Editors' pick

Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor

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Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor photo
Wang da Gang

Editorial Review

Sold-out crowd confronts evidence at Terra Cotta Warrior exhibit

By Blake Gopnik
Monday, November 30, 2009 1:11 PM

Over Thanksgiving week, something like 16,350 people headed to "Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor," at the National Geographic Museum downtown. The show was sold out for all seven days.

I was part of that crowd, happily keeping company with family in town for the holidays.

Halfway through the show, a strange fact struck me about the treasures on display: Most of the time, most of us had our backs to them. Visitors were spending more time on the texts that line the galleries' walls than on the statues displayed across their floors. It was often easier to get face time with a 2,000-year-old terra cotta warrior than an unjostled view of the text panel that explained him.

Given that the objects themselves had so little leverage on us, a question came to mind that I bet few of us were asking: What had brought us to the show, and why, afterward, were we so pleased to have been there?

We couldn't have been there for an important artistic experience, though the show's larger-than-life ceramic warriors (and musicians, grooms and other retainers) are certainly important art. They're strikingly lifelike, and were pioneering in their detailing and size. A thick slab of clay brilliantly does double duty as a high official's heavy robes; clever changes to a single prototype make a figure stand out from its neighbors.

For the art-loving visitor, however, there's one major problem. The most important aesthetic fact about these statues is the extravagant number of them that got made, and that's what this exhibition can't deliver. Its 15 figures are elegantly spaced across eight galleries, and that solves the crowding problem that afflicts blockbuster shows. But seeing a few statues scattered here and there has nothing to do with seeing rank upon rank of them tightly packed into underground chambers, as they would have been at the time of their patron's funeral. (They were made to accompany Qin Shihuangdi, first emperor of China, into the afterlife in A.D. 210. About 1,000 of them have been recovered from his tomb complex; there are thought to be another 6,000 waiting to be found.) Quantity is the central point and message of these works of art. Looking at one terra cotta warrior is like taking in a single line by Sol LeWitt, in a wall drawing that's built from thousands of marks. The LeWitt reveals an artist marshalling his lines, just as the tomb figures are all about a ruler who commanded thousands, and could get statues made of as many subjects as he pleased.

For a strong sense of the aesthetic drama of these terra cotta figures, you're better off with the photographic banners hanging near you as you line up to get in. Looking at those photos of the statues in situ, there's a lovely eureka moment when you make the link between the crowd you're with, waiting sheeplike for admission, and the crowd of servants who attended to their emperor. Short of going to the dig site itself, the best way to truly understand this art is probably through photos and TV.

Of course, not many people, myself included, went to the Washington show imagining that understanding art is what it is about. National Geographic isn't an art institution, and it's careful not to go aesthetic in the exhibition's publicity or wall texts. The show's historical artifacts -- about 100 of them, including a sewer pipe, building supplies, weapon blades and a wall of early Chinese coins -- outnumber its 21 works of art. (On top of the complete clay figures, there are fragments of a few others as well as two life-size bronze birds that are among the show's least touted gems.) It seems all the objects are in this show as effective illustrations for a history lesson, not because they're worth looking at in their own right.

Overall, visiting this exhibition feels like walking through a pop-up version of a fascinating article in National Geographic magazine -- one of those photo spreads that have more sidebars than actual text. Organizers say a decent visit to the show demands about an hour. Not much of that is likely to be spent coming up with a personal take on the objects on view, as you might in a visit to an art museum. The bulk of that hour will probably be spent absorbing the show's prepackaged story. Of course, in terms of raw knowledge gained, you could learn far more about Qin Shihuangdi and his grave goods by reading about them for that hour, or even through surfing the Net.

So why, again, were we so happy to be there? It has something to do with an almost primal need for evidence, authenticity and aura. We can read at length about the things we care about -- we often do, for much longer than we'd ever spend in a museum -- but there comes a moment when we want to confront the evidence behind that knowledge, even if we've barely got the skills or time to decipher it. We struggle to get close to the "Mona Lisa," even though she's much easier to get to know in a good photograph than at the Louvre behind bullet-proof glass. We throng to the Smithsonian to witness the world's largest blue diamond, Lincoln's hat, a true moon rock -- even though we'd never know it if someone switched them out for colored glass, a different topper, a piece of Utah stone.

