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Phil Douglis | all galleries >> Galleries >> Gallery One: Travel Abstractions -- Unlimited Thought > Broken terracotta figures, Emperor Qin’s Tomb, Xian, China, 2004
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Broken terracotta figures, Emperor Qin’s Tomb, Xian, China, 2004

Over 6,000 life sized soldiers made of pottery guard the tomb of China's first emperor in Xian. Unearthed in 1974, this 2,000 year old army was accidentally discovered by farmers digging a well. The massed ranks of Xian's terracotta warriors are impressive, but even more poignant are the hundreds of broken soldiers awaiting eventual restoration. We saw many figures such as these, their heads smashed and bodies in fragments, slumbering in jumbled heaps, just as the archeologists found them. I converted this image from color to black and white. Black and white photography is a form of abstraction. It can be more symbolic as well, because it leaves more to the imagination. Black and white is often simpler in form, as well. This abstracted black and white version works more effectively as a symbol of the slumbering past. It is more stylized, and thus more haunting. The color version looks more like broken pottery, while this black and white image makes us think that we are looking at shattered human forms.

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Phil Douglis06-May-2018 18:14
You are right, Merri. The light is falling on the chest of this warrior, which remains virtually intact after being buried for 2,000 years. The head is in shadow, yet it is the head that gives this image its most powerful meaning. The head is crushed, and it does indeed blend into the soil behind it. The shadowy area is what, as you note, creates that "meld." This image, which I made 14 years ago, still stands as one of my favorite travel images. It takes a famous subject and presents it in an entirely different manner than we might expect. As I said in my reply to "Alibenn" on December 11, 2004, "Your comments come closest to what I sensed as I made this photograph. I deliberately did not describe my intentions in my caption because I wanted my cyberbook viewers to come to their own conclusions about the point of the picture. And as you can see, some of them have done so. The famous Warriors are indeed symbols of a despotic government. Thousands labored to build this tomb in the name of power and arrogance. Yet, as Clara also said below, "all armies are weak in the end." And so are governments based on power, greed, and tyranny. You are right. I made this image to comment on the arrogance of man and the inevitability of his decay.
Merri 05-May-2018 21:16
I've come back to this image a number of times trying to give definition to what I feel about it and I finally got it! The light is focused on the figure that is very nearly whole EXCEPT for his head which appears melded into the hardened, cracked soil behind it. It reminds me of the ash molds of the Pompeii victims. The use of B/W accentuates it.
Phil Douglis01-Nov-2006 18:12
Thank you, Amber -- that is one of the purposes of travel photography. To make the viewer feel as if she is there.
Amber Black 01-Nov-2006 17:04
I love this photograph! It makes me feel like I'm really there. I have seen lots of these pictures, but none of them were so unique.
Phil Douglis20-Jul-2006 23:29
What you say here, Annie, is embodied in this image-- and more. These soldiers guard the grave of China's first emperor, symbols of absolute authority. Time has smashed and crushed them. The soldier I feature here has a broken neck -- a symbol of sudden and irrecoverable death. The builder of this tomb sought immorality, yet this image graphically symbolizes his smashed dream. You have extended this metaphor to the makers of wars. History is full of lessons that were never learned. I am glad this image makes you, and hopefully others, focus on that truth. Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Annie.
Annie J20-Jul-2006 22:54
To me this image represents what war does to us...the broken soldiers represent just that, and so much more...not only does war "break" the soldiers (in more ways than one, those surviving combat often battle post traumatic stress disorder among other things, and this often "breaks" their relationships with family and friends)...war "breaks" nations, and "breaks" families. The soldiers here are not distinguishable as "unique" (in that the soldiers in this photo are not identifiable from any other soldier), therefore they really can represent any soldier or warrior who has fought in any battle throughout history. Perhaps by going to war, we (collectively, as inhabitants of this world) are digging ourselves into a trench such as this one to have what was once a wonderful thing become broken and shattered...
Phil Douglis21-Aug-2005 18:50
Beautifully said, Jude. Thank you for bringing out the symbolism of "their duty to guard and protect denied."
And then relating that fact to all of us -- deep down inside, we all tend to think of ourselves as immortal, yet this image makes us recognize the fact that we are not. This enormous tomb is, in itself, a stupendous act of denial. And here we see it smashed to pieces. All of us will die, whether we accept that fact or not. And this image is a summing up of that idea.
Jude Marion21-Aug-2005 15:27
This image sparks all sorts of reaction.
I know, for instance, that each figure represents an individual - that archeologists think these may have been actual 'portraits' of the soldiers. So these fragments, meant to live on forever, are broken - their 'spirit' or 'soul' is broken and their duty to guard and protect denied ... in a sense, nothing more than the rest of we mere mortals who will one day face our end.
Phil Douglis07-Apr-2005 22:46
What a beautiful comment, Sonia! Your view parallels my own. I found the rubble far more interesting than the reconstructions. It evoked the symbols of the tyrannical past much more effectively than the ranks of soldiers I photographed as well. Thank you for reading the meaning into that broken neck -- I was drawn to it because it symbolically drove home the sudden and irrevocable nature of death. And death is what this entire site represents. Emperor Qin wanted immortality, but in the end, like all of us, he found decay. And in that decay, as you say, are the smashed symbols of despotic rule. The abstracting force of the black and white image makes these symbols even more symbolic. They no longer look like broken pottery. They look more like broken people.
Guest 07-Apr-2005 21:16
This picture fascinates me a lot, Phil. I have been to Xian myself yet all the pictures I took were grand parade of terra cotta soldiers under the grand shelter of modern constructions.

