The Discobolus of Qin 秦
By: Millie Huang
The Discobolus of Qin (links to external file) is a multimedia piece by Chinese-Canadian Millie Huang. It is an encapsulation of the scholarly dialogue speculating that Greek and Hellenistic artwork inspired the creation of China’s terracotta army.
Consisting of over 8000 soldiers, the army was sculpted in the late 3rd century BCE under the rule of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Each is life-sized with a painstakingly distinct appearance, created to accompany the emperor to the afterlife. Indeed, it seems that Qin and his soldiers have gained immortality—the terracotta soldiers have become an immense cultural symbol of the East.
Classics primarily focuses on developments from another corner of the world—the works of ancient Greece and Rome. The ancient world is nevertheless vast, which raises the question of whether there was substantial cultural exchange between the West and the East at the time of the Qin Dynasty. Some scholars seem to think yes. They argue that due to the lack of life-sized, naturalistic human sculptures in China preceding the Qin Dynasty, the terracotta warriors would not have been possible without Greek influence. This claim is supported by slim evidence of European DNA found in China’s Xinjiang province along with pottery techniques imported from the Mediterranean. However, the theory is greatly disputed by scholars because it projects a Eurocentric slant onto the work of other cultures—that is, it assumes other civilizations like ancient China were only capable of sophisticated artwork with the help of western artistic tradition. This pattern is not unique only to Qin’s Terracotta Army, but has repeated itself regarding other cultural artefacts and architecture around the ancient world. But the West must not forget that while ancient Greece influences, it has also been influenced—by the other Mediterranean civilizations like the Egyptians, in religion, cultural practices, and artistry.
Thus, Huang’s work overlays two representative sculptures: the Discobulos of Myron from Classical Greece (p. 3), and the Kneeling Archer from the Terracotta Army (p. 5). Multiple prints were created using digital tools to color the soldier, whose vibrant colors once breathed life into his form much like the sculptures in Greece. All works and conceptual images are compiled in this artbook. The few underlying themes in this work can be condensed into a few questions, recalling classicist Donna Zuckerberg’s article: What is so special about classics as a discipline? Does it have discretion to claim guidance over the cultural products of other civilizations? And, what is the responsibility of those in the classics community in defining the responsibilities of their field—one that operates in a diverse world, both ancient and modern?
Huang’s work ultimately aims to assert that while Eurocentric views are indeed subversive, it is possible to bring the two works into balanced cultural dialogue in order to contemplate the creative merit of each without discrediting either. Just as the work of one civilization is enough to provide scholarship for an entire lifetime, there is perhaps more to be gained in the multiculturalism of the ancient world. After all, the terracotta soldier may very well be pleased to finally be released from his solemn kneeling pose after two millenia.
Millie Huang (College ’22) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Neuroscience and Classical Studies.