In 1935, writing one of the most famous essays of the 20th century, the German critic Walter Benjamin claimed that we'd arrived at a new, modern age of mechanical reproduction, when images and photographs and films could spread around the world in flawless replica. Because of that, he said, the "aura" that once surrounded unique, authentic works of art would slowly fade out of our visual culture. The infinitely reproducible image would sweep away the last vestiges of the medieval relic, the archetype of the precious, irreplaceable, miraculously singular object. Benjamin was right about the multiplication of images. We're drowning in them, more than he could ever have imagined. What he didn't predict was that, as we get swamped, we'd long for authentic objects to cling to.

It could be that we aren't only interested in the artifacts in "Terra Cotta Warriors" as relics of ancient China. They may also stand as relics of a more universal past, when the magic of images came firmly attached to unique and notable objects. They remind us of a time when, if you had the might to make it happen, you could order 7,000 statues to keep you company in death -- while making sure that each of them was different from the other.

We don't need to see all 7,000. We don't even need to look too long at any one of them. We just need to know they're there.

An army for the afterlife
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 20, 2009

Buried for more than 2,000 years until their accidental discovery by Chinese farmers in 1974, the world-famous terra cotta warriors -- a life-size militia of about 7,000 clay figures created to protect China's first emperor in the afterlife -- have arrived in Washington. Well, 15 of the 1,000 or so that have been unearthed, along with more than 100 related artifacts from the grave site of Qin Shihuangdi (259-210 B.C.) in Shaanxi province.

On view through March 31 at the National Geographic Museum, the last stop on a four-city U.S. tour, "Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor" is the first time this many of the figures have traveled to the States. What's more, according to museum director Susan Norton, museum-goers here will be able to get within a few feet of the warriors, far closer than even at the original archeological site, where visitors look down on the burial pits from a distance.

The proximity makes for one powerful visual punch. You can feel it the minute you step in the show's first gallery, which includes a single ghostly cavalryman and his horse. That's it. No glass display cases. No clutter. Norton calls it the show's first "wow moment," and it is. But it's not the last. The show culminates in a 5,000-square-foot gallery holding eight terra cotta warriors in three groups: three officers, including one general; two archers; and two infantrymen and a chariot driver. It's the show's big payoff.

In between, what else will you find? And what should you look for?

After presenting the first two figures -- a teasing taste of more to come -- the exhibition briefly introduces the man who commissioned them, and his accomplishments. The first ruler to unite China's warring kingdoms, and the first to begin construction on what would become known as the Great Wall, Qin Shihuangdi is also credited with standardizing China's weights, measures and currency. There are several examples of period money on display, some that look nothing like what we think of as coins. But that's standard museum fare.

More dramatic -- and enigmatic -- is a suit of armor a little further on. Made of limestone tiles wired together, the suit includes a 40-pound tunic and seven-pound helmet. Heavier by far than most men could wear, it was not meant for mortal soldiers. Or even terra cotta ones. You'll notice that several of the clay soldiers are wearing their battle gear -- a terra cotta evocation of the lacquered leather that real soldiers wore. But this suit of limestone armor, which would have been displayed on wooden racks in the burial pits, was left at the ready for someone else.

Some spectral, disembodied soldier from beyond the grave.

Equally spectral is the gallery containing three disembodied clay heads. Don't worry; they're not broken. For the most part, the heads were made to be detachable. The cavalryman at the entrance is a rare exception. But this trio of floating noggins lends the exhibition an appropriately spooky tone.

Spaced judiciously throughout the exhibition -- which, at 12,000 square feet, is double the museum's old space -- you'll also find several non-military statues: a stable boy, a civil official, a strongman and two musicians. (Hey, someone had to entertain the emperor in the afterlife.) Don't miss the strongman, which is among the coolest discoveries in "Terra Cotta." Built with an almost sumo-wrestler paunch, but missing his head, he's the most unusual of the 15 figures, no two of whom are alike.

A note about timing: Visitors should allow, on average, an hour to take in "Terra Cotta Warriors." Yes, it can be done in 20 minutes, if all you want to see are the statues. And for those who read every label and look in every case, it wouldn't be hard to spend half a day.

Heck, it took 36 years to build -- and then bury -- these guys. Every minute you spend with them is worth it.

The Man
They say you can't take it with you. No one, apparently, told that to China's first emperor.

