Terracotta Army Invades Cincinnati Art Museum

An army has invaded Eden Park. It’s a contingent of a vast military force — but fear not: The soldiers from the city of Xi’an in the Chinese province of Shaanxi are here for peaceful and culturally educational purposes. They’re on leave from the massive army of 8,000 life-size terracotta figures created to guard the mausoleum of Ying Zheng (259-210 B.C.), who became the first emperor of China in 221 B.C. when his actual army defeated surrounding states and nomadic tribes, enabling him to unify an empire into the Qin dynasty. Through August 12, the figures will guard one of two exhibition galleries at the Cincinnati Art Museum dedicated to Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China.

In addition to the warrior figures, the exhibition includes a gallery with 120 objects from 14 Chinese art museums and archeological institutes. On view are a cavalry horse, arms and armor, ritual bronze vessels and bells (the sound of one solemnly rings in this gallery), works in gold and silver, jade ornaments, precious jewelry and ceramics. Many items have never before been on view in the United States. They provide fascinating context for the terracotta soldiers.

Ying Zheng’s reign (221-210 B.C.) was brief, but the Qin dynasty (pronounced “chin,” the source for the English word “China”) he established fostered progressive and fundamental cultural, political and economic reforms. A national currency was put in place, as well as a unified system of weights and measures. He standardized writing for more uniform communications. He ordered boundary fortifications to be connected, resulting in the Great Wall.

Ying Zheng, The First Emperor (Qin Shihuang)Beyond those innovations, Ying Zheng’s quest for immortality was realized in the form of an astonishing burial complex that was forgotten for more than two millennia. In 1974 farmers digging a well outside Xi’an discovered pottery shards and bronze arrowheads. Excavation revealed a massive archeological site. Even today only a quarter of the warriors have been reassembled.

China carefully protects this ancient site and its objects, allowing no more than 10 figures to be shared beyond its borders at specific exhibitions. CAM Curator of Asian Art, Dr. Hou-mei Sung worked closely with Li Jian, Curator of East Asian Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, to assemble this exhibition and co-author its catalog with photos, maps and informative text. Dr. Sung, Jian, and both museums’ directors made several trips to China to negotiate with museums there for an exhibition to tell the story of the neighboring states and nomadic peoples who were assembled into the Qin empire.

Asked what this exhibition might mean to Cincinnati visitors, Dr. Sung said, “People interested in Chinese history and culture can see how the Qin established the foundation of Chinese civilization, culture and art. It’s directly connected to today — the current language, the political system, even the Chinese currency.”

Dr. Sung paid special attention to Chinese cosmology, a belief system that still influences art in China. The five elements of that philosophical system — water, earth, fire, metal and wood — can be repeatedly seen in the objects on display. “It is reflected in the animal art, why Chinese have dragons and tigers as symbols, like ying and yang.” She mentions Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) that exemplifies how the ying and yang meet to generate heroes. “These basic, deep-rooted concepts of nature were all established during the Qin dynasty, and they continue today — art, painting, Chinese medicine, martial arts, feng shui — almost anything you touch, reflects the concept of ying and yang.”

Architectural elements such as roof tiles are decorated with some of these cosmological elements. The exhibition’s wall texts offer details about the items on display, including beautiful personal jewelry and decorations for horses that pulled chariots. A replica of a chariot drawn by four horses is displayed adjacent to CAM’s entry lobby. The half-sized chariot, charioteer and horses are the only element of the exhibition available for viewing without a ticket. (It’s the show’s only replica. All other items are actual historic objects.)

That foretaste will whet appetites for the life-size figures in CAM’s upstairs exhibition space. Ten of them — displayed in five pairs, nine humans and a horse, many reassembled from broken pieces — are breathtakingly real. An armored general, decorated with honorary ribbons, has an authoritative demeanor. “He had to have a sturdy, heavy presence to command,” Dr. Sung points out. Standing next to him is a middle-ranking officer, wearing extensive officer armor.

Kneeling Archer, Qin dynasty (221–206 BC), earthenware, Excavated from Pit 2, Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum, 1977, Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site MuseumAn infantryman who once held a spear-like weapon — wooden with a bronze point, long since eroded away — stands at the ready. His shoes are ornamented with fine designs. (Dr. Sung suggests that his wife or mother was surely looking after him.) Such details add to figures’ distinctive, individualized appearances. Each one was assembled from fired terracotta pieces: legs, torsos, arms and hands. Once components were connected, finer points were added including a head with a relatively unique face and expression.

