Kneeling Archer, Qin dynasty (221–206 BC), earthenware, Excavated from Pit 2, Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum, 1977, Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum

This travelling American exhibition explores the history of the Terracotta Army in Xian and the life of China’s first emperor who created it.

In the twenty-sixth year [221 BC], the Emperor united all vassal states under heaven and the people are in great peace. The title of Emperor is established and the edict is issued to chancellors [Wei] Zhuang and [Wang] Wan to regulate standardised measures and weights, clarifying the incoherent, missing, and confusing, and transforming variety into oneness – Imperial edict dated to 221 BC, inscribed on a bronze plaque (cat 18)

This is the second and last venue of this bold exhibition that explores the Terracotta Army, which was conceived and created by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Cincinnati Museum of Art, with the co-operation of museums in China. Other exhibitions outside China have also addressed the Qin Empire over the years. The first was a Qin-only exhibition at the Melbourne (Australia) Museum in 2002, followed by the British Museum in 2003, the National Geographic Museum in Washington DC in 2009, and as part of the international touring exhibition, it popped up in Bern, Switzerland in 2013. A Qin/Han exhibition was held at the Met in May of last year.

The Broken Thumb of a Kneeling Archer

Terracotta Army closed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in March and had over 200,000 visitors, according to a museum spokeswoman, making it the largest attendance figures at an exhibition by a VMFA curator in the museum’s history (Picasso had higher attendance figures,  but was a travelling exhibition from Paris). A branch of the exhibition, China’s First Emperor, is currently running until 28 October at the World Museum in Liverpool, UK. There was an incident in December at the Franklin Institute, where Terracotta Warriors was on show until 4 March, when a guest at an unrelated evening event slipped into the closed Chinese exhibition and broke off a thumb of a kneeling archer. The man was arrested in February and the thumb was recovered, however, there was a righteous howl of outrage from China.

The Story of the First Emperor

The story of the First Emperor and the pottery army is well known by now: in 1974 farmers digging a well outside the city of Xian discovered pottery shards and bronze arrows near the mausoleum of Ying Zheng, better known as Shihuangdi, the first emperor of China. The farmers alerted the proper authorities and the rest is history. Some 8,000 life-size terracotta warriors and horses have been unearthed so far at this UNESCO World Heritage site (1987), and excavations are ongoing.

At an early date, circa 1800 BC, until its fall in 1046 BC, the Shang kingdom, long famous for its remarkable cast bronze ritual vessels, encompassed a wide area of what is modern-day China, roughly the northern half. It fell to the forces of the kingdom of Zhou in 1045 BC, which existed as a unified state until about 770 BC, when Zhou’s vassal kingdoms began to facture into its component parts with loyalty to the Zhou king in name only. These were Yan, Zhao, Qi, Wei, Chu, Han and Qin and by 475 BC, they were in military conflict with each other for domination.

Qin – The Most Western of the Warring States

Qin was the most western of the Warring States and was already considered by the other states as uncivilised, uncultured and barbaric, because the Qin kings were descended from nomadic warlike tribes in the north. As barbaric though Qin might have been, it was a formidable fighting machine and by 221 BC, had, one-by-one, defeated all the remaining states. The victorious king of Qin, Ying Zheng, proclaimed himself Shihuangdi, ‘First Emperor’ and the size of this new empire comprised approximately 1,800,000 square kilometres. Shihuangdi’s task was to unify this mass of conquered kingdoms into a unified, thus controllable, state, and in comparison, the unifications of Germany and Italy in the 19th-century were child’s play.

The First Emperor Qin Shihuangdi and The Terracotta Army

He was an innate genius of control and he created out of thin air a streamlined, top to bottom blueprint for absolute dictatorship which has been in use ever since, and not just in the first half of the 20th century. An ageless model of an autocrat, he exhibited the two main characteristics for which they are known, megalomania and paranoia. As the new ruler of an immense domain and rightly distrustful of the kings of the states he had conquered, he did not leave them in power as his surrogates, but immediately replaced them with members of his own family, a practice followed by the following Han dynasty.

