With less than three weeks left to see it, we've got seven things to know before heading to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China exhibition. Be sure to catch this incredible exhibit before it closes on March 11th! Now, here are some interesting tidbits that you might not know about the Terracotta Army.
The Terracotta Army is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century and this exhibit at the VMFA provides an incredible opportunity to get up close and personal with the warriors. The Terracotta Army is part of the imperial tomb complex of Ying Zheng who came to the throne of the Qin state at the age of 13 during the Warring States period in Chinese history. Following his defeat of several rival states, he declared himself Qin Shihuang or the First Emperor of Qin (pronounced “Chin”) in 221 B.C. The entire complex, located outside the city of Xi’an, took 38 years to complete and covers about 35 sq miles. Discovered in 1974 when farmers were digging a well, the site first opened to the public in 1979 and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989.
It’s all about that afterlife. The Egyptians had mummification and pyramids. The ancient Chinese had jade burial suits and were also fans of elaborate tombs. As part of his quest for immorality, the First Emperor had the Terracotta Army created by 100’s of thousands of laborers to surround his tomb and protect him in his afterlife. The tomb on the mausoleum complex, where the First Emperor currently enjoys an extravagant afterlife, has never before been excavated and remains one of the greatest mysteries of modern archaeology.
This was no cookie cutter operation: No two figures in the Terracotta Army are alike and the detailed craftsmanship from more than 2,000 years ago is astounding. Each soldier has different facial expressions and different gestures. It’s important to note that the figures were painted when they were originally developed. Some figures still contain traces of their original paint. The full army includes all the components that make up a military from the time period of the Qin dynasty: officers (from high-ranking to low-ranking), soldiers (with varying degrees of weaponry), horses, cavalrymen, and archers. Archaeologists even unearthed bronze horses and chariots, complete with coachmen, thought to serve as vehicles for the emperor's inspection tours in his afterlife.
The Terracotta Army is being built… again. The farmers that made this incredible discovery in 1974 didn’t stumble upon life-size soldiers that just needed a little dusting. They found broken ceramic pieces. The Museum of the Terracotta Army of the First Emperor of Qin is an active archaeological site performing ongoing excavations and restorations. The ten figures currently residing at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts have been painstakingly restored and reassembled. Since the initial discovery in the 70’s, about one quarter of the estimated 8,000 soldiers have been excavated.
The Qin Dynasty is a BIG DEAL portion of Chinese history. The First Emperor is most often recognized for his elaborate mausoleum complex, but his significance and that of the Qin Dynasty that he ushered in (221-206 B.C.) go much farther than the Terracotta Army. The First Emperor had a profound influence on Chinese history, art, and culture. The Qin Dynasty was the first unified, multi-national and power-centralized state in Chinese history and heavily influenced dynasties that followed. Under the First Emperor’s leadership, the new unified Qin state adopted a universal writing system, a national currency, and revised weights and measurements, developed new inter-state roadways, and promoted trade across the burgeoning empire. To defend this new unified nation, the First Emperor also linked the existing walls of former states along the northern border to create what is known today as the Great Wall of China.
The VMFA exhibit takes a comprehensive look at the lasting impact of Qin history in three sections. The First Emperor of Qin and the Unification of China features objects excavated from the First Emperor’s mausoleum complex including a bronze chariot, a battle bell, a sword, and gold and silver horse ornaments. Birth of the Qin Empire showcases Qin culture through musical instruments and vessels, jewelry, household objects, and objects from nomadic cultures. The Quest for Immortality offers a glimpse into ancient China’s deep belief in the afterlife. This section includes the life-size terracotta figures, including a rare figure of a general. Some stand more than 6 feet tall and weigh more than 400 pounds. The detailed realism in each figure and astonishing attention to detail make them among the most important works of art to have survived from the ancient world.
Earlier this year the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts accompanied a media delegation to Xi’an and Beijing, China to further explore the Qin Dynasty by visiting the cultural institutions that assisted with this exhibit. In total, the VMFA exhibition showcases more than 130 works, drawn from the collections of 14 art museums and archaeological institutes across the Shaanxi province in China. Learn more about the origins of this spectacular exhibition through the eyes of Katherine Calos for Richmond Magazine in her four-part series, as well as Jessica Noll for WTVR.
Now hurry and buy your tickets before the exhibit closes on March 11th!
If you’re not able to make it to Richmond in the coming weeks, you can still look forward to other VMFA exhibits. The Horse in Ancient Greek Art just opened and is on view until July 8.