Terracotta Melancholia

“To what can we liken human life?
Perhaps to a wild swan’s footprint on mud or snow;
By chance its claws imprint the mud
Before it flies off at random, east or west.”

Su Shi, “Recalling the Old Days at Mianchi”

I found a new book of poetry in Beijing, one containing more Tang poems and also some Song poems. Su Shi is a Song dynasty poet and I very much like his work. The poem above captures the Buddhist idea of impermanence (anicca) nicely, speaking of the changing and fleeting nature of human existence. This may seem like a strange place in my blog to refer to it but maybe I can make myself clear (or at least less muddy).


As I mentioned in a previous post, Xian is best known for the terracotta army near the tomb of Shihuangdi, the first emperor to unite China. The terracotta warriors have become a major tourist attraction in China (maybe second most-visited after the Forbidden City?) and the tourism machine is impressive, almost Disneyesque. Huge numbers of visitors are bused in and out every day with great efficiency. Of course, the idea is to let tourists see the sights and then extract as much cash as possible – witness the spanking new outdoor mall affixed to the exit.

It is worth the visit surely, though I came away feeling a bit melancholy. I’m still trying to work out the meaning of the terracotta mania I witnessed. The First Emperor’s plan for his burial is quite astonishing and the execution of that plan mind-boggling, especially given that it took place two thousand years plus ago. To be buried surrounded by a life-size duplicate army speaks of a heightened sense of ego and significance (to say the least) accompanied by power, wealth, and will to a degree scarcely believable.


I can’t be sure in the end of what exactly motivated Shihuangdi to do this (of course, scholars have speculated). It speaks to me though of the desire to imprint oneself on history and of course the earth, along with a clear concern for the afterlife. And certainly, whether intended or not, the memory of the First Emperor does live on in the minds of all those who see his army. But still the First Emperor himself did not live forever and his much vaunted dynasty crumbled soon after his death. He and all of his dreams, desires, power, wealth, etc. crumbled into the dust of Xian. His terracotta army stands as a silent witness to this.

In the end, I am more impressed with the words of Su Shi than with the terracotta army of the First Emperor. I can hear the gasps of “heresy!” floating through cyberspace now. In the realization of the inevitable impermanence of life lies peace of mind and an understanding of beauty. Su Shi ends his poem this way:

The old monk is dead and a new pagoda built;
The old wall has crumbled, the poem we wrote on it gone.
Do you still remember this rugged mountain path,
The long way, the exhaustion and how the lame donkey brayed?”

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