Summer of my Terracotta Soldier

Representatives of Qin Shi Huang’s teracotta army, guarding my apple mint.

At a street sale on Saturday morning, in a silk-lined box set out on a table, was a souvenir set of four terracotta warrior figures. Without really meaning to do so, I found myself buying the figures for five dollars.

Qin Shi Huang (259 BCE to 210 BCE), the first Emperor of China, is well known for unifying disparate territories into a cohesive Chinese state, for major public infrastructure projects including the Lingqu canal and the Great Wall of China, and perhaps most widely, for the thousands of life-sized terracotta figures buried at his necropolis near Xian and rediscovered in 1974. The terracotta army, which includes 8,000 warriors, along with chariots, horses and other military figures, has become a popular tourist attraction, and many visitors buy souvenir warriors, made mainly in miniature, to pack home in their suitcases. Souvenir warrior sets are also sold internationally at museums hosting traveling exhibits. In 2010 the Royal Ontario Museum here in Toronto hosted one such exhibition, and this I suspect is the source of my terracotta warriors.

My aesthetic runs more toward Upper Canada cottage than Qin dynasty China (although of course as a geographer I am interested in Qin’s public infrastructure approach to nation-building; my daughter also has an abiding interest in Chinese history, and it is from her that I learned about Emperor Qin in the first place!), but I didn’t buy these terracotta warriors for any intellectual or aesthetic reason. I bought them because they reminded me of my mother, a life-long yard sale hound who would have snatched up these warriors either to display in her dining room or to pack away as a present. If she were still alive, I would have brought these to her as a gift, knowing she would chortle over their history, and their size and detail, before setting them out in a grouping on a windowsill or shelf.

But because I cannot give these terracotta warriors to my mother, I brought them home and set them in pots in a sheltered corner of our veranda balcony, where they keep watch among the mint. Emperor Qin might grimace at the tiny territory these warriors defend, but I think he’d smile at the setting.

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P.S. At the same street sale I also bought this wonderful contemporary pot, salt-glazed by a local potter whose name I wish I had thought to ask. I love its texture and shape: organic, yet formal. This pot is also spending the summer on the veranda, but in the fall I think it will come indoors to join my collection of 19th century jugs and crocks.

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