Horses

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I find that Chinese images of horses are subtly disorienting. Perhaps I’m too used to the use of images of horses to depict freedom, grace and wild spirits: this is ubiquitous in advertising. Indian art also sees the horse as a symbol of grace. Chinese art, on the other hand, seems to see the horse as a symbol of power. The muscles of the chest and haunches are exaggerated. The photo above is a typical contemporary depiction of a horse; this is a piece in the art museum in Wuhan. Of course, contemporary art exaggerates. But the exaggeration says something about the artist’s notion of the subject.

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How far back did this iconography emerge? I flicked through the photos that I’d taken during my recent trips to China and stopped at the image of the oldest horses I’d seen. The photo above is a famous piece, one of the two chariots dug up from near the tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shih Huang. It can be seen in a special exhibit in the enclosure with the famous terra-cotta warriors of Xi’an. One can see a fairly realistic depiction of a horse. If there is an exaggeration of the chest and haunches then it is mild. So the current Chinese concept of a horse is not two thousand years old.

That’s a long enough time for an academic to research and build a thesis upon! I’m happy enough just looking at these strange Chinese horses.

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Utterly lost in translation

Lost it? Need to find it again? Just follow the sign.

This is a sign from the burial mound of the first emperor (Qin Shih Huang) in Xi’an. The Chinese characters in this sign read minzu jiliang. Minzu is accurately translated as national. Jiliang could be translated as either back or spine. So, the translation is rather accurate. But what does it mean?

I asked a linguist. His explanation turned out to provide an interesting insight into modern Chinese culture.

The Tomb of the First Emperor

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Close to the terracotta warriors of Xi’an is another major archaeological site: the underground tomb of the first emperor Qin Shih Huang. Old Chinese records talk of a huge tomb with terracotta representations of his capital and the nearby rivers recreated with mercury. The hillock in the photo above is where the tomb is supposed to lie. All around it excavations have exposed not only the terracotta army, but also terracotta representations of acrobats and entertainers. In one pit we saw the skeletons of real horses with terracotta charioteers. We read accounts which say that mercury levels in the soil near the hill are off the scale. Everyone believes that the tomb really is here.

But when you visit, there is nothing to see. All around the supposed tomb is a garden, where busloads of Chinese tourists come on guided tours. We followed a tour guide and his entourage in the mistaken belief that we had missed the entrance. There is no entrance.

There has been no digging. It was mysterious to us. A kind young man (there are so many people in China who are so very kind to foreigners) who spoke very good English told us that it is bad luck to dig up the tomb, so the government is not doing it.

There it was again. Luck. Does belief in it really play a role in determining minor government policy like this? Or perhaps even major ones? In India there are rumours of various prime ministers having consulted astrologers on policy. Does the notion of luck play the same role in China?