This is the past, forgotten, recovered and revised for each generation. Restorations here are still underway, although enough statues have been put back together to draw daily throngs, a living legion to face off with the dead. I steel myself for a nationalistic display of raw power, an overwhelming assembly poised to conquer. Instead, I feel a strange lightness, hemmed in by the crowd, gazing down into the great ashen pit. History belongs to the powerful, not those who serve them, but here the emperor is absent. How individual the soldiers are, six feet tall and dressed forever for battle, hair braided and wrapped in a tight bun tilted to the right or flattened beneath a cap or plated crown. I didn’t know we’d be so close that I could look them in the eye. Only from a distance are they an army; this near, each has a face entirely his own. Some seem caught midstride, cast down in thought, with a trace of a smile. Others brood and glower, or lie in parts on wheeled steel tables, as if in a makeshift hospital. They are beautiful, these broken sentinels, still half animated by the flesh-and-blood warriors who were their models, and by the invisible artisans who carved each knuckle, each puckered sleeve. Unmoored from their mission, they wait. Among them stand conscripts from minority peoples who were vanquished and swallowed up by empire. Their eyes and cheekbones are evidence: We, too, were here.
Ligaya Mishan is a writer at large for T. Emma Hardy is working on a monograph called “Homework” and is based in London. Production: PSN Production.