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Terracotta Warriors


by N.F. Karlins
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The life-sized terracotta soldiers protecting the tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi (259 BC-210 BC), were accidentally found by well-diggers in 1974. Since the discovery of the First Emperor’s tomb complex, about 2,000 of an estimated 8,000 six-foot-tall clay figures have been uncovered. While a person could travel to Xi’an, China, to visit this vast ongoing archeological project, closer to home Discovery Times Square is showing ten of these warriors in an exhibition with works dating before and after their creation.

“Terracotta Warriors: Defenders of China’s First Emperor” explains the rise of the Qin Shi Huangdi’s ancestors through objects that are martial, religious, and mundane. A bronze tripod or “ding” from 1046-771 BC originally belonged to a family serving the same King as one of the First Emperor’s distant forebears. The tripod was one of a set of ten used by nobles to offer food to the gods or ancestors. The First Emperor’s family would not have used such ritual sets at this time, as his ancestor was not yet elevated to noble stature. His ancestor would have used earthenware vessels instead.

During the 9th to 8th century BC, the First Emperor’s kinsman was an official supplying horses to Zhou Dynasty rulers. But nobility would come later, as would gradually gaining control over a small feudal state, one of many in China.

Using superior military stratagems, the Qin would conquer other small states. The future Qin Shi Huangdi had fighting in his blood when he inherited the throne from his father at 13, assuming full control from his regent by age 22. By the time he was 39 (in 221 BC), he had subdued six other territories to unify China for the first time and assumed the title of First Emperor.

Within a year of ascending to the throne, Qin Shi Huangdi started to build his tomb complex, using a thousand artisans and untold numbers of laborers, many of whom died while toiling on making what is thought to be a city underground much like the Qin capital in Xianyang. The tomb complex was rumored to contain treasures from the military conquests of the Qin and to duplicate many of the structures in and around the palace, so that the First Emperor would be able to savor the same pleasures in the afterlife as he did when ruling.

The tomb of the emperor has been left untouched for now. Archeologists don’t want to risk opening it and possibly destroying its contents by exposing them to the air and pollution. But three pits, filled with 600-pound terracotta warriors, plus life-sized terracotta horses, chariots and other figures, have been opened and are being conserved, with many being presented in exhibitions here and abroad. If you have seen some of the terracotta warriors before, the selection here is probably different, and they never fail to impress.

An infantryman shows his martial spirit in his tense face and rigid stance, even with his bow having gone missing. More contemplative is an armored general in a distinctive hat and flat-ended shoes with upturned toes. Only nine generals have been unearthed among the warriors. Another unarmored general, also wearing a distinctive tied-under-the-chin hat, is similarly dignified yet intent.

A horse and charioteer are displayed together. The charioteer would have driven a four-horse chariot containing a general and guard. He wears armor similar to that of a regular soldier, although he would have held official rank.

A civil official has his hands tucked into the sleeves of his long robe. There is a space under his left arm that which would have once held a tablet, but a knife and sharpening stone, tools for writing, still hang from his waist. An acrobat illustrates one kind of entertainment that Qin Shi Huangdi thought he was destined to enjoy after his death, and testifies to a long Chinese acrobatic tradition.

The First Emperor is credited with establishing norms that would resonate throughout Chinese history. The exhibition notes that he standardized weights and measures and coinage, abolished the existing nobility, built a national network of roads, a major canal, and the first section of the Great Wall.

The First Emperor had two sons, the eldest being the heir-apparent. Corruption resulted in the death of his capable eldest, who was replaced by his inept brother and co-conspirators. In four short years, the Qin Dynasty was gone. The ultimately more peaceful and longer-lived Han (206 BC-220 AD) swept in.

The exhibition ends with Han artifacts that are fascinating in their own right. Battle styles had changed by the early Han as had burial customs. A display of massed infantry on horseback is made of painted terracotta, like the Qin warriors, but all the Han statues are less than two feet high. An official or administrator in a graceful pose and dressed in a double-layered white robe, about the same size, looks suitably smart with a deferential expression.

Animal figures -- dogs, hens and roosters, adorable pigs, and an elaborately painted goose -- abound in the Han as funerary goods. A carved stone Han tomb gate ends this remarkable tour through China’s past. “Terracotta Warriors: Defenders of China’s First Emperor” remains on view till the end of the summer.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.