The emperor’s most important project was to protect his new empire by connecting the several sections of what is now known as the Great Wall. The original territory of Qin was bordered on its north by one of the sections of the Great Wall and Shihuangdi was personally aware of the dangers of the warlike nomadic tribes to the north, particularly the Xiang Nu who, with other nomadic tribes, continued to be threats to China for centuries.

The Building of The Wall

This involved massive numbers of impressed labourers, an early source of discontent amongst the population. There were rumours, probably of fairly recent date, that workers who died were buried within the wall. Construction-wise, this is pure nonsense, because a decomposed body creates a hollow space which endangers the material integrity of a structure. Anyway, it sounded shocking enough to have been kept alive by modern-day tour guides.

With the Wall now secure, he continued his creation of an entirely new form of government. Legalism became the driving philosophy because it was the foundation of a solid governmental structure and it facilitated organized control, starting at the top. Consistency was the byword and the collective glue of this new empire. Qin Shihuangdi started his unification programme and ordered a system of standardised weights and measures; the creation of a standardised written language to facilitate communication; unified code of laws; local currencies were replaced by a round copper coin minted with a square centre in the middle of the coin for stringing; and improved irrigation systems were put into place, including the creation of major canals. The purpose of all of these radical changes was not to abet the people per se, but to increase income that could then be taxed.

The Knowledge to Smelt Iron Ore

The smelting of iron ore, achieved in South Asia several millennia BC, did not effectively appear in China before the Qin. This new technology thrust China into the Iron Age and was used in the service of the state by being used for weapons of war and for greatly improved farm tools, a huge boon to agricultural production – and taxes.

The libraries of the conquered states were taken as booty and then purged of Confucian books in a mass burning, along with the execution of Confucian scholars. Why? Confucianism was based on a harmonious system of societal structure, beginning with the family whose head was respected and who returned this respect with goodness and kind governance. This applied to both the individual family and the ruler, something that was an  anathema to Shihuangdi’s style of governance.

However, in his search for immortality, he followed his alchemists’ suggestion to drink mercury which eventually caused his death. Almost immediately, the empire exploded in open revolt and both his short-reigned son and the empire were swept into oblivion.

China’s Early Past

In Cincinnati’s exhibition of China’s early past, with the exception of the nine Qin-dynasty pottery figures, horse, the reproduction of a bronze war chariot, driver and horses (the original is too delicate to transport) and a few pieces of bronze and pottery, everything else on show is from the preceding Zhou dynasty’s Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BC) and the Warring States period (475-221 BC).

The Warring States period is known for its remarkable small bronze objects, ranging from halberds to garment hooks, pole finials and animal figures. Executed in bronze, most are beautifully decorated with gilding, gold and silver inlay and inset stones, mainly turquoise, in all probability imported over the inland trade routes connecting the Chinese states to the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) in present-day Iran. The exhibition is flush with them.

The Pottery Sculptures of the Terracotta Army

The great exception to the thin Qin-art tradition is the survival of the ‘pottery army’ sculptures. It has been surmised that they were created using an assembly-line process by which the various body parts were joined together as a single sculpture. As both the Warring States and Qin employed kilns especially adept at drainage pipes and channels, it would appear that these types of large kilns could easily be converted to mould arms and legs rather than pipes.

I have been given to understand by a major American scholar that there were about 20 different unadorned facial types created that could then be applied, or not, with different styles of moustaches and/or beards, different hair styles, again possibly existing in numerous pre-moulded styles and headpieces of rank. As the sculptures were still unfired, the ‘green’ state, they could be treated to fine details on the faces and hands.

‘The beauty and history encompassed by the exhibition connects us to past and present China, a culture wherein the two are deeply intertwined. We are honoured to bring the immortal treasures of China’s first emperor to Cincinnati,’ said Cameron Kitchin, Cincinnati Art Museum’s Louis and Louise Dieterle Nippert director. A good example where art may help keep an international balance, all the more so with the current looming ‘trade wars’ ahead …


Terracotta Army at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio,until 12 August,  A catalogue accompanies the exhibition