Humans are intensely visual creatures. We, unlike dogs, see in color. We devote a million and one words to describing the world around us and remember faces at a party, though names may slip from our minds. Our brains contain billions of neurons and synapses allocated strictly for sight.
Despite all of these fine skills, conceptualizing the First Emperor of China's burial site takes some effort. Think of an underground tomb nearly 250,000 square feet, complete with a replica of the emperor’s imperial palace, stables and a zoo, bronze cranes and ducks, and figures of acrobats, strongmen and musicians. Guarding this funerary city are approximately 8,000 individually rendered, life-size warriors, complete with weapons, chariots and horses. To really understand the immensity of the burial ground and to appreciate the amount of work that went into its creation is a difficult task.
Journey to China and you will fully realize what people now call “the Eight Wonder of the World.” Or, for those who cannot fly overseas on a whim, visit the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and attend China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy, where ten of these Terracotta Warriors stand squarely on display.
China’s Terracotta Warriors is separated into three rooms, each one focusing on a different aspect of the First Emperor’s story. In addition to this organization, the exhibit has an interactive component. For the first time, the museum has an iOS app, which offers visitors a 3D-augmented reality experience of several exhibition objects. Though I did not use this app because I only learned of it after my visit, it is another way for visitors to connect with exhibit.
The exhibit starts on the first floor of the Asian Art Museum, in the Lee Gallery, with “The Quest for Immortality.” This collection that highlights the First Emperor’s lifelong obsession with immortality. The First Emperor sought alchemists, religious teachers and philosophers to help him conquer death, believing that a ruler could ascend straight to a heavenly realm upon his death. Against a backdrop of darkly lit walls, artifacts showcased in this room include vases, pots, swords, and a collection of bronze water birds. Most link, in some way, to the Emperor’s immortal wishes. Water birds, for instance, are an ancient Chinese symbol of immortality, and research suggests that the First Emperor included them in his tomb, likely in his representation of a garden.
The second room of the exhibit, the Hambrecht Gallery, focuses on “Empire Building.” In this portion lie artifacts that illustrate the First Emperor’s earthly achievements, which include small feats such as the unification of China. Over the course of a few years (221-206 BCE) the First Emperor joined the seven warring states that make up today’s China. Along one of the walls of the Hambrecht Gallery a map visually traces the First Emperor's bloody takeovers and displays a timeline of his conquests. Artifacts in the second room vary, but many, such as a set of scales, illustrate policies the First Emperor implemented to efficiently consolidate his new land. These include brilliant military systems, standardized systems of writing and currency, and legal reforms.
While the first two rooms of the exhibit offer interesting information about the First Emperor and his life, the artifacts exhibited are rather small and unassuming. In contrast, the third room of the exhibit, the Osher Gallery, holds ten life-sized Terracotta Warriors in varying positions and sizes.
Winding through the exhibit room one can stand in the middle of these figures and note their astonishing level of detail. Made out of clay parts each warrior was hand painted and personalized. His height, hairstyle, and uniform indicate his army rank such as general, or archer. Research suggests that workers used eight different molds to create the faces of the warriors, and then improved upon the molds, using clay to create 8,000 unique faces and expressions for the different warriors. Additionally, most warriors originally held real spears, swords, or crossbows, though many of these weapons are thought to have been looted from the tombs shortly after its creation.
The Osher Gallery includes information about different aspects of the warriors. Posted throughout the exhibit's walls are blurbs about the warriors placement within the First Emperor's tomb, the construction of their armor and an example of a fully painted figure. Additionally, the Osher exhibit contains a terracotta horse and a few saddle pieces, which are cleverly displayed.
All of this information about the creation of the figures and their discovery effectively highlights the incredible amount of thought that must have gone into the production of the First Emperor’s burial site.
Though they were created in 210-209 BC, the Terracotta Warriors were unearthed in 1974 by local farmers in the Shaanxi province of China. People were immediately excited and awed by the finding, and rightly so. It is amazing to think that someone stuck every single terracotta warrior into a kiln, painted them all, dug out a huge hole in the ground, and placed all the warriors inside of it. The Terracotta Warriors are truly a remarkable achievement, and the exhibit as a whole does justice to excitement of their story and to the magnitude and complexity of the Emperor’s life and tomb.
China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy runs from Feb 22,2013-May 27, 2013
To find more information visit: http://www.asianart.org/ or call (415) 581-3500
The Asian Art Museum is open from Tuesday-Sunday 10-5pm,Thursday 10-9pm, and closed on Monday
Photos courtesy of the Asian Art Museum