Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China

Treasures from the tomb of China’s first emperor on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

More than 2,200 years ago, China’s first emperor Qin Shihuang took with him into the afterlife an army of 8,000 life-size clay warriors, along with horses, chariots and around 40,000 bronze weapons, including spears, crossbows, arrowheads and battle axes.

The massive underground mausoleum compound containing this army as well as works in gold and silver, precious jewelry, ceramics and more took more than three decades to build—it was actually left unfinished at the time of Qin’s death. Covering nearly 20 square miles, its discovery in 1974 by farmers digging a well in the Shaanxi province is considered one of the greatest archeological finds of the 20th century.

But in the 10 larger-than-life figures, each weighing more than 400 pounds, now on display in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ new exhibition, Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China, is a glimpse at the humanity behind this extraordinary, almost inhuman achievement.

“What’s amazing is that every one of the 8,000 soldiers is essentially a real life portrait, every one is different,” explains VMFA director Alex Nyerges. “The artists who created these 2,200 years ago, were creating portraits of their colleagues.”

An archer dressed in a short robe with armor covering his chest and shoulder kneels ready for battle, his brow slightly furrowed and his lips parted in concentration. Another archer stands, his face serene, chin confidently tilted upward as if surveying a battlefield. A cavalryman posed next to his horse seems almost to smile, and an elaborately-costumed general exudes the confidence of command.

More than ritual statuary, the different topknots, caps, armor, mustaches and goatees that animate these figures give them a striking level of individuality.

Nyerges says the primary takeaway for visitors will be the chance “to be able to stand back and see these soldiers created to protect the emperor in the afterlife.”

The exhibition also features more than 130 works of art drawn from the collections of 14 art museums and archeological institutes across the Shaanxi province, including more than 40 objects that are traveling to the U.S. for the first time. It will tell the story of how the Qin state became an empire under the leadership of Ying Zheng (259-210 BC) who unified China and declared himself Qin Shihuang, the first empereor of Qin.

The exhibition was curated by Li Jian, VMFA’s E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Curator of East Asian Art, and Hou-mei Sung, Curator of Asian Art at the Cincinnati Art Museum, where the exhibition will travel after it closes in Richmond. 


“The legacy of the First Emperor is enormous, including administration, law, language, art, architecture, interstate roadways, and the Great Wall,” Li Jian, said in a statement from VMFA. “Our exhibition is organized to bring our audience a better understanding of Qin history, and ancient Chinese art and archaeology.” 


“The heritage of China is so little know by Americans that this is one way we can bring the world of ancient China to Virginia,” says Nyerges. “It’s hard not to gain respect for people when you see the magnificent artistic treasures that they have been creating for 5,000 years.”

Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China will be on display through March 11, 2018. For more information, go to VMFA.org


Special Programs at VMFA Invite Visitors to Explore Terracotta Army

In February, VMFA will host an archaeology forum featuring scholars and archaeologists from China and the U.S. who will discuss topics such as recent excavations and new research, as well as innovative approaches to archaeology.

The museum will also offer lectures, gallery talks and films in conjunction with the exhibition, as well as programs for families and students, including Dig It!, a family-friendly interactive exhibit that offers visitors the opportunity to explore the field of archaeology. All programs are free.

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