A close friendship between two art museum curators who first met when they worked in Dayton and Cincinnati has resulted in an exhibition of ancient Chinese artifacts, many of which have never before been seen in the United States. A highlight of the show is a display of 10 of the famed terracotta warriors.
“Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China” opened at the Cincinnati Art Museum April 20 after a run at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The two museums collaborated on the exhibition and will be the only venues at which it can be seen before the precious objects are returned to China. The exhibit will be in Cincinnati through August 12.
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Displayed in three large galleries, the exhibition focuses on the story of the First Emperor’s rise to power, the history of his Qin state, and his quest for immortality. Major objects come from the First Emperor’s well-known mausoleum complex in Xi’an and from other Qin tombs as well.
The two curators, both originally from China, met in 2003 when Li Jian, now the Curator of East Asian Art at the Virginia Museum, was working as the Kettering Curator of Asian Art at the Dayton Art Institute and Hou-mei Sung came to Cincinnati as curator of Asian Art.
Daytonians will remember Li Jian’s impressive show at the DAI in 1998; she curated “Eternal China: Splendors from the First Dynasties” with 12 life-size terracotta warriors on display.
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The two curators have remained friends over the years and coincidentally were discussing the idea for a new Chinese exhibit at the same time their bosses had started talking about one as well. “Li Jian and I work well together, are both Chinese and both speak the language,” says Sung.
The women along with Cincinnati museum director Cameron Kitchin and Virginia museum director Alex Nyerges — who previously served as Dayton’s director — traveled to China two years ago to explore the possibility of bringing the terracotta warriors to their museums.
“It’s so amazing to be at the site and see the massive scale,” says Sung. “It is now recognized as one of the biggest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.”
In 1974 local farmers digging a well outside the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province found pottery shards and bronze arrows near the mausoleum of Ying Zheng. This led to the subsequent astonishing discovery by archaeologists of nearly 8,000 life-size terracotta warriors and horses. About 2,000 have been excavated and reconstructed.
More than warriors
Don’t assume because you’ve seen terracotta warriors in other cities — or even visited the mind-boggling site in Xi’an — you won’t learn a lot in Cincinnati. This exhibit features about 120 objects drawn from 14 Chinese museums and archaeological institutes and provides an excellent education about a ruler who was ahead of his time in a variety of significant ways.
It takes a big ego to order a 38-square mile tomb for your afterlife — complete with a palace, an armory, an entertainment area, stables, a garden pond and an estimated 8,000 life-size terracotta warriors. But after touring this exhibit, you’ll see why Ying Zheng — who became king of Qin at age 13 and lived from 259-210 B.C. — had reason to boast and consider himself special. At a time when seven states —including his own —made up China, he not only conquered the other six states, creating a centralized government, but also came up with innovations ranging from a universal system of writing to a standard unit of weights and measures. “Before that everyone had different weights and measurements which made it impossible when you crossed borders,” says Sung. ” The new system facilitated trade.”
“He made everything much easier for everyone,” Sung explains, adding that before this Emperor’s reign each region had its own coins. “Imagine how heavy this money shaped like knives and spades would have been to carry,” she points out. “He created small coins that could be used everywhere.”
The First Emperor is also credited with joining together walls from the various states to create what ultimately became the 5,500-mile Great Wall of China. “He was a great and powerful leader,” says Sung. “He emphasized law and and he traveled extensively.”
The objects on display recount how the Qin people evolved from a tribe to an empire. Dating from 770-206 B.C., the works of art in the exhibition— excavated from the emperor’s mausoleum as well as aristocratic and nomadic tombs— reflect ancient Chinese history, myths and burial practices. You’ll see arms and armor, ritual bronze vessels, works in gold and silver, jade ornaments, precious jewelry and ceramics. There are roof tiles, a mask to ward off evil spirits, even a baby rattle fashioned of molded clay with a small stone inside!
The exhibition is divided into three sections and emphasizes the relationship between the Qin Empire and other peoples. The first section documents the First Emperor’s rise to power and the unification of China. Section two explores the formation of the Qin dynasty. Section three is the highlight of the show (see the others first) and includes nine intricately detailed life-size terra-cotta figures and a cavalry horse.
“No two warriors are alike,” explains Sung, who with her colleague selected the warriors that would come to America. “The body parts were molded and mass produced but each was then given individual features such as hair, mustaches and facial expressions. We wanted to show a variety of different ranks so you’ll see not just a general but a cavalryman, an armored charioteer, a kneeling and standing archer.” The exhibit is fortunate, she adds, to obtain warriors that still have traces of color on them. Originally all of the figures were painted in vibrant colors including purple, red, green, blue, brown, orange, yellow, white and black.
“The details on these objects are just amazing,”says Sung. “When we were installing the bronze goose, I had a flashlight and could see the webbing on the feet. And look at this horse’s braided tail!”
Sung explains that the custom in China was for emperors to start building their tombs when they were first enthroned. “He wasn’t the first to build a tomb but it was the scale of his tomb that was so unusual,” she says. “He was obsessed with immortality.”
The terrific Family Guide takes children on an archaeological adventure. Kids can color a terra-cotta warrior, design a coin and use clues to search for specific items in the exhibit .
Concludes Sung: “I hope visitors will realize that many of the unification efforts of the First Emperor have continued to shape and influence succeeding Chinese dynasties for 2,000 years.”