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Why There Is So Much Backlash to the Theory that Greek Art Inspired China’s Terracotta Army

Why There Is So Much Backlash to the Theory that Greek Art Inspired China’s Terracotta Army


Archaeological discoveries in China rarely get noticed. Recently, though, mitochondrial DNA tests conducted on human remains from Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, got the attention of international media. The results suggested the presence of “Westerners” in China as early as the third century BC, during the lifetime of Qin Shui Hang (259-210 BC), the first emperor of China.

It happened just as new and startling claims were being made about Emperor Qin’s own tomb in Shaanxi Province – the tomb most famous for its buried ranks of some 8,000 life-size terracotta warrior sculptures.

In a BBC article, archaeologist Li Xiuzhen said that the many sculptures found in and around the tomb – including the Terracotta Army, but also sculptures of musicians, dancers and acrobats – were “inspired by ancient Greek sculptures and art.”

The alleged “Greekness” of the Terracotta Army went viral, but archaeologists in China (and around the world) were skeptical and dismissive. Two weeks after the story broke, Zhang Weixing, head of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum, told the AFP that there is “no substantial evidence at all” for contact between ancient Greeks and those responsible for the Qin tombs.

Li Xiuzhen even backtracked, protesting to Xinhua News Agency, China’s largest official state press agency, that her words had been taken out of context. “The terracotta warriors,” she clarified, “may be inspired by Western culture, but were uniquely made by the Chinese.” She also told Xinhua that her ideas had been misrepresented after being placed alongside those of art historian Luckas Nickel, who had speculated that “a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals.”

Why were Xiuzhen’s comments so controversial?

For centuries, archaeologists and art historians have been eager to see the imprint of the Greeks in works of art and architecture throughout the world. But this view rests on a Eurocentric logic which has long assumed other civilizations were fundamentally incapable of creating highly technical, impressive and aesthetically pleasing works of art.

The best and only way?

In the West, classical Greek art and architecture is often presented as a singular achievement. The Greeks are credited with the invention of forms and techniques that were leaps and bounds ahead of their contemporaries. One commonly cited example of the ancient Greek genius is the entasis of the columns on Greek temples such as the Parthenon. Built with a slight convex curvature, they employ an architectural trick that creates an optical illusion of tall, straight columns. (Columns actually built without curvature will appear convex.)

The columns of the Parthenon were built with entasis.

The columns of the Parthenon were built with entasis. Konstantinos Dafalias/flickr, (CC BY)

Entasis actually appears in early architecture around the world. Even so, in the early 19th century, some Europeans took its presence in early Japanese temples as “proof” of the Greek influence on Japanese architecture.

Other celebrated Asian artworks have also been attributed to the Greeks. The notion of “Greco-Buddhist art” was invented to explain the pleasing proportions and elegant poses of sculptures from ancient Gandhara (in modern-day Pakistan). The only way to explain their sophistication, Europeans believed, was the influence of Alexander the Great and his retinue of talented Greek artisans who had traveled to Gandhara in the latter part of the fourth century BC.

Art historian Michael Falser has recently shown how the concept of Greco-Buddhist art, or Buddhist art with a Greek “essence,” is really a colonial notion that originated during British rule in India. In the West, examples of this art (represented largely by sculptures of Buddha), have since been largely interpreted as the result of Greek influence – and thus, implicitly, as an early example of successful European attempts to civilize the East.

Not giving credit where credit’s due

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, explorers and anthropologists also explained exotic foreign customs through a lens of Greek traditions. They attributed an old Chinese custom of burning offerings from friends on the funeral pyre of the deceased to the Greeks. Meanwhile, they claimed household organization among Circassians, an ethnic group on the northeast coast of the Black Sea, was inspired by the Greeks.

Likewise, travelers and archaeologists often fell back on theories of direct outside influence. How else could they explain sophisticated artistic techniques and engineering genius among “primitive” societies?