When Qin Shihuangdi (pronounced "chin she-hwong-dee") died in 210 B.C. at age 49, he took to his grave everything he needed in life: kitchen utensils, cash, even something that looks suspiciously like a straight razor. For his amusement, he also brought along a menagerie of bronze animals. He was, in short, a "strange dude," as Ann Lawrence, the woman in charge of training National Geographic Museum docents, puts it.

Then there's the little matter of that 7,000-man terra cotta army. The emperor was so worried he was going to need protection after he died that he ordered the construction of four large pits near his own eventual tomb -- the largest is the size of two football fields -- to be filled with his personal Secret Service detail, painstakingly sculpted out of clay.

What was he so afraid of? Well, you don't get to be emperor by being well liked. Uniting several warring kingdoms made him a lot of enemies. He needed soldiers in real life? He was going to need them in the afterlife, too.

Not that he really thought he was ever going to die. See, the pits were a kind of insurance policy, in case his real plan -- immortality -- didn't work out. In fact, when Emperor Qin finally passed, he was off looking for eternal life. (The official explanation? Imperial inspection tour.) Some speculate that he was poisoned by mercury, which he was ingesting in hopes that it would enable him to live forever.

And we all know how that worked out.

Long after the emperor's death, the roofs of the pits caved in. The figures fell over and were buried. The emperor and his army were forgotten, until 1974, when a group of farmers digging a well stumbled upon something unusual in the dirt, leading to a kind of life after death for Qin Shihuangdi after all.

The Figures
Each full-size human figure weighs 300 to 400 pounds. The horse, 750. Like snowflakes, no two warriors are exactly alike. Subtle differences in facial hair and features, head size, physique and meticulous clothing details have lead to the theory that at least some of them may have been based on real people.

Which is astonishing, considering that they were almost surely made in assembly-line fashion, like mannequins in a factory, but with unique artisanal touches added before the final kiln firing. A pair of side-by-side dioramas show the labor-intensive process of putting together a clay soldier and a horse.

Before they were installed in the pits, the figures were painted. Although most of the paint has long since worn off, you can see some of the remaining pigment -- including bright red patches -- on the kneeling archer. Also, check out the fussy treads on his footwear.

Construction of the entire tomb complex, including the fashioning of the figures, began long before Qin Shihuangdi had any reason to think about dying. The groundbreaking took place when he ascended the throne, at the ripe old age of 13.

Where are the weapons?
Most of the figures here are soldiers; indeed most of the ones found in the pits are, too. So where are all their weapons? You'll find only a handful in the show. Indeed, there were fewer than expected when the pits were unearthed, given the large number of warriors.

When the figures were originally placed in the pits, they carried a full complement of military hardware, including swords, daggers, spears, crossbows and arrows. In a strange twist, many of those weapons were put into service, although not in the way that Qin Shihuangdi expected. Not long after his death, peasants broke into the burial site, spiriting off most of the good stuff to use in an armed uprising that eventually ushered in the Han Dynasty.

If you go
If you want to see "Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor," you've got some time. The show is up through March 31. But don't dawdle about buying tickets. Almost 100,000 have been sold so far, and several dates, including Nov. 20-22, and Nov. 27-29, are sold out.

Here's what you need to know before you go.

The museum is open daily, except Christmas, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Wednesdays until 9 p.m. Half-hour timed tickets are $12; $10 for seniors, students, military personnel and members; $6 for ages 2 to 12; children younger than 2 free. Audio tours (in English, Spanish and Mandarin) are $5. Every Wednesday through the run of the show, 200 free tickets to the 6 p.m. viewing will be given out, starting at 5:30 p.m., at the exhibition box office, 1145 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut North). Regular-priced tickets are available through the box office, by calling 202-857-7700 or through www.warriorsdc.org.

A word to the wise: Weekday afternoons are expected to be less crowded. And although walk-ups may sometimes get in, advance orders are strongly encouraged.

The main entrance to the show is, for the first time in the museum's history, located on M Street NW, just east of 17th. Museum-goers, however, are being asked to show up 15 minutes early at the box office, where a visitors services representative will direct them to form a line outside. Dress warmly. The Terra Cotta Cafe, located inside a heated tent in the museum's M Street courtyard, offers sandwiches and snacks. There are also two free photo exhibitions on view: "Polar Obsession" (through Feb. 15) and "National Geographic Image Collection" (through April 12).

Inside, an expanded museum store offers a variety of "Warriors"-themed items, including terra cotta figures to take home, in sizes and price points ranging from a doll-size desktop model ($9.95) to three-quarter scale ($1,995).