SAN FRANCISCO—An impressive clay general from the burial complex of China’s first emperor leads the current exhibition of life-size terracotta warriors at the Asian Art Museum. With the exhibition China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy, the museum celebrates its 10th anniversary in the Civic Center area.
Arranged in two parts and separated by a passageway, the clay figures give the visitor the impression of walking through the endless rows of terracotta warriors from the Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.) as they have been excavated near Xi’an City, Shaanxi Province, China, since their discovery in 1974.
Among the more than 7,000 unearthed terracotta figures to date were only nine were generals. One of them now poses for visitors in the exhibition’s main gallery, titled The First Emperor’s Underground Army.
“Distinguished by his commanding pose, headdress, armor, and ribbons of rank, the general is the highest-ranking and structurally most impressive of all the terracotta warriors,” the exhibition panel states. His hands probably leaned on a sword.
In the general’s entourage, we find a stoic cavalryman, a kind-looking light infantryman, a somewhat startled military officer, as well as a horse of half life-size. Visitors and archeologists have been amazed by the presence radiated by the figures.
Stanford Professor Emeritus Albert E. Dien in a lecture presented by the Society for Asian Art earlier this year, said, “Look at each individual! You are going to meet someone.”
Although created from a standard set of about one hundred molds, all figures are individualized. They display 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.
Even the facial expressions correspond to reality. “The soldiers don’t look very happy. The generals look a bit more pleased,” Dien said.
The main gallery is flanked by two additional show rooms. One is about the rise of the Qin, titled From State to Empire. The other gallery features the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s search for eternal life.
In the 3rd century B.C., Qin Shi Huang united under his rule a wide region of what is China today. He 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, had roads and canals built, and started to construct his mausoleum—more than 30 years before he actually died. Some researchers believe that he got the idea of a mausoleum from ancient Greece. Our word China probably comes from his dynasty.
A round coin with a square hole, dating from the Qin state, is on display. The panel’s information tells: “The coin’s circle symbolizes the heavenly realm. Its square represents the earth.” Coins of such shape remained the currency in China until 1911.
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 is known for his merciless rule and said to have many dissenting scholars killed.
The third gallery, titled Quest for Immortality, reflects some of the emperor’s belief system. Religious scholars, known for their “techniques toward the cultivation of personal immortality,” guided the emperor to follow the traditional system of the cycles through the five elements wood, metal, fire, water, and earth, according to the museum’s information.
“The First Emperor believed that his right to rule was heaven-sent and corresponded to the phase of Water, which extinguished Fire, representing the preceding Zhou Dynasty. It was believed, a ruler might be able to ascend to a heavenly realm upon his death,” according to an exhibition panel.
Qin Shi Huang traveled extensively through his unified land “both to show the flag to his newly conquered people but also to aid his search for the secret of immortality, and much treasure was expended in the effort to secure the proper drugs,” Dien said.
Beside the massive terracotta army, art objects of various kinds reflect his perception of the world and symbolize immortality such as horses, dragons, phoenixes, and waterbirds. On view are some of the 46 life-size bronze waterbirds, such as a swan and a crane, from the Qin period that were found two miles northeast of the first emperor’s tomb.
Also exhibited is a ceremonial sword from the first emperor’s home state of Qin. It was unearthed from an aristocratic tomb and probably belonged to a chief commander. It shows stylized dragons and serpents with embedded turquoise.
Back to the main gallery, the visitor meets with a kneeling archer. The armored figure has a determined look and is surrounded by a standing archer with a relaxed gaze, a charioteer who gives a very focused impression, as well as another half-sized horse.
Zhang Yi, a military strategist who once served a Qin duke, wrote: “The Qin established an army with over a million armored warriors, thousands of chariots, and tens of thousands of horses. The soldiers were all brave and strong warriors. In battle, those who dashed ahead with bare heads regardless for their safety, shooting the enemy with crossbows, were countless.”
Kneeling archers also make the front lines of the emperor’s underground army to protect the cavalry and the chariots. They wear shoulder and body armor and their hair is tied into a topknot.
When Dien went to Xi’an and first came across one of these kneeling figures in 1977, he had seen reports of these pottery warriors before. He had even translated some of the reports to be published, and thus thought he was prepared.
He said, however, “As I turned a corner in the museum and saw this kneeling bowman, which had not yet been reported, I was so visibly surprised that the Chinese archeologists who were with us thought I was going to have a stroke.”
Striking for Dien, who has studied Chinese history and Asian languages, was the fact that there weren’t any intermediate stages that marked progress in realistically depicting the human body. “It had taken the Greeks centuries to arrive at this level of skill, and here it had apparently emerged almost fully formed without any process of development.”
In addition to crossbows that could launch arrows as far as half a mile and were invented some 300 hundred years earlier, the Qin had swords coated with chromium oxide, to resist tarnish and oxidation, a technique they learned from sword makers in southeastern China.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang died at the age of 49 during one of his travels. His body was transported back to Xi’an by a chariot and buried in the complex of the terracotta army. 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.
China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy is open until May 27.