The splendid age of king Chin has gone for long, the picture reveals his fear of death and the story of him trying to seek eternal life. Vanity is all he got, his broken accompanies were found but not his own body. This let us think about the meaning of our life. The most intriguing part is the broken neck, it brings out the feeling of death immediately.

I wish the historians will leave them as they are now, without restoring them, as the decay of the past shouldn't be restored. The resurrection of the terra-cotta soldiers will never bring back Chin's glory but the broken ones will bring reminiscence of his tyranny.
Phil Douglis14-Dec-2004 22:32
Thank you, Mikel, for coming to this image and finding what you found. You are a professional story teller, a photojournalist. You have read my story here, loudly and clearly. And you point up the duality of history. On one hand, tyrannical rulers deserve to be forgotten. But we also must learn from history if we are to survive. This particularly legacy, left to us by China's first emperor, can teach us much. Just as this image can. As I mentioned to Alister just below, this image speaks of the arrogance of man and the inevitability of his decay. May we learn our lessons well.
Guest 14-Dec-2004 21:45
It is an awsom reminder of a desapeard empire, it is like it shouts throe it's own decadence with these broken pieces, like the fall of the Roman Empire for explaning it in one way this looks like the fall of this empire and on the other hand it shows that for more that we search immortality that never exists, sooner or later you will deapere and get forgotten. In this case I have this abiguous feeleng, In a certain way I wold have wished thtat this tiran 3000 years old wold have ended up desapearing as many others, but I also recognize the ausome archeological legacy this means.
Phil Douglis11-Dec-2004 19:38
Thank you, Alister, for echoing my sentiments on this image. I consider it to be one of the most important images I have ever made because of this very idea. Others have commented along similar lines, but your comments come closest to what I sensed as I made this photograph. I deliberately did not describe my intentions in my caption because I wanted my cyberbook viewers to come to their own conclusions about the point of the picture. And as you can see, some of them have done so. The famous Warriors are indeed symbols of a despotic government. Thousands labored to build this tomb in the name of power and arrogance. Yet, as Clara also said below, "all armies are weak in the end." And so are governments based on power, greed, and tyranny. You are right. I made this image to comment on the arrogance of man and the inevitability of his decay.

In making this image, I was also no doubt influenced to a degree by Shelley's 19th Century poem "Ozymandias" -- which describes the crumbling ruins of a giant fallen statue of a king in the desert, ending in the words..."and on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the Decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare...The lone and level sands stretch far away."
alibenn11-Dec-2004 16:40
I like this a lot. The picture book images from Xi'an are symbols of power and arrogance, this image is the truth. They are a representation , not of a fallen Empire, but of the frailty of man. It was mans arrogance that bred this army of tomb companions and they are crumbling to dust, just as the emperor has. A very powerful image..
Phil Douglis01-Dec-2004 22:24
I greatly appreciate your interpretation of this photograph, Clara. All armies, and all the nations they represent, have crumbled with time. You have added a fascinating dimension to my image and I thank you for it.
Guest 01-Dec-2004 17:25
I agree that B/W is so useful to bring attention to meaning and form, to diminish distraction because of color. Here the meaning to me is that soldiers die too, that armies are weak in the end.
Phil Douglis19-Nov-2004 06:42
I like the way you have applied the lessons of history here. The shattered remnants of the life sized terra cotta soldiers who once guarded the tomb of China's first emperor are viewed by you in retrospect -- as symbols of a absolute authority now nothing but rubble. What I see as slumbering figures waiting to reborn, you see them as symbols of something that needed to be destroyed. Once again, the picture itself is just a starting point. What happens in the mind of the viewer is ultimately more important.
AMP19-Nov-2004 02:38
Explain very good.Break up an absolute monarchy.Need to be had how big of sacrifice.This image lets me sink into the thinking.
Phil Douglis30-Oct-2004 22:52
This is one of my favorite images from my Chinese trip. Your eloquent words speak volumes, nut. I see these soldiers as slumbering, waiting to be reassembled so they can march once again after 2,000 of sleeping in pieces. You see them as reminders of time, and what time leaves behind, and given the amount of time they have been sleeping, it makes our own lives seem awfully short. I appreciate your view, Nut, and it certainly compliments my intentions here.
nut 30-Oct-2004 15:56
This photo remind me how small I am. Time flows like the wind but still leave something
behide. Only these soldiers are here, just small soldiers to remind me the great time in history.
Phil Douglis22-Oct-2004 01:47
This is one of my favorite images, Yunyue. In fact, it is the picture I use as my own desktop image. Whenever I look at it, I see the shattered past trying to emerge into today's world.
Guest 21-Oct-2004 01:50
Very impressive!

It'll take over 300 years to fix these clay soldiers which were originally colorful.
Unknown Name17-Oct-2004 08:01
I like the feeling of this image. Thousands of years had passed, only shattered pieces like these can partly reveal this long history to us.
Phil Douglis16-Jul-2004 18:55
Thanks, Tim, for this suggestion. The broken figures in the tomb at Xian were a bonus. I had never seen pictures of them before, and had no idea I would see something as dramatic as this. I gasped when I first saw the thousands of shattered limbs and bodies that still litter the trenches of this dig. We both agree here. The past is indeed gone, and much of it is jumbled and distorted beyond recognition, just as these figures are. The past is asleep, now a dream, and these fragments are as well. They await the awakening -- understanding.
Tim May16-Jul-2004 18:09
I have seen many images of these figures and for me this is the most real. The past IS jumbled and destroyed and it is the task of historians and such to impose order on it.
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