China’s Terracotta Warriors at the Asian Art Museum
Through May 27, 2013, the Asian Art Museum will have on display 10 figures representing over 7,000 life-size sculpted soldiers found in the tomb of China’s first emperor, Quin Shihuang.
The emperor’s underground burial complex was first unearthed in 1974, revealing an elaborate array of objects and images reminiscent of riches found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. The life-size figures vary in height, uniform, and hairstyle in accordance with rank. Each is unique and was created in an assembly-line style by laborers and artisans. Placement of the thousands of soldiers in the tomb was painstakingly ordered in terms of rank and duty.
The terracotta warriors originally held real weapons like spears, swords and crossbows, which rotted and decayed over time. The military guard came accompanied with horses, cavalry, infantry, and chariots. Details including slight variations in facial features and expressions were enhanced by lifelike paint that was applied in the finishing processes, later faded by time and erosion. Other figures were also found representing musicians, acrobats and other officials.
History remembers Quin Shihuang as a notorious tyrant obsessed with being assassinated. A committed anti-intellectual, he outlawed and burned books as a means of controlling the population. The scholars who wrote them were sometimes burned alive as well. Construction of his tomb and mausoleum started after he began his reign at age 13. Requiring the work of 700,000 men, most of whom were killed, the tomb construction was completed in secret. The emperor spent his later years seeking immortality, and he died in 221 B.C. after ingesting mercury pills which, paradoxically, were intended to make him immortal.
The ruler who sought eternal life and feared assassination is now remembered for his terracotta warriors, a frozen army keeping silent watch over him in the afterlife. The Asian Museum’s warriors present an opportunity to observe an ambitious example of funerary art and the troubled legacy of China’s first emperor.
Terracotta Warriors: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin Street (at McAllister), Tuesday–Wednesday, Friday–Sunday 10 a.m.–5 p.m. & Thursday 10 a.m.–9 p.m., free–$22, 415-581-3500, www.asianart.org
Photo: courtesy Asian Art Museum