Issue:  Vol. 44 / No. 35 / 28 August 2014
 
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China's Terracotta
Warriors: You are there

Fine Arts


Armored General (detail), Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), China. Terracotta, excavated from Pit 1, Qin Shihuang tomb complex (1980). Photo: Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, Shaanxi
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Nearly 40 years ago, five farmers, searching for well water in central China's Shaanxi province, accidentally stumbled upon the archaeological find of the century: the 2,200-year-old remnants of a burial complex housing an entire legion of life-sized, eerily life-like terracotta warriors interred 4-6 meters underground near the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the self-proclaimed First Emperor of China (221-210 BCE). One can only imagine the awe experienced by the team of archaeologists when they caught their first jaw-dropping glimpse of the eighth wonder of the world, a spectacular discovery comparable to that of Howard Carter and George Herbert's opening of King Tut's tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings in 1922. Like the Egyptian pharaohs, the First Emperor was obsessed with eternal life and transplanting himself and his material comforts, along with his retinue and immense military, into the next world. A planner, he had commenced construction on a vast necropolis at the age of 13, when he rose to power.

So far, over 8,000 of the warriors, most of whom were found standing in battle formation in the mausoleum's network of tunnels along with their weapons, chariots and horses, have been excavated from the massive site, which has become a tourist mecca. At 250,000 sq. ft., it's the length of four football fields, and includes a replica of the imperial palace with stables, offices, an armory, an amusement park, an aviary with elegant bronze sculptures of waterfowl, and a zoo.

China's Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor's Legacy, a wondrous new exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, provides a worthy showcase for 10 of the clay statues – the maximum number that China allows out of the country per institution. It also focuses on Qin Shihuang's consuming quest for immortality, as well as his unification of the provinces, a mammoth undertaking that involved the standardization of currency, weights and language, and the building of infrastructure. Lest you think he's only remembered for his innovations, it has been rumored that he had the 720,000 workers enlisted to construct the project buried alive upon its completion to preserve the tomb's secrets. The story has been dismissed by some as myth, but it nonetheless sheds light on the perception of a ruthless tyrant who unified the country at great cost to his enemies, executing scholars, burning books and smiting anyone who dared stand in his way.

Although the warriors are certainly the headliner, the bulk of the exhibition is comprised of 110 objects taken from the burial chambers of the First Emperor's ancestors and areas surrounding his eminence's tomb. Bronze weaponry and sculptures, a limestone suit of armor and helmet (the latter designed for burial, not combat), figurines and a plaque inscribed with an imperial decree are among the pieces on display. But the main attraction is the presence of the 10 magisterial figures – two horses and eight soldiers representing a variety of ranks – who are like emissaries from a long-ago distant age.

Armored kneeling archer, Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), China. Terracotta, excavated from Pit 2, Qin Shihuang tomb complex (1977). Photo: Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, Shaanxi

The exhibition's crackerjack installations, designed by Marco Centin, are possibly the museum's best yet, and that's saying a lot, because the Asian's presentations consistently outclass those of other local venues. Somehow they've surmounted the biggest and most daunting challenge they faced: communicating the enormity of the ancient army with a mere 10 statues.

The warriors occupy their own gallery, one of three spaces filled with objects, historical context and videos, and can be viewed close-up from multiple angles. Theatrically lit like a stage set in a darkened room, they stand on two separate platforms, while on one large wall, a slide show with blown-up photographs of one of the pits conveys the vastness of the find, and scenes of the actual excavation, which is still underway, unfold on a video screen. Incredibly well-preserved, the figures, which were once painted in blazing bright colors, are amazingly lifelike with expressive faces, individual hairstyles and an uncanny sense of movement in their muscular physiques. Take the formidable general, poised for action, his hands appearing to rest on the hilt of an unseen sword. The horses in particular, with their smooth, muscular flanks, perfectly sculpted hooves, mouths agape, ears on alert and nostrils flared, seem to live and breathe in front of you, ready to be mounted and ridden into the fray. It's as if they've just stepped off the battlefield or emerged from their underground bunkers yesterday instead of 2,000 years ago. If only they could speak, the tales they would tell of a civilization capable of both superb artistry and slaughter on an epic scale. (Through May 27.)

 






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