Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

The First Emperor and sculpture in China

  • Lukas Nickel (a1)

Sculpture as an artistic medium was widely employed in the arts of Greece and the Hellenistic East, but played only a minor role in ancient East Asia. This changed dramatically with the First Emperor of China who marked his ascent to the throne in 221 bc with the erection of giant bronze sculptures outside his palace and the installation of thousands of terracotta figures in his tomb. The current text sets out to investigate the sudden and short-lived surge of sculpture making in third-century bc China and places it in the context of developments across Asia of the time. The text joins art historical, archaeological and textual evidence to investigate whether the First Emperor's extraordinary interest in sculpture may have been the result of contacts with the contemporary Hellenistic world.

Corresponding author
Hide All
Barnard Richard. 2004. “Alexander in China?”, in Xiaoneng Yang (ed.), New Perspectives on China's Past. Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 329–43.
Bernard Paul. 1994. “The Greek Kingdoms of Central Asia”, in Harmatta János (ed.), History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. 2: The Development of Sedentary and Nomadic Civilizations. 700 B.C. to A.D. 250. Paris: Unesco publication.
Bernard Paul. 2007. “The Greek colony at Ai Khanoum and Hellenism in Central Asia”, in Cambon 2007, pp. 44–55.
Blänsdorf Catharina, Emmerling E. and Petzet M. (eds). 2001. The Terracotta Army of the First Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuang. Munich: Lipp Verlag.
Boardman John. 1993. The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bosworth Albert Brian. 1988. Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Boyle Katie, Renfew Colin and Levine Marsha. 2002. Ancient Interactions – East and West in Eurasia. Cambridge: McDonald Institute.
Brinker Helmut. 1995. “Vom Ursprung des Menschenbildes”, in Goepper 1995, 13–35.
Broschat Katja et al. 2007. “Die Bronzevögel des Ersten Kaisers – Restaurierung und Technologie”, in Unter der gelben Erde – die deutsch-chinesische Zusammenarbeit im Kulturgüterschutz. Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 8194.
Cambon Pierre (ed.). 2007. Hidden Afghanistan. Amsterdam: De Nieuwe Kerk.
沈琍. 2010. “Huo Qubing mu ji qi shijiao yanjiu de huigu ji sikao” 霍去病墓及其石雕研究的回顧及思考 (Review and reconsideration of research on the tomb of Huo Qubing and its stone sculpture), Kaogu yu Wenwu 2010/6, 60–6.
Christopoulos Lucas. 2012. “Hellenes and Romans in Ancient China (240 bc–1398 ad)”, Sino-Platonic Papers, no. 230.
Cuo mu. 1995. Cuo mu. Zhanguo Zhongshanguo guowang zhi mu Cuo 墓-戰國中山國國王之墓 (The tomb of Cuo – The tomb of the king of Zhongshan state of the Zhanguo period). Beijing: Wenwu Press.
Delaine Janet. 2002. “The temple of Hadrian at Cyzicus and Roman attitudes to exceptional construction”, Papers of the British School at Rome, vol. 70, 205–30.
Dintsis Petros. 1986. Hellenistische Helme. (Archaeologica 43.) Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider.
Von Erdberg Eleanor. 1990. “Die Soldaten Shih-huang-ti's – Porträts?”, in Kraatz Martin, Meyer zur Capellen Jürg and Seckel Dietrich (eds), Das Bildnis in der Kunst des Orients. (Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 50/1.) Stuttgart: Steiner, 221–34.
Von Falkenhausen Lothar. 2003. “The external connections of Sanxingdui”, Journal of East Asian Archaeology 5/1–4, 191245.
Von Falkenhausen Lothar. 2004. “Mortuary behaviour in pre-Imperial Qin: a religious interpretation”, in Lagerwey John (ed.), Religion and Chinese Society, vol. I. Ancient and Medieval China. Hong Kong and Paris: The Chinese University Press and École française d'Extrême-Orient, 109–72.
Von Falkenhausen Lothar. 2006. Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1000–250 bc). The Archaeological Evidence. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California.
