there pieces of ancient pottery or of stone sculptures. So on that spring day in 1974, when a farmer came upon the terra cotta head of a statue, he was not surprised. And after the first statue a second one appeared. And then another, and another (Plate 11).

The statues were arranged in a tunnel (today called pit 1) that was 210 meters long, 60 meters large, and made of nine parallel corridors 3 meters wide (later two more of these pits were discovered). The term pit is imprecise, as the floor was tiled and the ceiling was made of pine logs and waterproof plastered, and the whole thing was carefully buried about 1 Vi meters deep. The corridors of pit 1 contain about eight thousand heavy terra cotta statues in life-size scale (actually slightly larger than life size) representing the imperial army's privates, archers, officers, carts, and horses (or it may be more appropriate to say all the privates, all the archers, etc.). The pits discovered later contain statues as well: in pit 2 there are 2999 soldiers, two officers, 116 horses, and 89 carts, while in pit 3 there are 69 soldiers and a cart, probably that of the main officer (Portal 2007).

The statues show a variety of expressions and clothes; their heads could be exchanged and were sculptured and baked separately, to be then inserted in a special cavity in the neck. The terra cotta Qin army figures look dressed for combat, except that they have no weapons. But large quantities of bronze weapons, especially arrows, have been found in the eastern corner of pit 1. The corridors look as if they were previously explored, and maybe on that occasion the weapons were removed, possibly during a rebellion that occurred in 206 BC (there were signs of vandalism everywhere when the warriors were first discovered), and so we cannot be sure if the army was originally "armed" or not.

To accomplish such a gigantic project of burying an entire replica of his army together with him, Qin would have needed to mobilize several thousand trained workers. The statues are very heavy (some weighing hundreds of kilos each) and were backed in special workshops using a delicate and long process (that took 5 days), which the archaeology experimenters of today have found hard to reproduce. These workshops were outside the funerary complex, so each statue had to be packed, carried down into the tunnel, and placed in its final location based on the actual layout of the army in the field.

The discoveries in the mausoleum area show the close links of the tomb with the celestial order. For instance, the funerary complex, which might be more appropriately called a funerary city, since its external perimeter was 12 kilometers long, was made of three citadels, one inside the other; the innermost one, with a square base, hosts the tumulus, which was built on three levels. The inspiring principle of all this is the idea of cosmic order among Earth, humans, and the sky, with in its center being Qin, who proclaimed himself as the keeper of such an order. Thus the whole complex was strictly oriented to the cardinal points, the tunnels with the terra cotta army being no exception. For some unknown reason, however, the tunnels of the army are not in front of the complex, which seems to be on the northern side, and do not surround it as a whole; the pits are indeed located on the eastern side of the mausoleum. This fact suggests that maybe the east was reserved for the soldiers (and maybe also for the terra cotta material), and that the other jobs of the emperor's entourage as well as other materials could be associated with the other cardinal points. The idea, therefore, is that Qin wanted with him more than just a replica of his army. On the west side of the mausoleum a sample excavation discovered a pit containing two bronze sculpture groups. One represents a warrior driving a four-horsed chariot, while the other is a kind of carriage or wagon driven by a sitting postilion and pulled by four horses (it could be the representation of the transport of the king's coffin, but the wagon is empty). Being only a small trial excavation, it gives us an idea of what a future study of the mausoleum could reveal.

Qin's successors, the emperors of the Han dynasty, had themselves buried in large funerary barrows, most of them still to be excavated. It is certain that many emperors after Qin, such as Jing Di (141 BC) for instance, tried to follow his path and were buried with terra cotta armies, not of life-size scale but rather composed by miniatures, about 50 centimeters high. The archaeoastronomical study of the funerary complexes of the Hans is just beginning but already is proving to be very interesting and complex. For instance, the funerary barrow of the emperor Wen (154 BC), which is of rectangular shape, is reported to be aligned so that the diagonals point toward the minor north and south lunar standstills (Tiede 1979).

The history of Chinese astronomy in ancient times, from the Han dynasty on, is very interesting. For instance, it contains the only written document regarding the explosion of a supernova in 1054 AD, a spectacular phenomenon that created what is today known as the Crab Nebula (see Chapter 7). However, to investigate the history of Chinese astronomy any further is beyond the scope of this book. Instead, we move further east.

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