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The Terra Cotta War Against Death

KASignSmall.jpgThree times the Dresser has had close up encounters with Emperor Qin's terra cotta warriors. The first time was at Baltimore's Walters Art Museum in March 1997. The second time occurred November 2009 in Xi'an, China, where the warriors were accidentally rediscovered in 1974 by farmers trying to dig a well. The third time was January 2010 at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC. TCW_exhibit_01Small.jpg

Dear Reader, you might be wondering now who was Qin and of what interest are warriors made of clay that would lure the Dresser out of her lair so many times.


Qin Shi Huang (pronounced chin sher hwang), née Ying Zheng (pronounced ying jung) in the year 259 BC, was the son of the king of the Qin State and the first emperor of China after he conquered neighboring states surrounding his father's kingdom. Because Qin thought big in many ways, he was always in danger from his enemies. Therefore, he was instrumental in connecting defensive walls in his empire, which became Cháng Chéng, the Great Wall of China. Connecting the dots seemed to be Qin's passion. He unified the writing of Chinese characters; standardized measuring systems, money (coins) and taxation; built an extensive network of roads; decreed that agriculture and commerce must develop together; and he abolished nepotism in his government.

Remarkably, Qin made many of these long lasting accomplishments in the eleven years he ruled the Chinese empire. He died unexpectedly at age 49. Scholars guess that elixir and pills, which he expected to make him immortal, probably contained mercury and therefore poisoned him.

Emperor Qin dealt cruelly with those who got in his way. For example, he eliminated scholars and books that advocated philosophies he did not subscribe to, including the teachings of Confucius. For a leader who seemed to eschew tradition and old ways handed down through time, the most surprising thing he did was create an army of men and horses made out of terra cotta. His purpose was that this army would see him into the afterlife and protect him from any force that would harm him. Even more surprising was that he had these pottery warriors, whose average height is six feet tall and whose weight ranges from 300 to 400 pounds, buried in pits that flank his burial mound. Moreover, he wanted these warriors kept secret.


HohlPit1Small.jpgBecause the Dresser had recently been to Xi'an China where Qin's burial mound sits undisturbed and the four pits of terra cotta warriors, horses, entertainers, and a variety of animals have been exposed, she thought the exhibition at the National Geographic Museum, which is entitled "Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor," might be a pale repetition of what she had already seen. This turned out not to be the case and the Dresser was surprised to not only feel exhilarated by the NGM exhibition but to encounter other happily excited visitors who had also been to the terra cotta warrior pits in Xi'an.

In both exhibitions, visitors are offered a movie to introduce Qin and his accomplishments as well as set the scene for seeing the terra cotta figures. In Xi'an, the 15- to 20-minute movie is in a theater in the round with no seating. Visitors stand and move with the projections as the images circle the darkened theater. As they grow tired of standing in the dark, the audience wanders in and out of the theater. To the Dresser, it felt like a cutting-edge presentation, one in which the viewer became part of the film's landscape with thundering horses and armies fighting with crossbows and arrows.

However, "The Real Dragon Emperor," the free hour-long film (visitors need no tickets to gain entrance) shown on a limited schedule in the 385 seats Grosvenor Auditorium at National Geographic is hands down the better film. It is graphically beautiful as one would expect a NG production to be and it is filled with interesting details. For example, there is an interview of an archeologist who discusses Sima Qian, the father of Chinese historiography who was born about 100 years after Emperor Qin and who said there were rivers and lakes of mercury that surrounded Qin's tomb. Modern day scientists were skeptical but the archeologist interviewed by the NG filmmaker took samples around the perimeter of the tomb and learned the level of mercury was unusually high. What this means is that the toxic liquid metal will keep Qin's tomb unreachable at this time.


