The Classical Greeks And The Terracotta Army Of Ancient China

I hate to invoke the dreaded term, “eurocentrism”, but one wonders if there is a slight hint of that thinking in this report from the Guardian on an upcoming BBC and National Geographic television co-production claiming ancient Greek inspiration for the famous “Terracotta Army” of Qin Shi Huang, a Chinese emperor who died around 210 BCE. According to the article a team of researchers have discovered stylistic and DNA evidence linking the makers of the funerary statues in north-west China to late Classical Greece, presumably via trade contacts along the “Silk Road”.

“Greek crafts workers may have helped inspire the most famous Chinese sculptures ever made – the 8,000 warriors of the Terracotta Army who have been watching over the tomb of the first emperor of China for more than 2,000 years.

Archaeologists and historians working on the warriors say they now believe that the figures’ startlingly lifelike appearance could have been influenced by the arrival in China of ancient Greek sculptures, and even that Greek sculptors made their way there to teach their designs.

Li Xiuzhen, a senior archaeologist at the site, said recent discoveries, including that of ancient European DNA recovered from sites in Xinjian province from the time of the first emperor, were overturning traditional thinking about the level of contact between Asia and Europe more than 1,500 years before the travels of Marco Polo.

The Terracotta Army , unearthed from pits in Xi’an, was discovered in 1974 by a farmer, who was terrified to see a human face staring up at him from among the cabbages. Many other pits of terracotta soldiers have been found, but the older ones are small and usually very stylised. The Xi’an figures, safeguarding Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor, with their weapons, horses and war chariots, are life size and sculpted in extraordinary detail down to elaborate hairstyles and decorative knots tying sections of their armour.

The new discoveries will be outlined in a documentary, The Greatest Tomb on Earth, jointly made by the BBC and National Geographic, which will be shown on BBC Two on 16 October.”

This is not the first attempt to connect the impressive Terracotta Army to Europe. In 2013 Lukas Nickel of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London suggested something very similar, as outlined by the website, Live Science:

“Nickel’s evidence includes newly translated ancient records that tell a fantastic tale of giant statues that “appeared” in the far west, inspiring the first emperor of China to duplicate them in front of his palace. This story offers evidence of early contact between China and the West, contacts that Nickel says inspired the First Emperor (which is what Qin Shi Huangdi called himself) to not only duplicate the 12 giant statues but to build the massive Terracotta Army along with other life-size sculptures.

Before the First Emperor’s time, life-size sculptures were not built in China, and Nickel argues the idea to build so many of them, so suddenly, came from kingdoms in Asia that had been created and influenced by Alexander the Great’s campaigns.

A few dozen statues of half-naked acrobats and dancers were also found in separate pits near the First Emperor’s mausoleum.

“Here the sculptors attempted to render a bone structure, muscles and sinews to depict a person in movement,” Nickel writes in his paper. “This comes close to an understanding of the human body that was employed at the time only in Hellenistic (Greek influenced) Europe and Asia.”

He argues that creating this sort of realistic sculpture is not something that a sculptor could learn without some practice, taking the ancient Greeks centuries to master it.”

Those conclusions are somewhat questionable given the small number of “naturalistic” sculptures found in China throughout the 1st millennium BCE, some of which certainly predate possible Greek influence. It’s an intriguing thesis, one that has been praised and criticised in equal measures, so it will be interesting to see the broadcast documentary, even if I remain somewhat sceptical. Ideas and technology may travel such distances but a roving company of Alexandrian Greek artists and craftsmen labouring away in ancient China? I’m not so sure about that. Though note this piece from the Independent newspaper in September:

“Two ancient skeletons unearthed at a cemetery in London may have been of Chinese origin, overturning longstanding assumptions about the history of the Roman Empire and Britain’s capital city.

Using cutting-edge techniques, a team of archaeologists and scientists examined dental enamel samples from over 20 sets of human remains dated from between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD.

Dr Rebecca Redfern, curator of human osteology at the Museum of London, revealed two of the skeletons found at the site in Lant Street, Southwark, had been identified as possibly being of Chinese origin. “

Again, put the emphasis on the “may” and “possibly” in those claims.

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6 comments

    1. I know but still, you gotta wonder if there is a bit of an overreach in the suggestions on European contacts with the ancient Chinese (and vice-versa, which if anything is more arguable). I can see the know-how and skills moving from different regions, we have plenty of evidence for that. Population movements on the other hand are still relatively rare at the bigger distances, even if only with small groups.

  1. Well, some facts. The link along the silk road is VERY old. The Persian Empire had close trade contacts with China. They filtered into the rest of the Middle east. The Sumerians had trade contacts with India, who in turn had contacts with China. The proto-hellenic states in Asia were strongly linked back to Greece and the Mediterranean, via the silk road. By later Roman Times, 250 years later, there were close diplomatic links between the Chinese, Indians, and Romans. The trade had grown by then to a massive million tons a year of Freight carried to China and India, in the Roman Imperial shipping line, a Government marine service, plus the innumerable private ships that were licenced and taxed by the Romans to do the far east trade. The Ancient Greeks were well aware of China, via the silk road, and the links to the Central Asian Greek/Hellenist states from the time of Alexandra. Undoubtedly traders and craftsmen made their way back and forth. The Greek City of Alexandria, in Eygpt, had extended links, at that time, to the far East. The trade was very much two ways. The Chinese had an Imperial policy of trading with the Romans and Greeks only for cash, paid in silver Bullion and bars. The Roman Government had a policy in later years to try and minimise this, as the drain of silver out of the Empire was damaging the Roman Imperial economy. The DNA is, well, DNA. If European DNA is found at the sites, there were Europeans there. The Pre-imperial Chinese states had been doing their own voyages of exploration into the West Coast of North America, and four hundred years later, had reached West coast of Mexico. Ancient trading and exploration was far greater than most Europeans realise. The Eastern Canadian tribes have both traditions, and DNA in their gene pool, that indicates Phoenician contact, earlier than the Chinese first Empire. Etc etc etc.

    1. There have always been travelers, wanderers and explorers. The Roman Empire provided a safe society for people to travel across the length and breadth of it.

      How many stories of merchants and explorers from Europe heading off elsewhere do you need to hear to know that other people did precisely the same thing? If you can’t comprehend that possibility. Well. Awkward conversation follows.

  2. Somewhat off-topic, but I can’t help but think that if politics over here were a wee bit more “Eurocentric,” we wouldn’t have gun nuts, we wouldn’t have the death penalty, people wouldn’t be killed left and right by the police, there would be national healthcare, cleaner and more livable cities, more liberal attitudes to sexuality…just for starters…

    As for contact between ancient Europe and East Asia, about two-thirds of a month ago it turned out that Roman coins had been found in an ancient castle in Okinawa. It probably wasn’t a direct link, but goods and occasional people did make it. Stories like that, even wild theories, never cease to fascinate me.

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