The Legendary Terracotta Army of China Takes Richmond

Culture Watch
tags: China, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Terracotta Army, Ying Zheng, Qin dynasty

Part of the 8,000 man army of ornate, life sized terracotta soldier statues that have guarded the grave of China’s first Emperor, Ying Zheng, for 2,200 years in Xi’an marched into Richmond, Virginia, with their horses, swords, crossbows and chariots last week to kick off an exhibit on the fabulous army, unearthed accidentally in 1974, and the Qin dynasty that the Emperor founded so long ago.

Along with the sensational soldiers, publicized all over the world, all about 6 feet tall, their statues adorned with helmets, robes and protective chain style vests, are some 130 artifacts in Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China, that give the visitors to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibit is housed, a fascinating look into a previously little known part of the world and its history.

Alex Neyerges, the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, called the Terracotta Army one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. “Our audience will learn about the First Emperor’s political and cultural innovation and legacy as well as gain a better understanding about ancient Chinese cultural history as part of world civilization,” he said in a statement.

The exhibit opened last week and the museum was immediately filled with huge crowds eager to discover the history about China and to see how people 2,200 years ago lived.

The soldiers represent different ranks, led by a General. There is a chariot driver, with his arms extended as if ready to grab the reins, an infantryman and several archers (they wielded crossbows that could shoot arrows a half mile). The highlight of the army is a magnificent chariot with four horses carrying a driver with a parasol over his head. You see that first as you walk into the exhibit. It is stunning.

The soldiers at Xi’an were arranged by ranks and regiments to guard the Emperor in the afterlife. They were put in place in battle order. The soldiers were joined by village and empire civilian official statues and even a young stable hand, kneeling as if to work on horses.

All of the statues look realistic with carefully carved faces and hands. Some soldiers stand next to statues of their horses, many with carefully hewn saddles. One exhibit shows a soldier’s vest and helmet separately (the vests weighed forty pounds). There is a display that explains how the statues were made. Parts were made in clay kilns separately and then bolted together. When cast, each sodier was painted several different bright colors to appear to be lifelike. On the average, it took 300 hours to put together each soldier.

The exhibit is easy to transverse. The curators have wisely broken it into three parts, The first Emperor of Qin, Birth of the Qin Empire and Quest for Immortality, one in each of three large museum exhibit halls. All of the soldiers are on short pedastals with no protective glass around them and you can walk right up to them and stare. You are looking right into the eyes of men in an army that is 2,200 years old. That’s a lot of visits to the mess hall.

In addition to the Qin dynasty of the fist Emperor the exhibit includes numerous artifacts from previous centuries in that region that are mesmerizing.

In addition to conquering most of China, Emperor Zheng (259-210 BC) also established the first script form of writing to be used universally in China and its first system of weights and measures. The Emperor also built China’s first system of hundreds of mile long roadways that connected various cities and villages. Zheng established China’s first national currency, and coins (many with a square hole in the center). He also took nearly annual tours of his Empire to make certain everything worked well and to build support for his regime. The Emperor lived in lavish palaces that were handsomely decorated and wore colorful, elegant robes and headdresses. He and his countrymen sported numerous bracelets and ornaments shaped in the forms of animals, such as tiger and deer (the Emperor became known as the Tiger Emperor).

Visitors learn much about the houses and farms of China in that era. As an example, the people used rectangular metal plates to serve as  “joints” to hold together building walls. They pioneered the construction of houses with roof tiles, many with animal designers on the end tile. There are dozens of them on display, along with a pile of roof tiles that did not come out of the kiln very well and were cast aside as scrap material.

Through text and photos, the exhibit also tells the story of how local farmers accidentally stumbled upon the heads of several soldier statues and alerted authorities. Archaeologists soon descended on the 38 square mile area and found the soldiers plus the Emperor's huge mausoleum (so far, just over 1,000 of the terra cotta soldiers have been completely restored).

Parts of their lives were much like that of today’s Americans. Example: In the exhibit there are several wall hooks to hang your coat on and wine flasks for a soldier or worker just back from a hard day in the sun.

The Emperor took over as the leader of the Qin (western) state of the nation at the age of 13. He defeated present day Beijing in 226 BC, took the state of Wei in 225 BC seized another regional capital two years later and seized the state of Yan in 222 BC, consolidating his power over the entire nation He lived until the age of 49, when he died suddenly of natural causes. During his reign the fabled Great Wall of China (soon to be 5,500 miles long) construction was started to protect the Qin people and the dynasty grew in size and stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Emperor Zheng certainly had his faults. He discarded learned advisors and surrounded himself with fawning “yes men” and relied heavily on a team of magicians and astronomers who were used to predict his future – all turned in glowing reports. One year he was unhappy with the several hundred scholars kept on hand to record his successes, so he had 460 of them buried alive. He banished the remaining scholars to live in the shadows of the Great Wall in the North, along with his own son, Fu Su, who had attempted to save the buried scholars and angered his father. The Emperor also burned all history books about other states in China because he believed they demeaned the luster of his reign in Qin. He accepted no criticism and one year forced a top adviser who disagreed with him to commit suicide.

Programs: Special programs connected to the exhibit include: an opening lecture on the exhibit on Friday, December 1 at 6:30 p.m., a two-part history class on terracotta army on December 5 and 12, at 1 p.m., and Dec. 9 and 16 at 10:30, a talk on the horse in ancient and Asian art on Friday, March 2 at 11 a.m.. family day on Feburary 10, 10 – 4:40 p.m., the film A Terra – Cotta Warrior (112 minutes) with guest speaker on Sunday January 14 at 1:30 p.m. and an Archaelogy Forum Friday, February 2 at 9:30 – 3:30 p.m. The exhibit is at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through March 18, 2018.

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