In 1871 the German explorer Karl Mauch, on a quest to find the biblical region of Ophir, came across the ruins of the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, which had flourished from roughly the 11th to 15th centuries. Certain that no African people could have ever constructed such marvelous structures, Mauch vigorously publicized Great Zimbabwe as a city built by the biblical Queen of Sheba. This, he pronounced, was her Ophir, the source of the gold she sent to King Solomon (the Bible’s proverbial “gold of Ophir”) to use in the first Temple in Jerusalem.

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe.

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe. Andrew Ashton/flickrCC BY-NC-ND

A century later, certain scholars came to doubt that the Olmecs, whose civilization thrived in parts of Mexico and Central America 3,000 years ago, could have crafted monuments as spectacular as the colossal stone heads of central Mexico. In an ironic twist, those scholars sought to explain the sculptures by postulating pre-Columbian contact not with Greeks or biblical rulers but with Nubians and other African peoples.

The costly mirage of Western influence

Whenever we say the cultural achievements of other societies are due to geographically remote – but familiar – genius and inspiration, there’s a cost.

In the cases of the Terracotta Army and Great Zimbabwe, European scholars have struggled to understand non-European architectural and artistic achievements without resorting to the explanation of ancient Greek or biblical civilizations. That kind of thinking also projected modern European tastes onto Chinese and African antiquities. Greek statues, so coveted by museums and collectors today, must also have been what the first emperor of China wanted for his own tomb (or so the thinking goes).

This mirage of an ancient cultural global influence has an impact. It makes us forget the diversity of places that many look to for inspiration and validation. Erased are ideas of origins and narratives of belonging. Transcontinental traffic in the ancient world made it possible for Chinese silk to arrive in Roman Palmyra (in modern Syria). But would it make sense to explain this ancient capital as the product of ancient Chinese genius?

As a thought experiment, it’s worth considering one striking inversion of the familiar bias. In the summer of 1668, an Ottoman traveler from Istanbul named Evliya Çelebi arrived in Athens. Like Mauch in Zimbabwe, Çelebi was none too impressed with the contemporary, indigenous inhabitants that he encountered, infidels with “300 houses of idol-worship.”

Surely Greeks could not have built such a marvelous city, Çelebi said. In his “Book of Travels,” Çelebi followed the precedent set by “all the Christian and Coptic chroniclers”: he attributed the founding of Athens to the prophet Solomon and, like Mauch in Zimbabwe, to the Queen of Sheba.

Top image: China’s terracotta army. Credit: BigStockPhoto

The article ‘Why there’s so much backlash to the theory that Greek art inspired China’s Terracotta Army’ by Johanna Hanink and Felipe Rojas Silva was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.



Mary A.Can I put my 2 cents on all these comments even if rather late? I read somewhere (wish I could remember where) that, “The question is not what inspires someone, a people, but what that someone, that people, creates from that inspiration”. Thousands of people have been inspired by one thing or another but nothing special came of it.(I am sure there were several other students in Einstein’s class but only one Einstein).The Chinese terracotta army is a Chinese masterpiece and whether someone happens to have seen an old Greek statue or not is absolutely irrelevant. It is the Chinese genius that created the Terracotta army. And this is said by a Greek (who never had any other dual nationality) and who when I went to China for the first time, the immigration officer looked at my passport and said to me:“Finally you have come to China”. I knew what he meant and my smile back to him told him everything he wanted to hear.. .

I think an unbiased reading of the sources shows Greek civilization is, to a large part, a transplant from Egypt. Those sources say that the founding of Athens, the establishment of the Dodona oracle, the knowledge of Pythagoras, many of their Gods, et al - all have their source in Egypt.
There seems to be a curious case of tunnel vision at work there.

It's known the Qin armourers developed swords with an anti corrosive measure undiscovered until quite recently in the West. Not to mention the absolute precision in which these weapons were constructed.

Why wasn't this knowledge shared? If the Greeks had indeed made any sort of correspondence with the First Emperor they would have quickly seen this was a man who would pretty much do ANYTHING to get what he wanted (look up his quest for Immortality for example!). Trade and business usually go BOTH ways.

