Terracotta Warriors on the Rhine

Translatio Imperii Sinici


I find you here …
Blindly recreating
A black dream-hole of history.

P.K. Leung


yǒng, ‘terracotta figure interred with the dead’, in Small Seal Script 小篆

On 1 July 2017, China Heritage marked the twentieth anniversary of mainland China extending suzerainty over Hong Kong with a series of translations, commentaries and art works. We started that series with ‘Cauldron’ 鼎, a poem by the celebrated Hong Kong writer Leung Ping-kwan (梁秉鈞, 1949-2013, also known as P.K. Leung and Yasi 也斯, his pen name).

P.K.’s ‘Terracotta Warriors on the Rhine’ 萊茵河畔的兵馬俑, translated into English by John Minford, is the latest chapter in China Heritage 2019, the theme of which is Translatio Imperii Sinici. As ‘Cauldron’ 鼎 also resonates powerfully with the theme of the imperial, it is reproduced below. In this vein, we also recommend ‘The Great Palace of Ch’in — a Rhapsody’ 《阿房宮賦》 by the Tang-dynasty poet Du Mu 杜牧 and translated by John Minford.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
18 April 2019

A Note on Translatio Imperii Sinici

China’s First Emperor (始皇, Ying Zheng 嬴政, r.220-210 BCE), as well as what is known as ‘The Rule of the Qin’ 秦制, a shorthand expression that has long been used to characterise tyrannical government, frequently feature in China Heritage. The autocratic mindset and habits of China’s past, as well as the shadow that they cast over the People’s Republic today, are of particular concern to writers like Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, whose work has been appearing in these virtual pages since 1 August 2018.

As we noted in our description of Translatio Imperii Sinici when introducing China Heritage Annual 2019, the concept of ‘Empire’ has enjoyed renewed debate among historians and political scientists for over a decade, and it has featured in our own work since the launch of China Heritage Quarterly in 2005 and through our advocacy of New Sinology 後漢學.

In Drop Your Pants!, our five-part series on the Communist Party’s 2018 patriotic education campaign, we discussed the creation in the 1920s of the Chinese party-state 黨國, a Nationalist-era term revived in recent years to describe the People’s Republic. We also introduced the journalist Chu Anping’s observations on Party Empire 黨天下, a word he used to describe holistic Party control and one that re-entered China’s political vocabulary as a result of the investigative historian Dai Qing’s study of Chu, and China’s suppressed liberal political traditions, in 1989.

In light of developments during the first years of the Xi Jinping era (2012-), the political scientist Vivienne Shue has suggested the importance of discussing ‘the Sinic world’s singular experience of empire, imperial breakdown, and passage to political modernity’. Once more, it seems pressingly relevant to investigate the country’s 國體 — an ancient term revived for use in nineteenth-century Japan and subsequently ‘re-imported’ to China when thinkers were debating the nature of dynastic or, for that matter, post-dynastic government. 國體 is not merely about formal governance or the system of rule, or indeed limited to the ideological underpinnings of the state, it is also used to indicate ‘national essence’, that is those things which constitute a ruled territory, its mores and imagination, its identities and cultures, in fact, its total existential presence. In an essay titled ‘Party-state, nation, empire’, Shue asks: ‘What light … can reexamining China’s oddly intact transfiguration — from dynastic empire to people’s republic — shed on how the Party has governed since 1949?’

In China Heritage Annual 2019 we aim to contribute to this line of inquiry, although our interests range beyond the immediate academic concerns of political scientists. While mindful of the yearnings, or at least nostalgia, for empire redux in such diverse modern polities as Erdoğan’s Turkey, Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India and Abe’s Japan, as well as however one manages to characterise the United States of America under Donald Trump, we would posit that Translatio Imperii, is no recent fad in China; indeed, it has been unfolding since the Taiping Civil War (1850-1864) and the Tongzhi Restoration (同治中興, 1860-1874, also known as the Self-strengthening Movement). It reached a significant contemporary moment in 1997 when Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin used the old Qing dynastic-era expression — ‘restoration’ 中興— to describe the post-1978 and post-1989 restoration of his regime’s fortunes. Our concerns, therefore, are not merely with the incipient ‘Red Empire’ of the Xi Jinping era — something discussed at length by Tsinghua Professor Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 — but also with the ideas, habits, cultural expressions and aspirations of empire that have marked China’s modern history, and which still powerfully influence the Chinese world, and will continue to do so.