Two archers once held crossbows. They seem to be ready for their military duties. One kneels. He wears armor, required by those positioned on the front line. The other, without armor, would have been stationed farther back. His legs are positioned as if he’s about to be part of firing a barrage of arrows to rain down on an advancing foe. Focused on their individual roles, they are differentiated but singular in purpose.

A cavalry horse conveys an air of proud confidence. Carefully groomed with a braided tail, he wears a beautifully detailed saddle. Standing next to him is a slim cavalryman, similar in stature to a modern-day jockey. Two other figures with equine responsibilities are nearby: An armored charioteer, his hands positioned to hold reins, and a young boy who likely worked in the stables, with neatly cropped hair.

Armor, Qin dynasty (221–206 BC), limestone, Excavated from Pit K9801, Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum, 1999, Shaanxi Provincial Institute of ArchaeologyThe armor on figures is especially worth attention. Warriors and officers wore such protection made of leather pieces, stitched together to defend their head, shoulders, torso and abdomen. Adjacent to the terracotta figures is a glass-encased display of body armor and a helmet, fashioned from limestone tiles bound together with copper wires, using ancient tiny holes drilled for assembly. (These items were found in a pile of more than 700 pieces, painstakingly pieced together like a complex jigsaw puzzle.) This symbolic display for the emperor’s tomb was a way to demonstrate his massive and daunting military prowess — and to protect him on his life in the afterworld.

Soldiers aren’t the only characters represented. A civil official wears a simple, long robe with large, loose-fitting sleeves that conceal his clasped hands as he stands with a patient, devoted demeanor. A small paring knife and pouch hang from his side, probably used to record accounts on bamboo.

The tomb itself is still being carefully excavated, much of it long buried beneath eroded land. Many of the terracotta warriors’ shattered remains have been damaged by water and fire, but are gradually and meticulously being reconstructed. The ancient terracotta figures were once painted vibrant colors, most of which have disappeared over time. Efforts are being made to recreate some of them. (A tiny red ribbon around the hair topknot of the armored infantryman’s head is still visible.)

In addition to the warriors, the Emperor’s tomb had many features representing a total environment. A constructed riverbank was populated by 46 life-size bronze water birds — cranes, swans and geese. The CAM exhibition includes a remarkably realistic bronze goose, its webbed feet neatly tucked beneath. The actual tomb must have been truly magnificent. A description recorded in 91 B.C. stated, “The tomb was filled with irreplaceable goods and priceless treasures. Crossbows with arrows have been installed for shooting anyone who intends to enter the tomb. The ground is filled with mercury to emulate the rivers and the sea. The ceiling is painted with stars and zodiac, constellations, the ground covered with geographic features. The candle lights burn eternally in the tomb.” While Ying Zheng’s glorious mausoleum has not yet been fully returned to its original state, this CAM exhibition paints an impressive picture of life in the Qin dynasty 2,300 years in the past. It’s not to be missed.

Attendance has been exceptionally strong since the show’s opening in April. CAM is requiring timed tickets, easily ordered online via http://www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org/terracottatickets, to ensure the best viewing experience, admitting only 100 people per half-hour. Museum members can obtain free tickets; general admission for others is $16, $8 for college students, seniors (65+) and children (6-17). It’s likely that Terracotta Army will surpass attendance records for past exhibitions, including the highly successful Van Gogh: Into the Underground (2016). Many weekend hours have been sold out, so choose your time carefully. A few more tips: Use the ticket code ONLINE when ordering tickets for a $2 discount. You might consider attending on Thursday evenings, 5-8 p.m., when admission is free; two more free options: Art After Dark, 5-9 p.m. on Friday, June 29, and Friday, July 27 when you can find your inner warrior and sample craft beer at the Cincinnati Art Museum’s annual beer tasting event Art After Dark: Terracotta Army Beer Bash.

The Beer Bash will feature a wide selection of craft beers from seven local breweries, live music from New Orleans Creole band The Hot Magnolias, food for purchase from Dewey’s Pizza and Graeter’s Ice Cream, and access to the entire museum including Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China.

Read more articles by Rick Pender.

Rick Pender is an Over-the-Rhine resident with many years of writing, editing, fundraising and public relations experience. He is the theater critic and contributing editor at CityBeat and a regular contributor to WVXU's "Around Cincinnati." Follow him on Twitter @PenderRick.
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