“Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor” at the National Geographic is one man’s vision of how to make a powerful impression when he met the deity in the afterlife. The exhibit features 15 warriors (of the estimated 7,000) found in the necropolis built for Qin Shihuangdi in the Chinese province of Xi’an Shaanxi.
Prior to the discovery by farmers digging a well in 1974, all that was known about the First Emperor was written history. Today the Emperor is known not only for this amazing archeological discovery but also as the subject of a recent opera (“The First Emperor” with Placido Domingo as the Emperor), as well as movies and video games.
The statistics behind the show are staggering, even for those who think in terms of China’s incredible size and population today. Qin Shihuangdi who ruled from 221 B.C. to 210 B.C. had 300 extravagant palaces and 400 lodges, so that he could stay a different place each night. An estimated 700,000 workmen created this dwelling place for his eternal rest. His regime, known for relentless cruelty (at least as historians of the dynasty that followed recorded) resulted in over a million deaths for failing to follow his laws.
The exhibit includes about 100 artifacts; weapons, stone armor, jade ornaments, roof tiles and decorative bricks. Not all the figures are soldiers. Besides two infantrymen, a chariot driver, two officers, an armored warrior, two archers and a cavalryman, there are two musicians, a strongman, a court official, a stable attendant and a horse. A bronze crane and swan from the emperor's after life zoo as well as two chariots are also on display.
In summary, Qin Shihuangdi appears to have been both practical, paranoid and pleasure loving in this world.
What is more fascinating about the art works in his reign however is the
the works are splendid details such as intricately designs on the armor. While it is clear that the bodies of the figures were mass produced in some assembly line fashion, each face appears to be unique.
Truly amazing to art historians is not only how the works differ from preceding and more primitive Chinese artifacts but the evolution of the sculpture in what is a relatively short period of time. Early figures from the first pit are staid soldiers, while in later pits, the statues are in positions of movement such as the Kneeling Archer. This rapid development from passive to active poses in sculpture has no counterpart in Greek or Roman statues, where such innovations took centuries to develop.
The army is formidable even if it is made of clay. There is no mistaking his importance as a ruler on earth. Whether that had that effect on the divine ones, no one will know but the show on its last stop in the United States, is certainly inspiring awe and wonder to mere modern mortals who visit it.
The exhibit takes about an hour or so to go through what took artists and workmen 36 years to build. To uncover and understand this unique find might take centuries. National Geographic Museum is a good place to start.