The Terracottas were painted with compounds apparently UNKNOWN to Western artists at the time. And let's be honest, considering the Qin made those beautifully crafted and advanced weapons with casts as well as the beautful bronze birds found in the excavations, is it really that difficult to comprehend the Qin deciding to employ a similar technique to craft the Terracottas.

Sorry BBC, not buying a second of it. The QIn were obviously a VERY advanced people.

Don't know, but the ChInese used massive 'dragon' kilns to make job lots of bricks and ceramics, so they may have been able to fire several human sized statues in place of a pallet of bricks. Given many segments of the Great Wall use fired clay bricks, they did do mass production at the time in question. If you look at Japanese Raku ware, the fire is built around the ceramics rather than in a formal kiln, at many times and places charcoal was made by stacking wood and plastering over it with clay rather than in formal kilns, so I really don't see a need for an actual kiln, just serious amounts of wood and crap [not suitable for finer work] clay to encase the statue and wood.

For centuries and due to Alexander the Great's conquests Hellenic Thought and Art became known to people further east of Persia. Thus the Hellenic influence in formulating Buddhism cannot be denied and it is not a "British colonial" trick. From very early times Europeans would travel and settle deep into Asia-the mummies of Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang ( north of Tibet) being an unquestionable proof. (on the contrary there are no recorded opposite movements that is why "Indo-Europeans" are a fiction-even the Indians mention an "Aryan" invasion west from the sea...) It is from Chinese sources that we know of their earliest contacts with the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Bactria at their eastern borders and I am sure Ms Li Xiuzhen is aware of them.The Kingdom of Greco-Bactria with its "one thousand glorious cities-Strabo" (!) that had become independent by the middle of the 3rd century originally based in today's Afghanistan, would expand to include parts of Pakistan and its important for trade coastline plus north India and was to lasted in various forms till the 2nd century AD.( Nomadic invaders finally destroyed the watering canals of the kingdom and the winds did the rest-there is nothing left standing up anymore! ) In order for Alexander to cross further east from Afghanistan he had to get married there himself and all his army and live peacefully for over a year before continuing. Nobody has ever subdued the proud inhabitants of these lands including Alexander-war stopped only because they became relatives!
Chinese expeditions were able to collect enough impressive information to convince their First Emperor
that official relations should be established with the neighbors as they were many things to learn from them. Thus the Chinese made a pact in order to send scholars to learn Greek and be able to translate their texts kept in libraries about arts and sciences, machinery,construction etc. They offered in return the monopoly of silk cloth, bamboo canes and stainless alloys (merchandise previously bought by the Bactrians at Indian bazaars.( The First Emperor's main burial chamber is protected still by a stainless booby trapped system ) The Greeks were more than happy to agree and they would reload the Chinese goods at "Pakistani" ports and ship them to Ptolemeus's Egypt ( land routes wee blocked by Seleucid Syrians). Never before this period of GrecoBactrian- Chinese relations, and never afterwards human sized statues appear in Chinese art. Needless to say, in order to make in a kiln human sized clay statues of the Imperial Guards-something you have never done before in China-you would indeed need the help of "advisers", right? The Chinese also provide us with a few intriguing details about those GrecoBactrians; about their magnificently zoned villas in their cities, temples and theaters, that they were not afraid of any enemies, owned thousands of beautiful horses- their favorite sport being galloping archery shooting on set targets ; that they were annoying bargain hunters and when finally an agreement was reached there could be no final deal...unless their wives also agreed! The Chinese had already asked about the distant origins of their neighbors and they had explained they came from "ΣΕΛΛΑΣ-SELLAS" ( today ΕΛΛΑΣ-HELLAS) the "Country of Light" (360 days sunshine at least). Since then the Chinese call Greece " Xi-La" (pronounced Si-La) with the ideograms meaning also 'Candlelight of Hope"...And following their advise their expeditions eventually reached the coastline of Syria...


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