The Qin Dynasty, the Hellenistic Empire, and the Art that May Connect Them: Why Exploring Cultural Connections Matters for Educators and Students of World History
Patrick and Michelle Bulla
The subject of interconnections among world cultures has long been explored in history curricula and in classrooms. Shared expressions of customs and beliefs, such as art, the subject of this work, have often been studied in an effort to better understand relationships between cultures and peoples. While this approach is thus not new and is often controversial, the concept of interconnection, especially when employed to serve in the development of critical thinking, is more critical than ever. In a world increasingly perceived as divided by cultural and racial identities, facilitating student understanding of interconnection may help educators establish foundations for open-mindedness, tolerance, and acceptance. We acknowledge that the exploration of cultural connections between peoples through art can lead to overreach, but we are not alone believing that exploring global interconnectedness through the study of artistic expression remains a plausible means of engaging students to explore more deeply the growing complexity of human relationships in the age of increasing globalization.1
Why China/Hellenistic Greece?
While there are many connections one might explore, there is one that has, of late, captured the attention of historians and educators around the globe: the possibility that Greek / Hellenistic artistic ideas were present in China far earlier than previously believed. (A model instructional unit follows in the Appendix).
The history of the Silk Road or "Silk Routes," as historians prefer to call it, is traditionally taught to have begun with the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E to 220 C.E.); however, while these routes were pathways for continental trade and travel, educators and historians do not identify a clearly established connection between the west and China until around the era of Marco Polo's cross-continental explorations. The stories of Marco Polo have always been considered the archetypal evidence of a trade connection between the China and the west.
In recent years, there has been some thinking and evidence to suggest that this contact may have begun much earlier. This research and these theories are opening the door for interesting discussions around cultural connections and early interactions.
Often named Shi Huangdi (259 B.C.E–210 B.C.E.) in history textbooks but called Emperor Qin Shi Huang by the Chinese, the first emperor of China plays a significant role in the curriculum for ninth grade Global Studies teachers, and is the key figure in the theory posited by archaeologists and researchers relative to a transcontinental connection believed to have begun long after Qin declared a unified China in 221 B.C.E., and his dynasty ended in 207 B.C.E., cut short by civil wars.
Qin's massive necropolis, over twenty times the size of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt,2 is the site of the infamous and awesome archaeological marvel called The Terracotta Army (Figure 1). This army, comprised of over 8000 life-size statues of soldiers, horses, carriages, and weapons, reveals the vision and power of Emperor Qin. The site is used by educators to help students understand that what is sometimes identified as a wonder of the world is a reflection of Chinese art and accomplishments by the man identified as the first unifier of the various warring states of China, and thus named its first emperor.
Qin's dynasty and necropolis are hailed by Chinese as a singularly Chinese accomplishment and archaeological feat, as it is always assumed that the Chinese developed their culture largely in isolation of outside influence. However, new research suggests that there may in fact have been earlier contact with westerners, and that this contact may be evidenced by certain artistic decisions and styles used in the construction of the terracotta warriors and other statuary from the site.
In 2016 this theory hit the mainstream with a story published on Smithsonian.com entitled, "Did the Greeks help sculpt China's terracotta warriors?"3 The article reiterates ideas of others previously published, relaying a theory that the ancient Chinese may have been inspired by Westerners in the design of the terracotta warriors for the tomb of the first Emperor.
Theorists posed a primary reason for looking outside China for artistic influence: there is no evidence, prior to the terracotta warriors being created, of this type of realistic and life-like statuary (Figure 2) in China. To complicate matters, despite the grand size of the necropolis, it was reportedly constructed over an extremely short time frame of ten years. Such a monumental transformation in style is not common in the artistic world, as techniques, forms, material use, and style tend more typically to evolve over extended periods of time.
If the theory is correct, this would not be the first time Greek / Hellenistic anthropomorphistic art influenced another culture's sculptural style and iconography. One example of Hellenistic inspiration is identified in the inclusion of statues and facial depictions of Buddha in Gandharan art sometime during the Maurya Emire, 270–218 B.C.E.; these tropes were not seen prior to the influx of Greeks into Gandhara at the end of Alexander the Great's conquests in 327 B.C.E.
