Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Fat Pottery, or, Eternal Life At Any Size

[the lack of regular updates may continue; I am moving my sekrit base of sekrit operations from London to Atlanta tomorrow morning. But I have fifty gazillion half-written blogsplurges about the place, and am determined to gather the wits and nerve to upload them, so you never know.]

I finally saw the Terracotta Army yesterday, on my third attempt (I am, as previously observed, made of fail). For those of you who don't know the story already: when Qin Shi Huang became king of Qin, at the tender age of 13, he decided he was going to rule everything and live forever. He ordered the construction of an underground replica of his omni-empire, so he could continue to rule the entire world even if he died (and he went to some lengths to avoid that, from visiting supposed mountains of immortality to swallowing anything his doctors promised would preserve his life. Including mercury pills. Which is said to be what killed him, at the age of 49).

To enforce his eternal rule, he had his underground mini-empire guarded by over 8000 fully-armed terracotta soldiers. He also had terracotta civil servants to keep the place running, and terracotta musicians and acrobats to keep himself amused. I think I read something about terracotta concubines too, but none of them were in the BM exhibit.

The soldiers were a force to be reckoned with; equipped with the best of contemporary weaponry, accompanied by stocky terracotta horses, representing ranks from light infantry and unarmoured archers to generals in elaborate hats. And they represented the ideal of a male warrior's body; they vary in height from 6ft to 6ft 5in (an exaggeration of some 12 inches from the norm in that time and place - and Guan Yu, who lived nearly 500 years later, was said to be 6ft 10in...); none wear helmets, so each face and head can be seen in full, and most have elaborate hairdos with many sleek plaits and an off-centre topknot at their crown; they have thick legs and arms (made, apparently, from drainpipe moulds);

And they're fat.

Of course they're fat - if you're sculpting a soldier who's strong enough to defend your unlife from 210BC until 1974, the last thing you want is an underfed one. Besides, Qin had plenty of food stored in his tomb, so why would anyone look thin? There's a range of shapes on view at the BM exhibit - the only thin one was a barefooted acrobat, raising a finger as if to spin something upon it. The soldiers have podges on the front of their armour; the civil officials and unarmoured troops have thick folds of cloth above their belts, so even if they weren't fat they'd look like they were. The largest of them was another of the acrobats - a strongman, with bulging arm muscles and an obese belly. It was thought his act would involve weightlifting, and maybe throwing the skinny acrobat around. His body was for putting on show. And it's fat. Really fat.

Eternal life at any size. :)

A few photo links - couldn't find one of the fat acrobat, but here's some of the podging armour and whatnot: 1 2 3 4


meghan said...

Oh, body stereotypes. The soldiers are undoubtedly meant to be fat and muscular, skinny people would fail to defend the emperor. It's shame that some of the concubines didn't make it over, I'm sure you could have pulled much more analysis from them.

We didn't get to go in the end (as you will have noticed) so I am really glad you did and posted about it! =)

Anonymous said...

Funny, from those pictures they don't look fat at all! They look very muscular indeed. Don't know much about it, but I suspect part of it is the armour of the time.

thene said...

Meg - I had no idea you even read here. Hello! You've still got a chance, if you're here in March/April. It's well worth the trip.

V - I guess it's hard to see in 2D but they all had distinctly round stomachs. I'm seeing it as being more about body ideals than about armour or any other factual thing - if they're all a foot taller than an average person of the time/place, not to mention having unrealistically muscular arms and legs, I'd imagine that their waistlines were similarly exaggerated.

Anonymous said...

Good point. I just remembered something about body image in China-- back then, plumpness was a sign of wealth and possibly class/rank. It meant you were well-off enough to eat.