Introduction: The Warring States period, the Qin dynasty and the Terracotta army.
Beginning ca. 481 B.C.E. to 403 B.C.E., the Warring States period was characterized by warfare as well as by its bureaucratic and military reforms and consolidation. Within the context of Chinese history, it followed the Spring and Autumn period and ended with the Qin wars of conquest that annexed all the other contender states, a situation that ultimately led to the victory of the Qin state in 221 B.C.E. thus consolidating the first unified Chinese empire known as the Qin dynasty.
Thus, the Qin dynasty consolidated as the first dynasty of Imperial China lasting from 221 to 206 B.C.E. This dynasty was founded by Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of Qin. During the mid and late third century B.C.E., the Qin state led a series of steady conquests resulting in the defeat of the powerless Zhou dynasty and eventually conquering the other six of the Seven Warring States. Although the Qin dynasty lasted only 15 years, the shortest major dynasty in Chinese history, and was ruled only by two emperors, it inaugurated an imperial system that lasted roughly from 221 B.C.E. until 1912 A.D. The goal of the Qin was to create a state unified by an structured and centralized political power and a large military supported by a stable economy. With these objectives, the Qin introduced several important reforms including a standardized currency, weights, measures, and a uniform system of writing, which aimed to unify the state and promote commerce. In spite of its short reign, the Qin dynasty greatly influenced the future of China, particularly the following Han dynasty, and it is thought that its name served as the origin of the European name for China.
A monumental, impressive and lasting artistic legacy of the Qin dynasty is the famous Terracotta Army, a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of emperor Qin Shi Huang. These sculptural group was a type of funerary art buried along with the emperor in 210–209 B.C.E. with the purpose of protecting him in his afterlife, a kind of microcosm representing the emperor’s imperial palace and entourage. This monumental ensemble was recently discovered in 1974 by local farmers in Lintong County (Xi’an, Shaanxi, China). The terracotta figures date from approximately the late third century B.C.E. and vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures also include warriors, chariots, horses, officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians. It has been estimated that the three pits containing the Terracotta Army held more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses, most of which still remain buried near Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum, and in total, the whole necropolis is thought to occupy and area of 98 square kilometers (38 square miles).
The terracotta figures are life-sized and vary in height, uniform, and hairstyle in accordance with their rank. Their faces appear to be different for each individual figure, but scholars have identified 10 basic face shapes. Originally, the figures were painted using ground precious stones: intensely fired bones (for white), iron oxide (dark red), cinnabar (red), malachite (green), azurite (blue), charcoal (black), a mix of cinnabar barium copper silicate (purple), tree sap extracted from the Chinese lacquer tree (brown), and various other colors including pink and lilac. The figures were manufactured in workshops by government laborers and local craftsmen using local materials. Heads, arms, legs, and torsos were created separately and then assembled together mirroring what we now know as an assembly line production, with specific parts manufactured and assembled after being fired, as opposed to crafting and firing individual pieces. When completed, the figures were placed in the pits in precise military formation according to rank and duty.
The Han, Wei and Tsi Dynasties
All the essential characteristics typically associated with Chinese art are featured in the artistic production of the Han period (2nd century B.C.E. – 220 A.D.). Portraiture was important, the sculpture focused in producing mostly bronze figurines featuring great dynamism in their attitudes, while on the walls of some burial chambers artists portrayed human silhouettes in crowded scenes or symbols such as those representing the cardinal points: the White Tiger of the West (Autumn), the Azure Dragon of the East (Spring), the Vermilion Bird of the South (Summer), the Black Tortoise or Black Warrior of the North (Winter), they all appeared engraved in flat relief on a dotted chiseled background. Pottery also experienced great developments and was covered with a plumbiferous* varnish and lacquered ornamentation. Some pieces made in jade are now considered masterpieces that show both an amazing technical mastery and the total conquest of a particular style (see for example the famous green horse of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London).
Nothing is left from the architecture of the Han period except for the general layout of the monumental tombs, a model that was destined to be perpetuated throughout the history of China. This type of monumental tombs was preceded by the “road of the dead” lined with large zoomorphic sculptures. In China there are very few remains of ancient buildings. Nothing is left from the times of the Pantheon of Rome or of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and there are very few constructions contemporary to the cathedral of Burgos. However, from the study of the small models found in tombs it is possible to reconstruct the general appearance of the houses of that time: the walls were slightly widened at the base, with wide openings (like windows) supported either by pilasters or wood columns with footings, with tile-covered roofs decorated with finials in the shape of birds or other decorative animals. This is already the model of the typical Chinese house.
When the Han dynasty fell in the year 220, the Empire plunged into anarchy and later, from the end of the fourth century and during two hundred years, China was split into two with the North dominated by foreign lineages (the Northern Wei who ruled the north of China from 386 to 534 A.D., and the Tsi who ruled beginning in the sixth century).
This was an intermediate period with profound historical consequences. The aristocracy and the old cultural traditions took then refuge in the South, where Taoism (with its inclination to mystical individualism) tended to replace the Confucian morality. Groups of scholars like that of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, who preferred to live in solitude meditating on philosophy or aesthetics, portray the prevailing restlessness of those times. These circumstances ended up favoring the spread of Buddhism already solidly introduced in the North. From the first century this new religion had spread from Gandhara and the State of the Kushana through the current Chinese Turkestan, an area that consequently became the focal point of Buddhist religious as well as artistic practices. These focal areas included the shrine of Bamyan (II-III centuries) important in the cultural connection between Persia, India and China, whose large open-air sculptures were inspired by the Greco-Buddhist’s of Gandhara and that in turn served as a model for the Chinese Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of another important focal area that included the numerous grottoes of Yungang (Shanxi) with their colossal rock Buddha carved during the time of the Northern Wei in the second half of the fifth century. Soon the Buddha iconography was adapted to the Chinese idiosyncrasy and the Hellenizing types derived from the school of Gandhara were followed by more slender representations with the bodies completely wrapped in the folds of their long and wide robes, with elongated faces and high cheekbones, almost closed eyelids, and lips insinuating a tender and mystical smile. This new Chinese iconography can be found since the late fifth century in the rock shrines of Longmen near Luoyang the new capital of the Wei.
In 581 Yan Jiang (Emperor Wen of Sui) the founder of the new Sui dynasty, reunited North and South China. This was a brilliant dynasty, especially during the reign of its second and last monarch the Emperor Yang Ying (Emperor Yang of Sui). More mundane than religious, the art of this period gave the figures of Buddha an air of solemn profanity manifested in the headdresses, tiaras and pendants of the Bodhisattvas which seem to evoke the luxury of Yang Ying’s court in Chang’an. After a period of revolts, this Sui dynasty was succeeded in the year 618 by the Tang dynasty founded by Li Guang from the House of Li, a dynasty that would last until the beginning of the 10th century.
Avalokiteshvara: Avalokiteshvara or Padmapani is a Bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas.
Dougong: (literally: ‘cap [and] block’). A unique structural element of interlocking wooden brackets, one of the most important elements in traditional Chinese architecture. The use of dougong first appeared in buildings of the late centuries B.C. and evolved into a structural network that joined pillars and columns to the frame of the roof. Dougong was widely used in the ancient Chinese during the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BC) and developed into a complex set of interlocking parts by its peak in the Tang and Song periods. The pieces are fitted together by joinery alone without glue or fasteners, due to the precision and quality of the carpentry.
Plumbiferous varnish: A type of varnish containing lead.