By Kelly Hammond
When I was approached to help National Geographic with their ongoing exhibit of the Terra Cotta Warriors at their museum in Washington, D.C., I thought to myself: “Really? Me? But I work on Islam in late imperial China! I’m one of those scholars who mistakenly types Qing anytime I write about the Qin simply out of finger muscle memory! What could I possibly know about China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang?”
Turns out that it is much more than most people.
I had assisted twice in a “pre-modern” China survey and read Mark Lewis’ fabulous book The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. I had lived in both Urumqi and Shanghai for substantial periods of time and had even been to Xi’an. And, over the past four years, I’ve managed to accumulate more than enough “graduate student knowledge” focusing almost exclusively on China’s history. Once my anxiety dissipated, I realized that I was probably more than adequately prepared for the barrage of questions I would encounter. During our initial tour with the exhibit curator, I looked around at the motley crew of “experts” National Geographic had assembled and couldn’t help but chuckle: a classmate who regularly sports Democratic Progressive Party green, a young Uyghur MA candidate, an Irishman, and a few other scholarly dissidents who often have problems procuring visas for research in China. As we toured the exhibit, we were told that the Chinese government had inserted a clause in the contract with the museum which stipulated that if anything endangered the integrity of the warriors or the Chinese nation-state while they were on display in Washington, the exhibit would be removed instantly. Apparently, someone at the British Museum in London had jumped through security and draped a Tibetan flag and a gas mask on one of the warriors while they were on display there.
We went about our task, and after working tirelessly with my colleagues on a script that would be delivered to tours of bureaucrats, diplomats and other high-rollers in pant-suits, I wondered: “What kind of ridiculous questions are these people going to ask us? We’re so not ready for this!” (I imagined it being very similar to undergrads that catch me off-guard with probing questions: “Isn’t there, like, an inherent contradiction between Buddhism and pastoral nomadism? Like, did the Mongols just raise sheep and not eat them? Isn’t that, like, weird?” one student asked me, never looking up from her Blackberry.)
And I was right. I’d put in some time working on a script to deliver in the section called Building the Empire. I was so ready to tell people all about important military reforms by the Qin state beginning around 356 BC which, coupled with tax reforms, had allowed Qin to build an effective army while reducing the power of the traditional aristocracy. I also wanted to tell people how these simple reforms had radically altered the nature of the army and the state in China, as well as the relationship between the two. I was excited to impart my new knowledge to unsuspecting victims! Who wouldn’t be interested in learning how the new Qin emperor had resettled 120,000 of the most powerful families from the states he had conquered in his new capital, Xianyang? And, how this policy of drawing the empire’s elites to the center had reduced the possibility of resistance and placed elite families in one place, effectively demonstrating that Xianyang was the new center of the empire? I was excited to tell people that with these reforms the new emperor had essentially invented the imperial capital, which would come to play such an integral role in the building and maintenance of later empires.
Who wouldn’t want to know that apart from standardizing coins and the gauges of carriages, weapons during the Qin were also manufactured to standard dimensions? Or that weapons were inscribed with the date of manufacture and the names of the foremen to ensure quality? I did! People were sure to ask me questions about this standardization, and I could also tell them that the unification under the Qin helped to regulate institutions and values that would begin to transcend regional ties. Or how these traditions, which were reinforced throughout the Qin were exemplified in the imperial inspection tours taken by Qin Shihuang, and that on these tours he erected large steles; ceremonial and architectural assertions of his power. When I told people about the steles, someone would surely question me about the institutional programs that aimed to centralize and unify important aspects of Chinese life that were imprinted on the steles and spread throughout the empire. No? And, who wouldn’t want to know that the Qin defeat came because they were not able to adapt to the extensive changes that the end of the permanent war had brought about—showing how important the ability of the military to adapt to the realities of society are in both building and maintaining an empire?
Well, apparently a lot of people didn’t.
I prepared myself for the onslaught of questions. I’d even thought about what I wanted to tell people who had read the chapter in Guns, Germs and Steel about China (“It’s all wrong! It’s all wrong!” while pulling out my hair and grinding my teeth for added effect). But for the most part, the questions people asked me were, well, ridiculous.
Below are the five most absurd questions I was asked during my brief stint with the Terra Cotta Warriors. I’ve also included my equally ridiculous answers, in an effort to show that people are always willing to believe an “expert” like myself.
5. Question: Are the Terra Cotta Warriors real people that were dipped in clay and fired?
Answer: Um. No.
4. Question: That warrior doesn’t look Chinese. Isn’t he kind of tall to be a Chinese person?
Answer: [Ah! Here presents a great opportunity to talk about ethnic diversity in China! No! It isn’t a homogeneous blob!] Well actually, that’s a really good question…
Questioner: It is? [Seems surprised. Answers Blackberry and never returns.]
3. In the section Building the Empire, there were numerous clay pipes on display which were cast in standard sizes and used for irrigation and drainage:
Question: Why are the pipes pentagonal and not round?
Answer: Ugh…so that they won’t roll away? [She believes me. We move on.]
2.Question: That emperor guy must not have been very smart if he was searching for immortality but he ended up dying of mercury poisoning. He was pretty stupid, wouldn’t you say?
Me: Ummm…I’m not sure I would say that he was stupid…
Questioner: Well I would. What kind of idiot eats mercury? [Walks away.]
Me: Fair enough.
1. Question: Wait, I don’t get it. You said you study Chinese history? But why? And, why does that horse have a hole in its butt?
Me: Well, funnily enough, that’s a question my parents ask me every time I call them… [Other commonly asked questions: “How can someone who speaks Chinese and Japanese and knows as much about China as you do make so little money?”]
Questioner: So, why do you study Chinese history?
Me: Well, it’s complicated. I just…
Questioner: Oh, just tell me about the hole in the horse’s butt.
Me: Right, well…the horses were built in seven parts and because they were fired in a kiln they needed to be hollow so that they wouldn’t explode. Some of the terra cotta horses they’ve found have a hole in their side but this one, this one, has a hole in his butt…
Questioner: [interrupting me] I have a son. He’s very smart, like you, and he teaches English in Bali. Do you use email?
Me: Email? No. No, I don’t.
In the New Year I’ll be taking a few groups of first graders on tours of the warriors. Many of them speak Chinese and have been “studying” China in their first grade class. I can’t wait for their questions…
I would encourage anyone visiting the Washington D.C. area before March 31, 2010 to take in the warriors. The exhibit is fabulously curated and the audio guide can probably answer any of your questions just as well as I ever could. I would also encourage everyone to read the article about Xinjiang in the December issue of National Geographic.
Kelly Hammond is a PhD candidate in Chinese history at Georgetown University. Her current research focuses on Japanese collaboration with Chinese Muslims during the Sino-Japanese War.