"China's First Emperor and his Terracotta Warriors"

Museums, History
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 (Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas)
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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

The famed terra-cotta warriors anchor an impressive display of ancient Chinese artifacts and history.

Upon entering the Field Museum’s latest exhibition, guests are met with a chain of historical events that could easily be mistaken for a Game of Thrones plot synopsis. A child is born to a king in the Chinese State of Qin and takes the throne at the age of 13, after his father is murdered. The young king is thrust into an ongoing war with neighboring states and eventually manages to unify China under a single ruler, declaring himself the First Emperor. He even commissions a 3,100-mile-long wall to the north of his domain, meant to keep nomadic tribes at bay. Yes, it seems that George R.R. Martin may be a bit of a Chinese history buff.

The first half of “China’s First Emperor and his Terracotta Warriors” provides a snapshot of China circa 221, just as Qin Shihuangdi came to power. A collection of bronze pots, pottery and sophisticated weaponry shows that China was an innovative nation filled with skilled workers who remained on the cutting edge of technology at the time. A series of displays in the second half of the exhibit introduces viewers to even more artful engineering feats, including stones taken from the aforementioned wall (not to be confused with the Great Wall of China, which took shape several centuries later) and a model of an ornate palace where China’s First Emperor resided.

Before encountering the titular sculptures, guests learn a bit more about the creation of Qin Shihuangdi’s army of terra-cotta warriors, which were intended to guard the emperor’s expansive tomb in the afterlife. Two statue replicas, which date back to the creation of the original terra-cotta sculptures, depict workers molding the components of a clay soldier and horse and assembling them piece by piece. Another display of replicas depicts the bright hues that each of the sculptures was originally painted with—contrasting the colorless appearance of the surviving pieces.

The 10 terra-cotta figures on display represent a range of professions—contrary to the name of the exhibit, they’re not all warriors. Life-size statues of a civil official (armed with tools for record-keeping instead of weaponry), an acrobat and a horse are among those in the display. The rest of the figures are stationed near the exhibit’s exit, including detailed representations of a general, an archer, foot soldiers and calvary. Some elements of the statues are crude and oddly proportioned, but they're accomplished works of art when you consider that a largely unskilled workforce crafted thousands of them.

Though it’s a relatively brief exhibit, “China’s First Emperor and his Terracotta Warriors” provides an intriguing look at some impressive artifacts as well as the history (and speculation) surrounding them. Before exiting the display, guests learn that the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi has not yet been excavated, though legends of a flowing mercury river and subterranean palaces persist. The possibility that something even more awe-inspiring than the terra-cotta warriors could be buried near the final resting place of China’s First Emperor makes this collection all the more thought-provoking.

By: Zach Long

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