Messengers From the Good Earth

Terra-Cotta Warriors Wage Placid Invasion

Posted November 18, 2009 at 4:25pm

Forget those giant pandas — there’s a new China-themed craze about to take Washington by storm, this one featuring a unit of ancient soldiers.

There’s nothing quite like a man in uniform, after all.

The National Geographic Museum’s long-awaited “Terra-cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor— exhibition opens today, offering visitors a firsthand glimpse at 15 of the country’s famous 2,000-year-old, life-sized terra-cotta figures taken from the tomb of Chinese ruler Qin Shihuangdi.

The exhibition already is proving to be exceptionally popular. More than 96,000 tickets had been sold by early this week, and museum officials were confident they would reach the 100,000 mark by midweek.

Adding to the excitement is the exhibition’s timing. Although long in the works, the opening couldn’t have been better planned, considering President Barack Obama’s visit to China this week.

And that coincidence didn’t go unnoticed at an exhibition preview on Tuesday morning, as one of the Chinese dignitaries on hand noted that the warriors are serving as ambassadors “of friendship— to the United States, with the relationship between the two countries based on “mutual understanding and greatness.—

This new role for the warriors certainly takes them a long way from their roots in ancient China.

For centuries, the terra-cotta warriors’ existence was unknown. They were hidden beneath the ground in China’s Shaanxi province for 2,000 years, until they were discovered in 1974 — completely by accident — by a group of local farmers digging a well. But that find was one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time, as what the farmers unearthed was the 19-square-mile tomb complex for Qin Shihuangdi, the first emperor of China.

Qin Shihuangdi has a mixed legacy, to say the least.

He reigned from 221 to 210 B.C. and was all-powerful — the emperor not only brought about a unified China, but he also started work on the country’s first Great Wall, created a national road system and instituted new forms of currency. He also was notoriously brutal, famed for burning books and burying scholars alive, according to exhibition curator Albert Dien.

But the thousands of terra-cotta warriors he ordered made to guard him in the afterlife (and the mausoleum he built to house them) are perhaps his greatest legacy.

More than 1,000 life-size figures have been discovered in four underground pits since the site’s excavation began in the 1970s. Work is still ongoing, with archaeologists guessing that about 6,000 figures have yet to be unearthed.

It is estimated the tomb took about 700,000 people and 36 years to complete. Since its discovery, it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been called the eighth wonder of the world.

Fifteen of the terra-cotta figures, including nine warriors, are showcased in the exhibition. There also are two musicians, a strongman (with an enormous gut), a court official, a stable attendant and a magnificent horse.

Each figure is life-size, and all were crafted by hand. That means each is different — unique outfit, unique facial expression, unique build. One theory was that craftsmen fashioned the figures’ faces after their own, which allows visitors to imagine they are looking into the visage of an ancient Chinese worker.

Along with the terra-cotta figures, more than 100 other artifacts are featured in the show, including weapons, armor, coins, roof tiles and even a bronze crane and swan.

The sophistication in the figures and accompanying artifacts is remarkable, Dien said, noting that the artwork that has been discovered in China directly before the emperor’s reign is much more primitive.

“It is a jump that happened overnight,— Dien said. “You didn’t have the centuries that it took Greek art to reach that level.—

For Dien, some of the discoveries have been breathtaking, as he recalled traveling to the site shortly after its excavation began and coming across a terra-cotta figure of a kneeling archer.

“The guards thought I was going to have a heart attack,— Dien said. “They led me to a chair and insisted I sit down.— Visitors to the exhibition can see the kneeling figure, whose lifelike pose and serene face are a highlight of the show.

The thousands of soldiers that remain at the emperor’s tomb in China are lined in formation, on guard and ready to fight. But the show in Washington is organized a bit differently, outlining Qin Shihuangdi’s rise to power, the building of the Chinese empire, the emperor’s construction of the tomb and details on the creation of the terra-cotta cavalry. The warriors are grouped in individual settings, which allows visitors to gaze at each figure from the front, the side and the back.

There’s also a look at how scientists are working to restore and preserve the artifacts.

Terra-Cotta Warriors runs through March 10. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, students, military personnel and National Geographic members and $6 for children.