Thursday, November 19, 2009

China's Warriors Come to Life

I had long heard about the Terra Cotta Warriors of China.  But today I got to see first-hand pieces from this magnificent collection at the National Geographic Museum.  I was one of probably 1,000 people who made their way through the exhibit on opening day.

The Terra Cotta Warriors are a form of funerary art dating back to around 210 BC.  It is estimated that there are as many as 8,000 statues, as well as horses and chariots and all the regalia that an army might need.  Their purpose was to help the departed emperor Shi Huang Di rule another empire in the afterlife.  They are remarkably lifelike.  It’s difficult to imagine a society so evolved at such an early time in history.

Several thoughts occurred to me as I viewed the exhibit.

First of all I was struck with how it is often the poorest of society who make the greatest discoveries.  In the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it was a Bedhouin boy who while looking for a goat wandered into the caves above Qumran in Israel in 1947 only to find the scrolls perfectly preserved.  In the case of the warriors, it was farmers in the Xi’an Province of China who were drilling a well in 1974 when they encountered the first clay figures.  In both cases, it took a while for anyone to appreciate the enormity of their find.

Something that surprised me about the Terra Cotta Warriors was their great size.  Even today we think of many Chinese people as being somewhat slight of build.  But these figures from over 2,000 years ago were from 6’ to 6’5”, depending on their role, with the tallest being the generals.  I especially loved the part of the exhibit that depicted how one of the warriors would have been made, with the final statue weighing as much as 350 pounds.

Although the exhibit gives an extraordinary view into adult males of the time, women and children are quite neglected.  I found myself wanting to know what the other members of the family looked like.

The pieces in this exhibit are exquisite in terms of their workmanship and the insight they give into the life and customs of the times.  But they only whet one’s appetite to see the army in its entirety, which can only happen when the excavations are complete.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the evocative summary, Barbara! I can imagine the special feeling in the air there. For me, life-sized figures in particular can more easily bridge the time/space/whatever gap between now and then, "us" and "them"...I wish I could have attended the exhibit with you.


10:59 AM  
Blogger bulletholes said...

"the poorest of society who make the greatest discoveries."
Thats funny. it reminds me of the Steve Martin routine about President Nixon out on the beach at San Clemente with a metal detector. "Hmm, found a quarter..."
And it gives me a mental picture of Donald Trump out looking for a goat or digging a well.
And finding a gold plated comb.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Cyndy said...

That sounds like a pretty cool exhibit. I'm going to try to make it down to see it before it closes.

10:47 AM  

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