The components of the NG exhibition, which had previously been shown at the Bowers Museum (Santa Ana, CA), the High Museum of Art (Atlanta, GA), and the Houston Museum of Natural Science (Houston, TX), features 15 terra cotta figures, the largest number of Qin's clay army to ever be shown in the United States. While the warriors with their unique faces are always fascinating to see (there are two infantrymen, a chariot driver, two officers, an armored warrior, two archers, and a cavalryman), what particularly interested the Dresser were the two kneeling musicians and pot-bellied, headless strongman. Three other figures of interest were a court official and a stable attendant with a horse.ArtistsSmall.jpg

The Dresser asks, isn't it human nature to want to see the rarest item in a collection of things? Knowing that the experts number the terra cotta figures as high as 6,000 pieces and most of these are the warriors, the occasion to behold the entertainers of the court was sublime. The clay figures the Dresser saw when she visited the Xi'an compound did not include any of the afterlife entertainers. Truthfully, the Dresser, who comes from a working class family, is always more interested in artists than hired hands.


The other thing to know about the Dresser's experience of the terra cotta warriors standing in their pits or inside glass showcases in Xi'an was that the temperature in which she viewed this great wonder of the ancient world was bone chilling which made it hard to luxuriate in the awesome splendor of so many works of art. The trade off in seeing the actual site of Qin's warriors is that, except for winter, a visitor has to deal with huge crowds that block one's view into the pits. That said, a visitor to the pits or the reservation's museum never gets very close to the terra cotta figures. What was exhilarating about the two United States exhibitions the Dresser has seen was that the figures were not behind glass and one was never far from them.

The NG exhibit, which continues through March 31, 2010, also features 100 sets of artifacts, including weapons, stone armor, coins, jade ornaments, building parts (decorated tiles and bricks), and a bronze crane and swan. The Dresser lingered in front the coins some of which were labeled with odd names like ant nose money and knife coins (not as odd a name because these coins were shaped like knives).

The Dresser also appreciated the video that showed how Qin conquered neighboring kingdoms--Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan, and Qi--to form the first unification of China. Ever since her trip to the People's Republic of China, the Dresser has trying to understand the geographic scope of China's rule and influence over its long history, for example during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) China extended its boundaries to include such countries as Korea, Vietnam, and a part of Afghanistan. Apparently Qin established China's appetite for expanding its boundaries.

The Dresser offers "The War Against Death," a poem written after viewing the small exhibition of terra cotta warriors at the Walters Art Gallery. The Dresser believes people like herself want to see the terra cotta warriors repeatedly because deep down everyone is interested in immortality.Immortal.gif


The emperor of the Qin
dynasty pursued life ever
................. dispersed emissaries
to commandeer the elixir
of immortality.
sayers decreed, "to be a true
man, one who would never
die, one who could fly
through clouds and air,
the emperor must guard his
..........................So he became a
ghost floating through secret
passages in his palace, ordering
the death of any subject who slipped
and said, "I saw him in the garden. I
saw him in his chambers."
.............................................Just in case,
he assembled all the potters of his empire
to form and fire a terra-cotta army,
six feet tall, horses in full battle
dress, one thousand foot
a unique face,
..........................bowmen with working weapons.
If he had to go into the unknown to wage
this battle, he would not depart alone.

by Karren L. Alenier
from Looking for Divine Transportation

Copyright © 1999 Karren L. Alenier

Photo Credits:
#1 Karren L. Alenier
#2 Kate Baylor, National Geographic
#3 Robert Hohl
#4 Bill O'Leary, The Washington Post


Comments (3)

Barbara Goldberg:

I haven't seen this exhibit yet but I definitely will before it leaves.
thanks for this - puts it in context. and the video is terrific.

Rosanne Russo:

this is a wonderfully done piece. You capture the historic details with facts and drama. The poem is fabulous with eloquent imagery. I have saved it to my China folder.

Patti Abscher:

What a terrific piece you put together here. I liked the photos setting off
your review. Your essay neatly tied together your three "encounters" with
the Terra Cotta Soldiers!

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