‘Terracotta Army’ statues among China’s treasures stopping in Montreal

Unarmored high-ranking officer, earthenware, Qin dynasty, 221-206 B.C., excavated in 1980 at Terracotta Army Pit No. 1, Lintong, Shaanxi province, Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Terracotta Army Museum, 002743. Image courtesy of The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Unarmored high-ranking officer, earthenware, Qin dynasty, 221-206 B.C., excavated in 1980 at Terracotta Army Pit No. 1, Lintong, Shaanxi province, Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Terracotta Army Museum, 002743. Image courtesy of The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

MONTREAL – “The Warrior Emperor and China’s Terracotta Army,” a major exhibition of archaeological works that takes visitors on a faraway journey covering 1,000 years of Chinese history, is the starring attraction at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through June 26, 2011.

The discovery of artifacts from the Emperor Ying Zheng’s tomb complex revealed priceless treasures. It is considered to be the last great archaeological discovery of the 20th century after King Tut’s tomb. The site was placed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1987.

Two hundred forty works, including many that have only recently been excavated, will be presented. In addition to outlining the life of Emperor Ying Zheng (259-210 B.C.), the exhibition will shed light on the creation of a new cultural and geopolitical cohesion that would have a profound effect on China for centuries to come. This exhibition represents a rare opportunity to view a group of stunning, diverse archaeological objects that will not leave China again for a long time.

Dating from 2,200 years ago, 10 larger-than-life terracotta sculptures will be the star attraction of this exhibition. Two high-ranking officers, four soldiers, a civic official, an acrobat and two horses are among the works found in various pits containing 2,000 statues, every one of them unique. Rare bronze sculptures, including a goose unearthed in 2000 from what is considered the site of the sovereign’s water garden, other never-before-exhibited relics and many funerary figurines, ornaments in jade and gold, swords, coins and adornments, architectural elements and military accoutrements from the imperial tombs of the Emperors Gaozu and Jing of the Han Dynasty trace the history of close to 10 centuries of funeral rites.

Investigation of the site, situated in the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi, near the colossal mausoleum – the largest in the world – of Qin Sihuangdi (Emperor Ying Zheng), will continue for many years, as it makes up only a tiny part of that country’s biggest burial complex.

The first archaeological-site museum in China, as well as the biggest to date, has been built over the Emperor Qin’s mausoleum. Excavations continue, with archaeologists now using new conservation techniques to preserve the fragile colors on the painted warriors. It is estimated that nearly 8,000 of these terracotta statues exist, and many remain to be unearthed. Arranged in astounding military formation, they are often called the “eighth wonder of the world.”

The succeeding dynasties, periods of political and social transition marked variably by war or peace and profound societal changes – the history of ancient China will unfold before visitors through a chronological presentation divided into three sections.

The Rise of Qin (9th century – 221 B.C.)

The first section of the exhibition begins in the ninth century B.C., when the Ying family was part of a small noble clan that served the royal court of the Zhou. In reward for its military valor and defense of the family in power, the Ying family was given land and its head received the title of Duke of Qin. The exhibition includes a bronze bell that belonged to the Qin Duke Wu that attests to the gift of an estate to Duke Xiang, an ancestor of the First Emperor. Recently excavated figures, as well as the most ancient terracotta soldiers ever to have been discovered in the country, appear in this section. One of the treasures of the exhibition, which has never before been presented outside China, is a wall painting from the imperial burial site. Documented as being the First Emperor’s favorite color, black predominates in the multicolored paintings on clay.

The Terracotta Army of the First Emperor of China (221 – 206 B.C.)

The exhibition’s second section deals with the life and legacy of the famous First Emperor and the inception of his terracotta army. In 246 B.C., Ying Zheng, then only 13 years old, acceded to the throne of the state of Qin. After having conquered the last independent state and put an end to 500 years of war and intergovernmental strife, Ying Zheng became king of the whole of China in 221 B.C. On the strength of this unprecedented achievement, and in the desire to indicate his power and standing, he declared himself Qin Sihuangdi, “First August Emperor of the Qin,” in the hope that the Ying family would continue to reign for thousands of generations. Ranked among China’s national treasures, the objects shown in this section are, for the most part, the product of the most recent archaeological discoveries made in the Emperor’s mausoleum. