Emperor Qin Shihuang was not paranoid. The man who brutally forged China from separate states 2,200 years ago really did have deadly enemies everywhere.
He was “great and ruthless,” said Asian Art Museum Director Jay Xu at the recent preview for the museum’s new exhibition, “China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy.”
Xu, an archeologist by training, was in seventh heaven talking about the display, on view through May 27, which showcases one of the greatest archeological discoveries in history.
The emperor, also known as Chin, wanted to protect himself even after his death (which came in 210 B.C.), so he ordered the creation of an underground terra-cotta army of 8,000 to guard his burial site; hundreds of workers were buried alive during its making.
While the burial sitse was known, a huge secret underground pit next to it, longer than four football fields and containing the warriors, wasn’t found until the 1970s. It was accidentally discovered by men digging for a well in Shaanxi province.
Two galleries at the Asian Art Museum are filled with some 100 objects from the burial complex, including swords and coins, bronze water birds and bells, gold jewelry and a limestone suit of armor and matching helmet.
Eight life-size warriors, along with two horses, are in the middle of the room of a third gallery — at arm’s length.
Noting that the Asian Art Museum was among the first institutions to present the terra-cotta warriors in the West in 1994, Xu said, “The present exhibit offers a new generation the rare chance to view the figures up close,” adding that no other exhibits have allowed visitors to get so near to the figures.
While the warriors’ bodies were mass-produced with the same basic parts, their heads and faces were individually sculpted so that no two look alike.
Originally, their uniforms were painted many colors, but through the centuries, the paint disappeared. An important exception: One warrior in the exhibit has a green hue visible on his face. Xu speculated, but couldn’t be certain, about the significance of the color.
A larger puzzle is related to a sealed crypt, which Xu says will not be opened until sufficient technology guarantees that the objects will be retrieved safely.
In the gallery featuring the dramatic warriors, large video screens show the entire site’s stunning view of 8,000 figures. Seeing the juxtaposition of actual statues and the overview of the whole army — by Li He, the museum’s associate curator of Chinese art — is a thrilling experience.