Published: April 26, 2011
Few international discoveries in recent decades have stirred as much excitement as the unearthing of ancient terracotta warriors and other objects in China in 1974. Evoking the art, culture and history of a long-ago society, this last great archaeological find of the Twentieth Century shed light on the megalomaniac First Emperor, who unified all of China, and succeeding Han rulers.
The fortuitous discovery of artifacts from the Emperor Ying Zheng’s tomb complex was the most important in China and one of the largest in the world. Few could have imagined then, when the first terracotta soldier emerged from a makeshift well, that another 8,000 comrades lay underground. Military accoutrements, gold swords, ceramic figurines, jade ornaments, bronze vessels and architectural fittings offered additional evidence of an ancient material culture, constituting a discovery comparable to that of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt.
The China dig exposed priceless treasures that retrace the epic journey of an emperor with steely determination and ambition, who led his small, marginal kingdom in unifying the country. He succeeded in his mission in 221 BC, a seminal event when the inchoate concept of “China” took the form of a unified state, replete with a unique bureaucratic system whose influence continues to this day.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is presenting a major exhibition of these archaeological findings in “The Warrior Emperor and China’s Terracotta Army,” on view through June 26. The show is curated by Chen Shen, Asian art curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, where it has already been seen, assisted by Laura Vigo, Asian art curator at the MMFA. With the indispensable cooperation of Chinese officials, some 240 works have been loaned by 16 major museums, taking visitors on a fabulous journey covering 1,000 years of Chinese culture and history. Many objects have never before been exhibited outside China, and some have never been displayed in any museum anywhere.
This is likely a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience the history and culture of an important, but little-known Chinese era. As MMFA director and chief curator Nathalie Bondil puts it, this is a “unique opportunity to wonder at the magnitude of the First Emperor’s compelling dream and destructive paranoia.”
Dating to some 2,200 years ago, ten larger-than-life terracotta sculptures are stars of the exhibition. They were probably made by master potters from imperial workshops. Terracotta warriors, part of the First Emperor’s eternal army, were originally painted in bright colors †every face, hair, headdress, hand and uniform, down to the last detail. Looting and accidents muted many colors over the years. Moreover, when the first soldiers were unearthed in the late 1970s, archaeologists found that the sudden exposure to air and decrease in humidity resulted in the immediate loss of color.
In recent years, new conservation techniques were developed to preserve some of the surprisingly vivid and varied hues. Most such interventions are now done in the pits, as soon as figures emerge, to curb the sudden loss of color.
Colors were mixed with lacquer and probably organic additives to improve pigment absorption and flexibility.
Tempered pigment-lacquer mixture was applied to the terracotta surface of sculptures, followed by one or two coats of occasionally thick pigments.
Thanks to improved interventions by conservators in 1999, the kneeling archer in the exhibition still shows some of his lacquer coat and colors. His hair knot is tied with a red ribbon and his brown armor plates are fastened with red laces and white rivets.
The higher-ranking officer on view wears colorful armor, fastened with silk threads. Underneath, he sports a purple-black tunic on top of a red one, plus green trousers, black shoes and a brown pheasant-tailed cap on his head.
To top everything off, faces were painted shades of pink or yellow to convey flesh tonalities, and white eyeballs, with the iris and pupils clearly delineated, help give each human sculpture a lifelike appearance.
Two officers, four soldiers, a civic official, an acrobat and four horses are among works found in various pits that contain 2,000 unique statues of warriors, civilians and horses. Rare bronze sculptures, including a goose, various never-before-exhibited relics and many funerary figurines, ornaments in jade and gold, swords, coins and adornments from the tombs of several emperors document the history of ten centuries of funeral rites.
The saga began 600 years before the birth of the First Emperor and ended 200 years after his death in 210 BC. The narrative unfolds in three chronological sections that tell the story of succeeding dynasties through periods of war and peace †and political and social change.
“The Rise of Qin (Ninth Century′21 BC)” section begins with the Ying family, part of a small and marginal noble clan that was rewarded for its military valor and defense of the royal court of Zhou with land, and its head was given the title Duke of Qin. On view are a bronze bell documenting the gift of an estate to an ancestor of the First Emperor and such highlights as the oldest terracotta warriors ever discovered and a wall painting from the imperial burial site.
The second section, “The Terracotta Army of the ‘First Emperor of China’ (221′06 BC),” examines the life and legacy of the celebrated First Emperor and plans for his afterlife in his underworld empire. In 246 BC, 13-year-old Ying Zheng acceded to the throne of the state of Qin, and work began on his tomb complex. Thereafter, he and his army conquered the last independent state, putting an end to 500 years of intergovernmental strife, and he became head of the first united China in 221 BC. “His actions ended centuries of ongoing warfare and established norms of governance, law and administration that would characterize China for over 2,000 years,” writes curator Shen in the exhibition booklet.
