Johanna Hanink, Brown University and Felipe Rojas Silva, Brown University
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 B.C., during the lifetime of Qin Shui Hang (259-210 B.C.), 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.