The Emporer’s Army
Exhibit explores the history of ancient China
RICHMOND, Va. — The discovery in China of an underground army of nearly 8,000 life-size terracotta soldiers is considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century.
More than four decades after they were first seen in modern times, by farmers in Shaanxi province, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has 10 of the majestic figures on display in an exhibit that explores the history of ancient China and the reign of its first emperor, Ying Zheng.
Although various assortments of the terracotta soldiers have been displayed previously in museums in New York, Philadelphia, Seattle and elsewhere, the exhibit in Richmond also includes 40 objects never seen in the U.S., including ancient jade ornaments, precious jewelry and ceramics.
“Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China” is only being shown in Richmond and at the Cincinnati Art Museum, where it goes after its run in Virginia ends March 11.
The exhibit explores the life of Ying Zheng — who declared himself Qin Shihuang, the first emperor — and how he influenced China during his reign from 221 to 210 BC. Historians believe he ordered the construction of the terracotta army, which was buried in pits and discovered 2,000 years later, about a mile east of the emperor’s burial site.
“We want visitors to learn who is the first emperor and what people’s lives looked then, what technology developed during that time and the architecture of that time,” said Li Jian, the co-curator.
“No matter rich or poor, royal emperors or commoners, people had a quest for immortality,” she said. “These excavated objects reflect the people’s lives at the time.”
The first two rooms of the exhibit showcase horse and chariot fittings, arms and armor, works of art in gold and silver, and other cultural relics.
A bucket-shaped mask with an open mouth and cut-out eyes is the oldest object, dating to 3500 BC, when an exorcist would have worn it while performing rituals to ward off evil spirits and misfortune. A necklace of red agate beads and white jade pendants was a type of jewelry favored by Qin nobility. A bronze household lamp would have contained vegetable oil or animal fat, capable of burning for long periods of time in an era before candles.
Visitors encounter an imposing sight as they enter the third room: The terracotta soldiers, 6 feet tall and weighing between 250 and 400 pounds each, are positioned in individual open cases, in various poses of war.
There’s the armored general, with detailed carving depicting a protective leather apron overlaid with plated armor. An infantryman stands at attention with both arms at his side. A standing archer and a kneeling archer depict the Qin military strategy, requiring one group of archers to stand and provide cover fire while another group knelt and loaded bolts into their crossbows.
Connie James, a retired kindergarten teacher from Richmond, appreciated the details as she spent a recent weekday afternoon exploring the exhibit with her husband.
“I was expecting them to look like a terracotta flower pot, but they’re very intricate,” she said. “For those of us who couldn’t get to China, this is something very special.”
Her husband, David James, liked seeing the ancient weapons used by the warriors.
“I wouldn’t have imagined they would have been used in a crossbow at that time, but they were,” he said.
Museum director Alex Nyerges said the exhibit attracted nearly 40,000 visitors during its first two weeks in Richmond, putting it on a path to become one of the museum’s most popular.