Ying Zheng sought to consolidate his power and standing, in hopes that his “family line &⁛would] rule the Qin empire for 10,000 years,” says Shen. Reflecting this significant era are the most recent archaeological discoveries in the emperor’s mausoleum, notably grand life-size sculptures of generals, foot soldiers, horses, a set of armor, a stone-plate helmet and a full-sized bronze goose.
Ying Zheng, a megalomaniac, remains a fascinating and controversial figure in Chinese history. His success in uniting seven warring kingdoms into a single nation was marked by tyranny and slaughter, as well as significant achievements. The First Emperor’s crackdown on Confucian scholars “influenced later scholars to treat him as a ruthless tyrant,” observes Shen.
On the other hand, says Shen, “even his greatest detractors could not deny his extraordinary achievements and astonishing legacy.” In addition to establishing a strong central government and an enduring bureaucratic system, the emperor codified laws, standardized currency, weights and measures, established a national road and canal system and built the Great Wall of China to deter invaders from the north.
According to Montreal Museum officials, “The terracotta warriors are the most tangible proof of&⁛Emperor Ying Zheng’s] legacy.” During his reign, 700,000 workers labored for nearly four decades building an immense mausoleum to hold 8,000 large terracotta soldiers and other remarkable sculptures. The complex and its guardsmen were meant to protect the emperor in the afterlife and guard his mysterious underground complex.
Recent archaeological studies suggest that the necropolis was much larger than originally thought, comprising a complete underground palace replete with imperial botanical gardens. More than 500 pits, including those containing the buried army, are arranged on both sides of the double-walled enclosure within which the burial mound is located.
More than 500 archaeological components †graves, walls, foundation ruins and gates †have been discovered since 1974. It is clear that the terracotta warriors made up only a small part of the huge site. The well-known burial site was undoubtedly looted or damaged in the past.
“The Harmonious Era of the Han (206 BC′20 AD)” explores the political and social changes associated with the rise of the Han dynasty after the sudden death of Ying Zheng in 210 BC. During this peaceful era, the Han rulers continued the First Emperor’s policies, as well as his burial practices. They modeled their imperial tombs on their predecessor’s, with an earthen mound, perimeter wall, shrines and other structures above ground and myriad pits underground. “A satellite town accompanied each of them,” says Shen, “supporting the annual cycle of rituals and sacrifices for the deceased that took place there.”
Excavation of a major Han dynasty tomb complex, begun in the late 1990s, continues. Notes Shen, “What lies directly beneath the principal Han mounds is unknown, however; like the First Emperor’s tomb, they remain unexcavated.”
Han emperors buried terracotta figures to care for their needs in the afterlife, albeit smaller in size and arranged in groups inspired by themes of everyday life †quite different from their predecessor’s. Seeking to maintain herds and flocks in the next world, they added miniature animals to the underworld population. Among the large selection of terracotta objects unearthed from Han dynasty emperors’ tombs on view are beautifully painted ladies and soldiers, and an assortment of farm animals †pigs, sheep, goats, chickens and dogs †that recall the relatively tranquil life of this period, during which traditions that endure today in China were established.
“The First Emperor,” sums up Shen, “was a revolutionary in death as well as in life. Rather than simply following the tradition of taking many precious objects with him for use in the next world, scholars believe he aimed at nothing less than the re-creation of his entire world in the hereafter.” As this revelatory, educational and entertaining exhibition documents, “The size, richness and complexity of&⁛the First Emperor’s] tomb site far outdid anything constructed either before or after&Han emperors desired the same thing in the afterlife, but presented it in a more symbolic way.”
The largest archaeological-site museum in China has been built over the Emperor Qin’s mausoleum. Excavation of the massive burial complex, the largest in the world, will continue for many years, with archaeologists utilizing the new conservation techniques to preserve fragile colors on painted warriors. Many of the estimated 8,000 terracotta statues that remain to be dug up are arranged in awesome military formation. It will be fascinating to learn what additional treasures will be unearthed from what is often called “the eighth wonder of the world.”
The 72-page illustrated exhibition booklet written by curator Chen Shen offers valuable insights into the subject and is published by the Royal Ontario Museum; it sells for $5.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is at 1380 Sherbrooke Street West. For information, www.mmfa.qc.ca or 514-285-2000.
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