Francfort Henri-Paul. 1988. “Central Asia and Eastern Iran”, in Boardman John et al. (eds), The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 4. Persia, Greece, and the Western Mediterranean ca. 525 to 479 bc. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 165–93.
Goepper Roger (ed.). 1995. Das Alte China. Essen: Kulturstiftung Ruhr.
Gombrich Ernst. 1972. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon.
Dashun Guo. 2004. “The Hongshan culture complex at Niuheliang and the origins of ritual in China”, in Xiaoneng Yang, New Perspectives on China's Past – Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 144–59.
Hannestad Lise. 2013. “A comparative study of the cultural dynamics in two cities of the eastern Seleucid Kingdom: Uruk and Ai Khanoum”, in et al. 2013, 99–113.
Hanshu. 班固. Hanshu 漢書. (Documents of the Han Dynasty.) Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1962.
Yoshito Harada 原田淑人, (1885–1974) 1936. “Qin zhi jinren” 秦之金人 (The Metal Men of Qin), trans. (古物研究, Research on Antiquities). Shanghai: Shangwu press.
賀西林. 2009. “‘Huo Qubing mu’ de zai kaosi” ‘霍去病墓’的再思考 (Reconsidering the ‘Tomb of Huo Qubing’), Meishu yanjiu/Art Research 2009/3, 3244.
Von den Hoff Ralf. 2013. “Alexanderbildnisse und imitatio Alexandri in Baktrien”, in et al. 2013, 83–97.
Hölscher Tonio. 1971. Ideal und Wirklichkeit in den Bildnissen Alexanders des Großen. Heidelberg: C. Winter.
Holt Frank L. 1988. Alexander the Great and Bactria. The Formation of a Greek Frontier in Central Asia. Leiden: Brill.
Holt Frank L. 2005. Into the Land of Bones – Alexander the Great in Afghanistan (Hellenistic Culture and Society 47.) Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.
Howard Angela Falco, Song Li, Hung Wu and Hong Yang (eds). 2006. Chinese Sculpture. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Huainanzi. 何寧. Huainanzi jishi 淮南子集釋 (The Huainanzi collected and interpreted). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1998.
Jettmar Karl. 1989. “Der Oxus-Schatz und das Heiligtum von Tachti Sangin”, Oxus 1989, 171–5.
Boqin Jiang 姜伯勤. 2004. Zhongguo Aojiao yishushi yanjiu 中國襖教藝術史研究 (A History of Zoroastrian Art). Beijing: Xinhua Press.
Kaogu yu wenwu 1996/5, pp. 1–8. “Xianyang Shiyougangguan Gangshengchang Qin mu qingli jianbao” 咸陽石油鋼管鋼繩廠秦墓清理簡報 (Preliminary report on the excavation of the Qin period tombs at the steel factory of the Oil and Steel factory in Xianyang).
Kesner Ladislav. 1995. “Likeness of no one: (re)presenting the First Emperor's army”, The Art Bulletin, 77/1 (March 1995), 115–32.
Khayutina Maria (ed.). 2013. Qin – The Eternal Emperor and his Terracotta Warriors. Zurich: Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
Ledderose Lothar. 2000. Ten Thousand Things – Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ledderose Lothar and Schlombs Adele (eds). 1990. Jenseits der Grossen Mauer – Der Erste Kaiser von China und seine Terrakotta-Armee. Dortmund and Munich: Museum am Ostwall.
Legge James. 1895. The Chinese Classics, vol. 2: The Work of Mencius. Oxford: Trübner & Co.
Yinde Li. 2012. “Excavations and studies of the Western Han tombs of the Chu kings”, in Lin 2012, 43–48.
Lin James (ed.). 2012. The Search for Immortality – Tomb Treasures of Han China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Meicun Lin 林梅村. 2006. Sichou zhi lu kaogu shiwu jiang 絲綢之路考古十五講 (Fifteen lectures on the archaeology of the Silk Road). Beijing: Beijing University Press.
Lindström Gunvor, Hansen Svend, Wieczorek Alfried et al. (eds). 2013. Zwischen Ost und West – Neue Forschungen zum antiken Zentralasien. Darmstadt: Philipp von Zabern.