In the spring of 2014, Juping Yang, Professor of Ancient History at Nankai University and Vice President of the Society for the Study of Ancient and Medieval History in China, theorized on this influence. His research included the comparison between the Chinese and the Hellenistic civilizations, and he presented a paper entitled "Hellenistic Information in China"4 wherein he declared that there was a connection between West and East through Buddhism and Gandharan art. He noted that Gandharan artistic style reveals this connection, saying "the eastward spread of Buddhist art facilitated the spread of Hellenistic elements contained within it into China."
While acknowledging arguments in the discussion of the connection, Yang notes that in early Buddhist iconography, there is no image of Buddha himself until Greeks began to apply the inherently anthropomorphic religious sculptural style of Greek mythology to Buddhism. Thus, prior to the reign of Emperor Qin in Xi'an and the creation of his necropolis, figural images of Buddha himself emerged and influenced Gandharan art to include realistic, anthropomorphic portrayals of the deity.
To support the connection, Yang's paper notes the timing of the presence of Greeks in northwest India, and their introduction to Buddhism. He asserts that when Alexander the Great entered and conquered northwest India in 327 B.C.E., Buddhism had not yet spread to this area. Thus, he claims, the Greco-Macedonians would not have encountered Buddhism until the reign of King Asoka under the Maurya Empire, anywhere from 270 B.C.E. to 218 B.C.E. It is this king who introduced the Greeks to the Buddhist faith, which ultimately led to great changes in Buddhist iconography, clothing, architecture, and symbols, including elements of realism in facial depictions of Buddha, which had not existed in Buddhist art prior (Figure 3).
Gandhara, in modern-day northwest Pakistan, sat at a key location in Asia at a potentially critical juncture near the ancient region known as Bactria, where after the death of Alexander, Hellene soldiers remained. These cultures mixed, and Greco-Buddhist culture extended through the Tarim Basin into China,5 thus creating fertile ground for these theorists.
Might the design of the terracotta army have been influenced by very early travelers / traders on the silk routes? The influence of the classical traditions of the Indo-Greek kings that succeeded Alexander are, according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "an important part of Gandhara's artistic vocabulary over the next seven centuries," and are identified as being a possible early influence for Qin's radical statuary demands.6
While not intending to draw a definitive conclusion on the subject, Lucas Christopoulos, a researcher and student of ancient China, writes about the proximity of the two cultures—3000km, and what he believes is the high likelihood that Greco-Bactrian artists are responsible for the construction of the twelve gigantic bronze statues ordered by Qin. They were made from the melted weaponry of the Qiang Barbarians in Lintao, and later moved (or copied, depending on the historical source) to guard the entrance of the emperor's mausoleum. Christopoulos wonders if the significance of both the number and the concept echo the twelve Olympian gods of the Greeks of Bactria.
Lukas Nickel, Chair of Asian Art History at the University of Vienna, is one of the prominent voices in this discussion. In several articles and a contribution in the production of "The Greatest Tomb on Earth" video, he presents the possibility that the fluid and lively style of the statues of acrobats (Figure 4) found at the tomb of the terracotta army strongly reflect influence of Greek / Hellenistic style. He derives much of the plausibility from placing the surge of sculpture-making at the time of Qin's tomb building in the context of contemporary sculptural work in the area.
Acknowledging Christopoulos' thoughts on the twelve Olympian gods, Nickel's 2013 "The First Emperor and sculpture in China"7 delves much deeper into the discussion. He identifies early figural statues and ceramics from over a 1000 years earlier than the Qin, but that these examples are few and far between, and may not have been known by Qin's craftsmen. As well there are examples from the several hundred years prior to Qin's army, though use of figures in tombs was not common. Some of Nickel's most convincing commentary centers on study of the acrobatic figures found in excavation sites near the necropolis. Nickel analyzes the style of these statues, noting that because they are nude and constructed with attention to the interconnectedness of the parts of the human body, it is easier to draw connections to Greek style. He notes that looking only at the warriors shows a limited range and scope: "The limited degree of understanding of the human body makes the terracotta warriors to some extent comparable to the Kouros figures [Figure 5] of the Greek Archaic period, sculpture in pre-Alexandrian Persia or Egypt or, for instance, megaliths in southern Siberia."
Contrastingly, the acrobats illustrate a more direct connection to Greek style. According to Nickel:
Nickel cites fellow researcher John Boardman's observation that this style of realistically portraying the human body was a quality inherently Greek.
