A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor is billed as the largest traveling exhibition of statues from the clay army of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi. The show includes 17 restored figures, along with artifacts from the emperor's necropolis in Xi'an. It reveals the emperor was a cruel colossus who conquered like Alexander, built like Khufu, and met dissent with the ruthlessness of Mao.
An authoritative exhibition on Qin Shihuangdi and his mind-boggling tomb is beyond reach, pending feats of archaeological and historical discovery yet to come: only about 1,000 of an estimated 7,000 soldiers have been dug up, and the emperor's huge burial mound remains unexplored.
The clay figures are displayed alongside two exquisite bronze waterfowl, impressive arms and armor, and a smattering of jade jewelry and architectural adornments. Posted individually and in groups, the warriors live up to their reputation as ancient wonders. Impassive yet eloquent, charismatically immortal yet very human, they speak silently to the historical imagination. The exhibition's texts and an informative though sometimes cutesy audio guide outline the emperor's lasting impact as the standardizer of Chinese writing, coinage, and weights and measures.
To get across the assembly-line manufacture and attention to detail used in creating the warriors, the show employs a shadowy, silent film reenactment and a marvelous modern sculpted tableau of nearly 70 miniature laborers.
The exhibition's chief flaws are the absence of a succinct and comprehensive introduction laying out what's known, what's legendary, and what's speculation about the first emperor's life and death. Doling out amazing tidbits of information one by one makes for "wow"-moment showmanship, but it leads to more confusion than understanding.
Kudos, however, for the modest masterstroke that opens the exhibition. Before visitors encounter the first clay figures, they see two bronze bells, one small and simple, the other large and ornate with a dragon-shaped handle and finely honed decorative touches. Rung to signal troops during battle, the bells are metaphors for utility and extravagance, craftsmanship and command--the hallmarks of Qin Shihuangdi's imperium.
The exhibition is on display at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, through Oct. 16, before traveling on to Atlanta, Houston, and Washington, D.C.Share