SAN FRANCISCO—San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum will host an exhibit in February featuring several figures from the archeological site of China’s first emperor. To celebrate their arrival, Stanford Professor Emeritus Albert E. Dien discussed their importance on January 26 in a lecture “The Terra Cotta Warriors—New Directions.” His talk was enjoyed by some 100 enthusiasts.
Presented by the Society for Asian Art, his lecture referred to the thousands of life-size figures as the “pottery army of Qin,” the dynasty that united all of China under one ruler. The upcoming exhibit is titled, “China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy.”
Unearthed near Xi’an City, Shaanxi Province, China, in 1974, the figures are so numerous that any number of exhibits can be pulled together and displayed simultaneously, according to Dien, who has studied Chinese history and Asian languages.
When digging for water, some farmers from the nearby village of Lintong found clay arms, pottery torsos, tile floors, and bronze crossbows, but no water. Realizing this as an important archeological site, experts soon arrived.
Some 7,000 clay soldiers as well as 96 chariots and 116 cavalrymen were found, according to Dien. They are considered to have been made during the rule of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, and claimed by some as the eighth wonder of the ancient world.
Since 2004, various pieces from the terra cotta army have toured the world in exhibits that have attracted much attention. One exhibit toured southern California last year, and an exhibit will open at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on Feb. 22.
Archeologists as well as visitors to the exhibits are captivated by the figures’ high degree of realism. “I am amazed how the faces are so individual,” a guest said after Dien’s lecture, which included images of the various findings and the surroundings, as well as maps of the excavations.
The Emperor’s Legacy
In the 3rd century B.C., Qin Shi Huang united under his rule a wide region of what is today’s China, set up an empire, called himself the first emperor, and thus set the pattern of ruling dynasties for the following 2,000 years. Xi’an remained the capital of the Qin, Han, and Tang dynasties.
Qin Shi Huang introduced a unified currency and writing script and started to build his mausoleum—38 years before he eventually died. Some researchers believe that he got the idea of a mausoleum from ancient Greece.
No portrait or likeness of Qin Shi Huang exists today. A description at the time, however, says that he had a waspish nose, eyes like slits, and the voice of a jackal—which is “no doubt biased,” Dien said.
Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta figures are completely different from any figures or sculptures that existed previous periods of Chinese history. Although a standard set of molds was used for various parts of each sculpture, the figures have individualized faces and show details such as elaborate patterns of cloth, intricate hair dressing, fingernails, and even finger protection.
The formation of the sculpture army is real, too, as it lays out the actual formation of an army of that time: crossbowmen in the front, soldiers with long-handled weapons in the rear, chariots in the middle, and guards on the sides.
Archeologists excavated a great amount of heavy stone armor including 600 individual breastplates. The plates had holes in each corner and were strung together with bronze wire. So far, 87 of such stone armor suits have been restored and re-assembled.
Even the facial expressions correspond to reality. “The soldiers don’t look very happy. The generals look a bit more pleased,” Dien said.
Even though no portrait of Qin Shi Huang is known, his figures have made him one of the most prominent figures in Chinese history.
During the war that ended the Qin dynasty, a fire destroyed the mausoleum and caused the ceiling to collapse and cover the figures. Thus, the figures were preserved until our present time. Today, some figures are red—those exposed to the fire’s heat—while most figures are gray.
“The figures were originally painted in vivid colors,” Dien said. Unlike what many people assume, the colors didn’t deteriorate over the centuries but “were preserved. When the figures were removed from the humid soil that had encased them,” Dien said, “within a short time upon exposure to the air, that coating simply flaked off and fell away.”
The figures “had originally been coated with two layers of lacquer to serve as the bonding for the paint, which was then added. A third layer, between the terracotta and the lacquer, which would prevent the lacquer from being absorbed by the terracotta, has not yet been identified,” Dien said.
Archeologists researched two methods for preserving such colors that, however, need further development. “While these give good results in the laboratory, much more work is needed to make them suitable for use on the scale that will be required,” Dien said.
Nazneen Spliedt, board member of the Society for Asian Art, together with her husband, organized Professor Dien’s lecture. The Society for Asian Art, which supports the Asian Art Museum, was founded in 1958. The Society has been the driving force to bring the exhibit to San Francisco.
Having visited Xi’an several times, Spliedt recommended that a visitor to the exhibit “should come with an open mind to see how fantastic things were done before modern tools were invented and just marvel at the fact how wonderful ancient culture is.”
Regarding the upcoming exhibit, Dien said, “Look at each individual! You are going to meet someone.”
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