- The Washington Times - Friday, November 20, 2009

President Obama didn’t visit the city of Xi’an on his trip to China, but he still has the chance to see some of its famous archaeological treasures. Some of the terra-cotta soldiers excavated from around the tomb of the first Chinese emperor plus related artifacts are on view at the National Geographic Museum in its first ticketed exhibition.

Then again, the president and his fellow visitors may be let down by this hyped show. Instead of featuring row after row of warriors as they often appear in photographs of the ancient site, the touring exhibit displays just 15 figures — nine of them military men — sculpted during the third century B.C.

Far more numerous are cases full of ancient weapons, jade ornaments, coins and decorative bricks created around the same time and now scattered in different collections around Xi’an.

Billed as the biggest display of the statues to travel to this country, “Terra Cotta Warriors” turns out to be more focused on the reign of ancient emperor Qin Shihuangdi and his vision for what some antiquities experts consider the eighth wonder of the world: a 19-square-mile tomb complex filled with ancient funerary art.

It was near this site outside Xi’an where farmers digging a well first uncovered the warrior sculptures in 1974. Archaeologists continued excavating the area to unearth about 1,000 figures from four pits to the east of the mound and other finds from around the complex. Their surprising discoveries have attracted millions of tourists to the site since its museum opened three decades ago.

The powerful draw of the awe-inspiring terra-cotta army stems from its vast size and convincing realism. Even from photographs, the hundreds of life-size soldiers arranged in orderly rows convey the impressive might of real troops.

They make a convincing case for the emperor’s belief that the clay sculptures would protect him from attack in the afterlife.

Disappointingly, the exhibit doesn’t capture the thrill of seeing the army in formation. Presented as individual sculptures, the warrior statues lose the potency they have as an ensemble.

It’s like seeing the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum rather than at the Acropolis, where they once adorned the Parthenon. The Chinese warriors are similarly divorced from their context to be presented as isolated artworks in a Western manner.

At least this approach allows for a close-up appreciation of the statuary’s unprecedented realism. As explained by curator Albert Dien, a retired Chinese history professor from Stanford University, the terra-cotta soldiers represent “an artistic jump that occurred practically overnight. Nothing of this scale or realism had been done in China before.”

From their paneled armor to their mustaches and “pheasant-tail” caps, the statues are sculpted in exacting detail. Even the sole of a shoe worn by one kneeling warrior is stippled to indicate the knotted threads of a cloth design.

In addition to the infantrymen, officers, archers and a cavalryman, the show includes statuary of civilians and copper-threaded limestone armor from recent excavations around the emperor’s tomb.

In 2001, an F-shaped pit was found to contain sculptures intended for entertaining the deceased emperor, including the terra-cotta musicians and bronze birds in the show. Other excavations brought forth the muscled strongman and grinning bureaucrat that are the most distinctive personalities in the show.

Not a single female figure is evident, though a kneeling stable boy was thought to represent a woman before conservators found a trace of a mustache on his face.

The statuary’s graceful representations are all the more amazing given that the body parts were produced in assembly-line fashion from molds. After the parts were assembled, facial features and costume elements were sculpted by hand before the clay sculptures were fired and then painted in bright colors. Exposure to air during the excavations resulted in the loss of the hues, although a few of the sculptures in the exhibit still bear traces of lacquered pigments.

The artisans responsible for the terra-cotta army — 1,000 people may have been involved in its creation — probably were some of the same ceramicists involved in the architectural projects built by the emperor to prove his power. His 300 palaces and 400 lodges enabled him to stay in a different place each night and keep his adversaries guessing about his whereabouts.

Bronze structural fittings, end caps for tiled roofs and decorative pavers included in the exhibit reveal that such buildings were well-adorned.

During his reign from 221 to 210 B.C., the emperor unified the warring states around his kingdom of Qin in far western China. To protect this territory, he built the precursor to the Great Wall; parts of this rammed-earth fortification still stand.

One of the emperor’s most secretive undertakings was creating the army for his mausoleum complex, which took 36 years to complete. No written records of it exist.

His actual tomb, housed within a flattened earthen pyramid, has been described by ancient historians, but it has yet to be excavated. Experts estimate 6,000 more statues are still buried on the site, along with hundreds of precious artifacts fit for a palace.

The terra-cotta warriors represent just a small but significant part of this ambitious underworld.

WHAT: “Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor”
WHERE: National Geographic Museum, 1600 M St. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday; through March 31
ADMISSION: $12 adults; $10 seniors, military and museum members; $6 children ages 2 to 12
PHONE: 202/857-7700
WEB SITE: www.warriorsdc.org

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