. 1917. Jones Horace Leonard (trans.), The Geography of Strabo. (Loeb Classical Library.) 8 volumes. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1917–32.
Loewe Michael. 1985. “The royal tombs of Zhongshan (c. 310 b.c.)”, Arts Asiatiques 40, 130–34.
Loewe Michael. 2010. “Imperial tombs”, in Nylan Michael and Loewe Michael (eds), China's Early Empires, a Re-Appraisal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 213–31.
Liancheng Lu 盧連成 and Zhisheng Hu 胡智生. 1988. Baoji Yu guo mu di 寶雞?國墓地 (The cemetery of the Yu state in Baoji). Beijing: Wenwu Press.
Mairs Rachel. 2011. The Archaeology of the Hellenistic Far East, BAR International Series 2196.
Major John S. et al. (ed. and trans.). 2010. The Huainanzi – a Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China. New York: Columbia University Press.
Martinón-Torres Marcos et al. 2012. “Forty thousand arms for a single emperor – from chemical data to labor organization in the production of bronze arrows for the Terracotta Army”, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, October 2012.
Shunying Mu 穆舜英 and Mingzhi Wang 王明哲. 1985. Xinjiang gudai minzu wenwu 新疆古代民族文物 (Artefacts of the ancient peoples of Xinjiang). Beijing: Wenwu Press.
Nickel Lukas (ed.). 2002. Return of the Buddha. Zurich: Museum Rietberg; London: Royal Academy.
Nickel Lukas. 2006. “Tonkrieger auf der Seidenstrasse? Die Plastiken des Ersten Kaisers von China und die hellenistische Skulptur Zentralasiens”, Zurich Studies in the History of Art/Georges Bloch Annual, vol. 13–14, 124–49.
Nickel Lukas. 2007. “The Terracotta Army”, in Portal 2007, 158–79.
Nickel Lukas. 2011. “Yazhou shiye zhong de bingmayong” 亞洲視野中的兵馬俑 (The Terracotta Warriors in an Asian Context), in Yan Zheng and Hung Wu (eds), Studies on Ancient Tomb Art, vol. 1 古代墓葬美術研究(一). Beijing: Wenwu Press, 2340.
Nickel Lukas. 2012. “The Nanyue silver box”, Arts of Asia, 42/3, 98107.
Oxus 1989. Oxus – 2000 Jahre Kunst am Oxus-Fluss in Mittelasien. Zurich: Museum Rietberg.
Paludan Ann. 2006. Chinese Sculpture – a Great Tradition. Chicago: Serindia Publications.
Parzinger Hermann. 2008. “The ‘Silk Roads’ concept reconsidered – about transfers, transportation and transcontinental interactions in prehistory”, The Silk Road Project Newsletter 5/2, 715.
Portal Jane (ed.). 2007. The First Emperor. China's Terracotta Army. London: The British Museum.
Pugatchenkova Galina Anatoljevna. 1971. Галина Анатольевна Пугаченкова, Скульптура Халчаяна, Москва, Издательство Искусство.
Rawson Jessica (ed.). 1996. Mysteries of Ancient China – New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties. London: British Museum Press.
Rawson Jessica. 1999. “The eternal palaces of the Western Han – a new view of the universe”, Artibus Asiae 5/1–2, 558.
Rawson Jessica. 2002. “The power of images – the model universe of the First Emperor and its legacy”, Historical Research 75, no 188 (May 2002), 123–54.
Rawson Jessica. 2010. “Carnelian beads, animal figures and exotic vessels: traces of contact between the Chinese states and Inner Asia, c. 1000–650 bc” in Wagner Mayke and Wei Wang (eds), Archäologie in China, vol. 1, Bridging Eurasia. Mainz: Philip von Zabern, 142.
Report. 2000. Qin Shihuang diling yuan kaogu baogao 秦始皇帝陵園考古報告 (Excavation of the Precinct of Qin Shihuang's Mausoleum in 1999). Beijing: Wenwu Press.
