An army for the afterlife

"Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor" opens Thursday at the National Geographic Museum in Washington. The exhibition offers the public the rare chance to examine these lifelike figures up close, each sculpted by hand, no two faces alike. The 15 warriors that will be on exhibit at National Geographic are the largest group of them to tour the United States.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

The world's strangest army is here.

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 (see story at right), 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.

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