In March 1974 some Chinese farmers were digging a well and came upon an important discovery: a collection of ancient terracotta soldiers of varying height lined up in rows. The archeological dig which ensued uncovered nearly 8,000 sculptured chariots, horses, soldiers, and other citizens, all designed to guard the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang. Qin [pronounced chin] was the self-proclaimed first emperor of China. The leader of 2,200 years ago, provoked by fear of death and desire for immortality, had devised an elaborate tomb protected by the earthen statuettes, which would also provide him with people to rule over in the afterlife. An astounding assortment of the artifacts and statues has been touring the world; I was fortunate enough to see it on a recent trip to the Discovery Museum on West 44th Street in Manhattan.
Upon entering the exhibit, visitors see a short film about the finding of the funerary art. The succeeding rooms are filled with articles such as cooking pots and ceremonial vessels, decorative bronze wine casks, roof tiles, an impressive earthenware suit of armor, swords, and paraphernalia for horses. There is also a wooden replica of the emperor’s Xianyang Palace.
The pièce de résistance of the exhibit is, of course, the warriors, which are of various shapes and sizes. The six-foot tall soldiers each have unique faces and expressions—with or without mustaches, higher or lower topknots according to the rank from officers to cavalrymen. The hand shapes and body positions of the larger statues are distinct and make them uncannily realistic. There were all kinds of people represented in the emperor's terracotta army: a kneeling assistant, an archer, bureaucrats, musicians, acrobats and other types of entertainers. Each of the body parts of the larger sculptures was apparently created separately and then assembled and painted before being adorned with actual battle regalia and lined up in precise military formation.
Amazing is the only word to describe seeing such ancient objets d’art. The logistics of transporting fragile pieces like these from faraway Asia staggers the imagination. The Chinese government was understandably quite hesitant at first to allow a large number of these precious articles to be shipped far and wide. But what a delight for Westerners to have the chance to view them! On a side note, if you get to see the collection and are able to charge your visit with American Express, the normally $7 fee for the audio self-tour is free. At any rate, don't miss an opportunity to visit this exhibit.