In "The First Emperor and sculpture in China," Nickel also discusses the geographical proximity between the eastern edge of Alexander's conquests, noting the legacy he left in Gandhara, and furthers the discussion by exploring Alexander's demands about the creation and use of art when he claims, "Alexander's campaigns paved the way for a radical transformation in the culture of antiquity that is conventionally termed Hellenism." According to Nickel, Alexander commissioned representative artworks that glorified his likeness in the forms of a youth, a general, a god, and ordered these works to be on public display, using art, as Nickel terms it, as "propagandistic…[giving] the arts a political function." See Figure 7 for a visual of a representative sculpture of Alexander.
Found in the remains of Kunduz, an ancient city dating from 300 B.C.E to 160 B.C.E. near Ai Khanoum in modern-day Afghanistan, bronze artifacts and other archaeological sites point to a connection. They include a gymnasium, theater, Corinthian capitals, and mosaic floors that reveal tremendous Greek influence in the area, according to Nickel's research. These findings and the Macedonian-styled helmets (Figure 8) on the bronzes indicate, according to Nickel, "that its maker was at least familiar with Hellenistic art."
Nickel points out that either nomadic populations in the areas of the Pamirs or western-traveling Chinese may have carried knowledge of Hellenistic forms back to the Qin empire's craftsmen. Additionally, the writings about the giant bronze statues discussed earlier to have been constructed initially in Lintao, along with the rest of the "evidence," points at least to a great possibility of a cultural exchange between the Chinese and the west. He notes that the desire for a nationalistic and isolationist perspective on the development of early Chinese civilization and culture is recent, and asks for additional research and discussion, closing the "First Emperor" article with this call, "The First Empire of the East can only be fully assessed if discussed in a pan-Eurasian context."
It is important to note that not everyone believes there is evidence for Greek influence on the terracotta army. Independent researcher and author of several books on the ancient Roman empire and its connections outward, Dr. Raoul McLaughlin, published a video in June 2017 addressing the very question, "Did the Greeks inspire the Terracotta Army?"8 wherein he clearly claims the answer to this question is a resounding "No," as there is no evidence. He notes the difference between the highly skilled artisans of Greek sculpture, the public purposes of those sculptures, and the carving from solid blocks of marble as all being distinct from the mass-produced private army of soldiers made by "semi-skilled workers" from hollow clay. He addresses the significance of the number of bronze statues ordered by Qin as echoes of the twelve lunar months, as well as the twelve "degrees of direction in Chinese cosmology," making no mention of Olympian gods, thus refuting the notion that symbology of the number twelve must be western in origin.
It is also important to note that it has been disputed by Chinese archaeologists as well. In a National Geographic article and accompanying video interview9 published in 2016, Dr. Wu Yongqi, Director of the Museum of the Terracotta Army, notes the advancements and innovations of Emperor Qin to include standardizing weights and measures, economic, political, legal, and monetary systems. He therefore implies that unique statuary breakthroughs would fit right in with Qin's revolutionary pattern.
Several sources point out that scientists have evidence to support that western mitochondrial DNA existed in China around the time the statues were made. Aside from this, there is no additional archaeological evidence placing Europeans at the site of the tomb, and all of the warrior statues bear Chinese workshop stamps. Li Xiuzhen, senior archaeologist from the Mausoleum Site Museum, argued in an interview with Xinhua10 that her comments on the BBC video were taken out of context, and that the BBC juxtaposed her comments about potential influence with those of ickel, creating the appearance of agreement. She claims quite clearly that the provenance of the warriors is uniquely Chinese, saying, "I am an archaeologist, and I value evidence. I've found no Greek names on the backs of Terracotta Warriors, which supports my idea that there was no Greek artisan training the local sculptors."
In an article published on Hindustan Times, "Greek influence? 'Foreign forces spar over China's Terracotta Warriors,"11 the sensitivities around this theory are grounded in previously identified Chinese inventions and societal advancements: "Questioning their origins touches on deep sensitivities, as many take pride in China's early discovery of world-changing inventions, from gunpowder to the compass and moveable type." The article quotes Zhang Weixing, the museum's lead archaeologist, as dismissing the possibility of western influence as "merely exist[ing] in the scholar's conjecture," alluding to the comments and publications of Lukas Nickel.