P.K.’s ‘Terracotta Warriors on the Rhine’ gives voice to the poet’s unflinching encounter with a dark legacy.


In 1974, farmers in Lintong county not far from Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province 陝西省臨潼縣, discovered evidence of what turned out to be an army of terracotta warriors, horses, chariots and military equipment made as funerary objects that were buried in serried ranks in pits at the site of the tomb of the First Emperor. Since an initial exhibit in Melbourne in 1982, the ‘Terracotta Army’ 兵馬俑 has become arguably the most readily recognised symbol of China. For some, the vast array of ancient cultural artifacts is sullied by its associations both with Qin tyranny and Mao-era terror.



Terracotta Warriors on the Rhine


Leung Ping-kwan 梁秉鈞

Translated by John Minford


I thought to see you here
On the banks of the Rhine
Standing proudly to attention in the rain,
Lonely soldiers sent to guard distant frontiers,
Yearning for distant homes and the embraces of your wives.

Instead I find you here
In this lakeside park,
Surrounded by tawdry bunting,
Dragon-and-phoenix flags,
Huddled together in marquees,
Blindly recreating
A black dream-hole of history.

Lost in sombre unsmiling reflections,
Anger and indignation
Suppressed, dissipated, transformed
Beneath a gloomy

Excavated after long centuries of history,
Each of you no doubt once an individual,
But now to foreign eyes
No more than a host of
Expressionless Chinamen.

Your Emperor’s ambition,
His fear of being alone,
Froze you, buried you
In his chosen space.
Could you ever really breathe down there,
Could you hear the sea?

A blonde-haired girl passes by,
Looks you up and down,
Glancing at your broken left arm.
You’d never be able to understand
Her gentle wiles,
Her soft beguiling words.
How clumsy you are
In these civilised surroundings!

No words can hope to trace
Your twisted tale,
No words can tell
Your history,
So much bloodier than theirs –
A longer catalogue
Of famines and disasters!
And your Emperor,
Who buried so many men of letters,
So many books,
Who was so much more ruthless
Than theirs ever was.

You ancient lumps of clay!
You terracotta puppets,
Standing dumbly in expectant rows –
A product line awaiting
Market appreciation!
Go home!
Let your ghouls and monsters
Take you home!
You have no place here,
On the banks of this river,
In this land of fine wine.
You’ll never set in motion
A bloody revolution here!
Those swords in your frozen hands
Will never pierce men’s hearts here!
The gentle breeze
Wafting from the riverbank,
Will never heal your hearts,
Crushed and broken
Time and again!
The rays of the sun will never melt
The cruelty of your history,
Sealed fast so many thousands of years
In its deep mental tomb.














Leung Ping-kwan 梁秉鈞


As the Zhou Dynasty rebuilt the Empire
and celebrated the unity of All-Under-Heaven,
courtiers were honoured, ceremonial music composed
metals melted, vessels cast, new injunctions set in bronze,
power revalidated.

The grand banquet commenced, noblemen and elders took the
places of honour;
while savage fauna bubbled restlessly in the cauldron,
a sober phoenix motif replaced the gruesome mask of the Beast.

Our humble bellies have ingested a surfeit of treachery, eaten their fill of history, wolfed down legends —
and still the banquet goes on, leaving
an unfilled void in an ever-changing structure.
Constantly we become food for our own consumption.
For fear of forgetting we swallow our loved ones,
we masticate our memories and our stomachs rumble
as we look outwards.

Creation’s aspirations are trussed,
caught tight by the luminous bronze.
In his campaign against the Chu, the southern state,
as the Emperor approached the wilderness beyond the Central Plain,
ten thousand bawled for the rustics beyond the pale,
to make their low bow of homage;
stone and metal engraved; vessels fashioned; tintinnabulations of history.

The proclamations sit heavy on the stomach,
destroy the appetite;
the table is altogether overdone.

May I abstain from the rich banquet menu,
eat my simple fare, my gruel, my wild vegetables,
cook them, share them with you?

Is there a chance
your pomp and circumstance could ever change,
into a new motif,
some new arabesque
of beauty?

Translated by John Minford and Can Oi-sum



  • This translation previously appeared in ‘Banquets of History’, the concluding chapter in Geremie R. Barmé, The Forbidden City, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univeristy Press, 2008, pp.190-191. China Heritage has also published P.K.’s poem ‘Leaf Contact’ 連葉, accompanied by the photographic work of Lois Conner.