Report. 2007. Qin Shihuangdi lingyuan kaogu baogao 2001–2003 秦始皇帝陵園考古報告 (Report on the excavations during 2001–2003 at the grave site of Emperor Qin Shihuang). Beijing: Wenwu Press.
Sherratt Andres. 2006. “The trans-Eurasian exchange. The prehistory of Chinese relations with the West”, in Mair Victor (ed.), Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 3061.
Yan Shi 史岩. 1940. “Qin zhi zhong ju jinren kao” 秦之鍾鐻金人攷 (Considerations on the term zhong ju jinren of Qin), Jinling xuebao 金陵學報 10/1–2, 4356.
Shiji. 司馬遷. Shiji 史記 (Records of the Historian). Beijing: Zhonghua Press, 1959.
Kurakichi Shiratori 白鳥庫吉. (1865–1942) 1929. “Kyōdo no Kyūtoō no Ryōiki to So no Saiten no Kinjin ni tsuite” 匈奴の休屠王の領域と其の祭天の金人について.(Concerning the area of the Xiongnu-Prince Xiutu and the bronze figures for its heaven ritual), first published 1929, reprint in Saigai Minzokushi Kenkyū (塞外民族史研究 Research on the History of Peoples on the Periphery), vol. 2 (Shiratori Kurakichi Zenshū vol. 5). Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten, 1970, 303–62.
So Jenny F. (ed.). 2000. Music in the Age of Confucius. Seattle and London: Washingon University Press.
Stewart Andrew. 1993. Faces of Power. Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics. Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford: University of California Press, 25–7.
Thote Alain. 2004. “Burial practices as seen in rulers' tombs of the Eastern Zhou period. Patterns and regional traditions”, in Lagerwey John (ed.), Religion and Chinese Society, vol. 1: Ancient and Medieval China. Hong Kong and Paris: The Chinese University Press, 65107.
Kai Wang. 1990. “Han terracotta army in Xuzhou”, Orientations, October 1990, 62–6.
Wenwu 1988/11, pp. 14–23, 54. “Shaanxi Longxian Bianjiazhuang wuhao Chunqiu mu fajue jianbao” 陝西隴縣邊家庄五號春秋墓發掘簡報 (Preliminary report of the excavation of the Chunqiu period tomb no 5 in Bianjiazhuang, Longxian, Shaanxi).
Wenwu 2008/9, pp. 4–28. “2006 nian Gansu Zhangjiachuan huizu zizhixian Majiayuan Zhanguo mudi fajue jianbao” 2006 年甘肅張家川回族自治區馬家塬戰國墓地發掘簡報 (2006 Excavation on the Majiayuan cemetery of the Warring States period in Zhangjiachuan autonomous county of Hui Nationality).
Wenwu 2010/6, pp. 4–20. “Shaanxi Hancheng Liangdaicun mudi beiqu 2007 nian fajue jianbao” 陝西韓城梁帶村墓地北區 2007 年發掘簡報 (2007 Excavation on the Northern Section of the Liangdaicun Graveyard in Hancheng City, Shaanxi).
Hung Wu. 2005. “On tomb figurines – the beginning of a visual tradition”, in Hung Wu and Tsiang Katherine R. (eds), Body and Face in Chinese Visual Culture. (Harvard East Asian Monographs 239.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1347.
Hung Wu. 2006. “From the Neolithic to the Han“, in Howard 2006, 17–104.
Xi'an 2006. Xi'an – Kaiserliche Macht im Jenseits – Grabfunde und Tempelschätze aus Chinas alter Hauptstadt. (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland). Bonn. Philipp von Zabern.
Xi'an nanjiao Qin mu. 2004. Xi'an nanjiao Qin mu 西安南郊秦墓 (Qin tombs in the southern suburb of Xi'an). Xi'an: Shaanxi Renmin Press.
Xu Jay. 2001. “Bronze at Sanxingdui”, in Bagley Robert (ed.), Ancient Sichuan – Treasures from a Lost Civilization. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 59152.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies
  • ISSN: 0041-977X
  • EISSN: 1474-0699
  • URL: /core/journals/bulletin-of-the-school-of-oriental-and-african-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 69
Total number of PDF views: 273 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 2488 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.