Additionally, critics have addressed the Eurocentric perspective employed around the world in the analysis and examination of cultural and archaeological advancements, and the inherent ethnocentricity of this logic. The premise, noted in an article called "Why there's so much backlash to the theory that Greek art inspired China's Terracotta Army" published in The Conversation, a site devoted to independent, academic journalism, is that this view is intrinsically flawed, as it relies on "a Eurocentric logic which has long assumed other civilizations were fundamentally incapable of creating highly technical, impressive and aesthetically pleasing works of art." The authors, Hanink and Silva, explain that these views are essentially "colonial notion[s]," which disregard the potential of the culture in which items are created, and are based on a need to question non-European societal and cultural capabilities, framing it this way: "How else could they explain sophisticated artistic techniques and engineering genius among 'primitive' societies?" They go on to discuss the issue in a segment of the article subtitled, "The Costly Mirage of Western Influence," noting further the corruptive quality of such a perspective, alluding to a parallel example discussed earlier in the article referring to a possible Greek appropriation of Ottoman culture:
Certainly, these authors give us much to contemplate. They remind historians, researchers, archaeologists, and the general public that theories relative to the influence of one culture on another is a matter for serious discussion, and one for careful exploration of evidence. Our views of the world, including where and how individuals relate to the broader scope of cultural identity, depend on it.
In 2016 a story broke that revealed scientists discovered two skeletons found buried in an ancient Roman graveyard in London that dated between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD. Though at least four hundred years after the creation of the Qin necropolis, technologies had not evolved such that this great distance would have been any easier to traverse than during Qin's time. Thus, it would seem that there is burgeoning evidence being uncovered around the world indicating people were on the move and travelled far greater distances than ever previously believed.
If these stories are found to reveal truths about the ancient world never previously suspected, then not only would history books need to be rewritten, but we would be forced to address the concept of culturally distinct developments previously isolated to singular cultures as having to be examined with the knowledge that mankind and world cultures have possibly been far more interconnected and interrelated than previously believed.
These theories and the related research lead to some fascinating questions for contemplation, and which formulate the basis for the model instructional unit that is developed in the Appendix that follows this article:
These are questions we might pose to our students, issues we might inspire them to explore, and the kind of study of global social systems that we hope to facilitate for them.
Patrick Bulla is a Social Studies teacher at Monroe-Woodbury High School in New York where he teaches Global Studies 9 and an Introduction to Psychology elective. He earned a Bachelor's in History at State University of New York at Oswego and a Master's in Secondary Education, Social Studies, at State University of New York at Albany. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Michelle Bulla is an English teacher and 9–12 Department Chair at Monroe-Woodbury High School in New York where she teaches AP Literature and Composition and Exploring Teaching As A Profession, an elective introduction to teaching and education. She earned Bachelor of Arts degrees in both English and English Education at Boston University, and Master of Arts degrees in both Secondary Education, English, and Educational Administration at State University of New York at New Paltz. Prior to teaching in the United States, Michelle taught English in Chengdu, China. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teaching World History Through Interdisciplinary/Humanities Global Studies and English Research and Argument Unit: Objectives and Lessons
Interdisciplinary / Literacy Objectives:
Global Studies Content-Specific Objectives—Deepen students' understanding and appreciation for:
Lesson One - Introduction to concepts, topic, controversy, and inquiry questions
Part I: Key Concepts / Terms
Part II: Topic and Inquiry Questions
And for advanced students, or those introduced to Jungian Archetypes:
Lesson Two - Reading Primary Sources for greater depth of understanding
Immerse students in the reading of an article by one of the researchers to allow them to explore in greater depth the various bases for the potential validity of the theory being a plausible one. The teacher should introduce the text, "The First Emperor and sculpture in China" by Lukas Nickel, by conducting a whole-class reading and discussion of the abstract and the introduction. Model the reading strategy students will use later, asking them to make annotations.
To annotate, instruct students to use these two questions from the work of Kylene Beers and Bob Probst in Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies 13 to aid their engagement, comprehension, and annotations:
Then, classes should be divided into five expert groups to read and annotate the following sections of the document:
After reading and annotating, expert groups should collaborate to identify the following:
Lesson Three - Jigsaw Groups
Give students the opportunity to be an expert in their section of the Nickel article to teach their classmates what they read and learned. Organize groups so that there is one member of each expert group in today's new groups. In order of the document sections, student experts share the major topics, key evidence, and possible claims identified by their expert group in the previous lesson. Listeners annotate their own articles, highlighting the passages remarked upon by the expert, taking notes on the information.
Conduct a whole-class review of the "Summary" section of the article.
