The Warrior Emperor and China’s Terracotta Army

The latest exhibition at the Montréal Musée des Beaux-Arts is not only about the masculine pursuit of power and immortal legacy, but also about the way in which we construct meaning about this world and the afterlife. About our struggle against time and memory, and about the types of narratives we construct out of our lives for the future generations to uncover.

The First Emperor of China of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) dreamed of a dynasty lasting 10,000 generations. In 246 BC, Ying Zheng, then only thirteen years old, acceded to the throne of the state of Qin. After having conquered the last independent state and put an end to 500 years of war and intergovernmental strife, Ying Zheng became king of the whole of China in 221 BC. Within 4 years of his death, rebellions destroyed the dynasty, burned his capital, looted his tomb, and were followed by civil war. Dreaming of an army to protect him through his afterlife, the First Emperor had a larger-than-life-size terracotta army built, which has survived the Emperor by thousands of years.

The imperial tomb complex (spreading over an area of 25 square km, consisting of 500 components) was discovered by a farmer digging for a well in Xiyang village in Lintong county, Shaanxi province, in a period of great drought in March of 1974. Still alive to this day, the now‐seventy‐three‐year‐old Yang Zhifa recounted how he and his fellow farmers from the Yanzhai rural commune encountered what looked like a jar and dug down deeper to uncover the head of the first terracotta soldier ever found. The tomb itself has not yet been excavated, partly because the detailed description of its contents in the Historian’s Records (Shi Ji) by Sima Qian has intimidated archaeologists, who fear that current techniques would not be able to save the contents, which would deteriorate once exposed to the air.
Recent excavations revealed that the tomb complex also holds a complete underground palace that even boasts imperial botanical gardens. After a few decades of excavations, it is now known that the terracotta warriors make up only a minuscule part of this huge site. Over 180 pits, including those containing the buried army, are arranged on both sides of the double walled enclosure within which the burial mound is located. A total of more than 500 archaeological remains, such as graves, walls and gates, have been discovered since the 1970s.

The Emperor’s terracotta army consists of 8000 soldier figures (excavated between 1977-99 in Lintong, Shaanxi Province), thousands stone-plaqued suits of armour and helmets (excavated in 1998), 8 musician figures, a water garden (excavated in 2001-03), as well as animal and bird figures.

The army faces eastward, possibly because the First Emperor anticipated revenge attacks from the deceased rulers of the states he had conquered in the east and southeast of Qin. But nobody really knows why. He not only built an army that was to protect him in his afterlife, he build a three-dimensional narrative of what he believed his after life to be.

Over the years, the site has expanded, and new soldiers have been dug out of the thick layer of loess. A first campaign, from 1978 to 1984, unveiled 1087 terracotta figures. A second in 1985 lasted only a year, and in June 2009, a five‐year campaign for pit number one was authorized. So far, approximately two thousand soldiers have been reclaimed, while another six thousand still lie dormant. Almost six hundred archaeologists of the largest in‐situ museum in China are hard at work unearthing, cleaning, recomposing and preserving these marvellous witnesses to Qin Shihuangdi’s grandeur and megalomania.

All warriors originally carried real weapons, bronze spears and swords, and although ten thousand have been found, this represents a fraction of the original number. Most were looted soon after the demise of Qin by the Han rebels, who set fire to the pits in 206 BC.

One of the exhibition rooms features a projection of several scenes from the film Hero (2002). Set in ancient China, before the reign of the First Emperor, the film tells the story of warring factions throughout the Six Kingdoms, who plot to assassinate the most powerful ruler, Qin. When a minor official defeats Qin’s three principal enemies, he is summoned to the palace to tell Qin the story of his surprising victory.

In one scene, thousands of arrows are shot at one warrior across the palace court yard; most arrows hit the wall, only one spot remains uncovered by the arrows – where the warrior stood (warrior as the ultimate shield). This imagery is recreated in the exhibition design in the arrow room.

Ying Zheng, who succeeded in uniting seven warring kingdoms into a single nation, of which he was the sole monarch for thirty‐seven years, remains a controversial figure in the history of China. If his autocratic rule was characterized by tyranny and slaughter, his achievements were many: the establishment of a strong central government, codification of laws, standardization of currency, weights and measures, establishing a national road and canal system, and the Great Wall of China, which was designed to thwart invaders from the north. Not only did he lend his name to this vast country, he created a bureaucratic system that endured to the dawn of the twentieth century. However, the terracotta warriors are the most tangible proof of his legacy. During his reign, 700,000 workers spent close to forty years erecting a gigantic mausoleum to hold 8,000 large terracotta warriors and other remarkable sculptures.

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 for its importance in the history of mankind, it constitutes not only the largest mausoleum in China but also one of the biggest archaeological sites in the world, a site only partially investigated that will undoubtedly reveal even more outstanding discoveries as excavations progress.
Professor Chen Shen, Senior Curator and Bishop White Chair of East Asian Art and Archaeology in the Royal Ontario Museum’s Department of World Cultures, is the curator of the exhibition. He has been assisted by Laura Vigo, Curator of Asian Art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, who will be responsible for the exhibition’s Montreal presentation. The exhibition design is a creation of Stéphane Roy and Bruno Braën, Montreal designers.

The exhibition can be seen at the Montréal Musée des Beaux-Arts from February 11 to June 26, 2011.

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