Terracotta Warriors Inspired by Ancient Greek Art

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The Terracotta Warriors, along with other life-size sculptures built for the First Emperor of China, were inspired by Greek art, new research indicates.

About 8,000 Terracotta Warriors, which are life-size statues of infantryman, cavalry, archers, charioteers and generals, were buried in three pits less than a mile to the northeast of the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor. He unified the country through conquest more than 2,200 years ago. Pits containing sculptures of acrobats, strongmen, dancers and civil servants have also been found near the mausoleum.

Now, new research points to ancient Greek sculpture as the inspiration for the emperor's afterlife army. [See Photos of the Terracotta Warriors & Greek Art]

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"It is perfectly possible and actually likely that the sculptures of the First Emperor are the result of early contact between Greece and China," writes Lukas Nickel, a reader with the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, in the most recent edition of the journal Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. (A reader is a position comparable to an associate or full professor in the American system.)

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.

'Giants' appearing in the west

Nickel translated ancient Chinese records that tell a tale of 12 giant statues, clad in "foreign robes" that "appeared" in Lintao in what was the westernmost part of China. (The word "Lintao" can also mean any place far to the west.)

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The records do not say how this appearance happened, who brought them there, or who exactly the statues depicted; they do reveal the statues were larger than life, rising about 38 feet (11.55 meters) high, with feet that were 4.5 feet long (1.38 m). They so impressed the First Emperor that he decided to build 12 duplicates in front of his palace by melting down bronze weapons that had been used for war.

On each duplicate an inscription was created telling of the "giants" (the original statues) that appeared in Lintao. The inscriptions, recorded by Yan Shigu, who lived around 1,400 years ago and used an earlier written source, said that in the "26th Year of the Emperor, when he first brought together all-under-heaven, divided the principalities into provinces and districts, and unified the weights and measures, giants appeared in Lintao ..."

The First Emperor duplicated these statues despite a "heavenly taboo" that "he who recklessly follows foreign models will encounter disaster," wrote Ban Gu, a historian who lived almost 2,000 years ago. Ban worked for the dynasty that had overthrown the First Emperor's dynasty and, as such, tried to cast him in a negative light. [Photos: China's Forbidden City Revealed]

These giant duplicates no longer exist, having been destroyed in the centuries after the First Emperor's death. Because the duplicates were displayed publicly in front of the First Emperor's palace ancient writers left records of them behind, Nickel told LiveScience. Meanwhile, the Terracotta Warriors, though they survive to present day, were buried in pits out of sight and, as such, no record of them survives today.

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