Lesson Four - Exploring Counter-Claims and Developing Arguments
Part I: Exploring Counter-Claims
This lesson uses two articles that refute Nickel's theory and the BBC video:
Divide the class into pairs and distribute one copy of each article to each student.
Have each student read and annotate one of the articles for major topics, key evidence, and possible claims to refute the theory.
Then, following the model established in the jigsaw exercise, students should present to their partner the major topics, key evidence, and possible claims presented in their article while the listener takes notes.
Part II: Developing Arguments
Pose the following questions to students:
Place students in either new pairs or new small groups to answer the questions, citing evidence from the texts explored in this unit, as well as their understanding of cultural diffusion, geography, previous learning, and outside knowledge.
Lesson Five - Writing Arguments (assessment)
Either individually, in pairs, or in small groups, re-pose the inquiry questions for students to think about, discuss, and craft an argumentative response that includes evidence, discussion of counter-claim(s), and a concluding statement addressing the relevance of the debate for current and future historians.
Unit Conclusion and Projected Expectations
To be clear, we are not advocating we want students to believe the theory is true, but rather to get them to think about the possibilities relative to global interconnectedness if it is, and the simultaneously occurring cross-cultural innovations that have been identified around the world if it is not. We hope that by immersing students in the controversy regarding a relatively recent archaeological find—and ones that are occurring in their time and those that will inevitably come—that we can engage them in an investigative approach that makes learning history more appealing, inviting them to be active vs. passive learners.
1 See the responses, both positive and deeply critical, to Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, an effort to identify globally common tropes of what Campbell and others call “A Heroes Journey,” which have been accused of being so broad as to be meaningless. See the works of Robert Ellwood and others cited in the accessible, in every sense of the word, website, “Heroes Journey,” Section 6 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey. Accessed on September 10, 2019.
2 "The Greatest Tomb on Earth: Secrets of Ancient China," Video, directed by Nic Young (London, UK: British Broadcasting Corporation, Brook Lapping Productions, 2016). For further information see https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6150774/. Accessed on July 24, 2019.
3 Jason Daley, "Did the Greeks help sculpt China's terracotta warriors?" at Smithsonian.com (October 14, 2016), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/did-greeks-help-sculpt-chinas-terracotta-warriors-180960771/. Accessed at March 2, 2018.
4 Jupine Yang, "Hellenistic Information in China," Center for Hellenic Studies Research Bulletin, Vol. 2, no. 2 (2014), available at http://www.chs-fellows.org/2014/10/03/hellenistic-information-in-china/. Accessed on March 2, 2018.
5 Lucas Christopoulos, "Hellenes and Romans in Ancient China (240 BC–1398 AD)," Sino-Platonic Papers, Number 230 (Philadelphia, PA: Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania, 2012), 2. Also available at http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp230_hellenes_romans_in_china.pdf. Accessed August 28, 2019.
6 Kurt Behrendt, "Gandhara," Metropolitan Museum of Art, at https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/gand/hd_gand.htm. Accessed on March 2, 2018.
7 Lukas Nickel, "The First Emperor and Sculpture in China," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 76, no. 3 (October 2013), 413–447.
9 A. R. Williams, "Discoveries May ReWrite History of China's Terra-Cotta Warriors," NationalGeographic.com (October 12, 2016), at https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/china-first-emperor-terra-cotta-warriors-tomb/. Accessed on 2 March 2, 2018.
10 "Chinese Archaeologist refutes BBC report on Terracotta Warriors," www.xinhuanet.com (October 18, 2016) at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2016-10/18/content_27097821.htm. Accessed on March 2, 2018.
11 "Greek influence? 'Foreign forces spar over China's Terracotta Warriors," Hindustan Times October 28, 2016 at https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/greek-influence-foreign-forces-spar-over-china-s-terracotta-warriors/story-Ca5KuYSoZS4EdAvycJc2AM.html. Accessed on March 2, 2018.
12 Johanna Hanink and Felipe Rojas Silva, "Why there's so much backlash to the theory that Greek art inspired China's Terracotta Army," The Conversation (November 17, 2016), at https://theconversation.com/why-theres-so-much-backlash-to-the-theory-that-greek-art-inspired-chinas-terracotta-army-67488. Accessed on March 2, 2018.
13 Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies (Porstmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2015). See blog.heinemann.com, August 2015 at https://www.heinemann.com/products/e05080.aspx#fulldesc. Accessed on March 2, 2018.
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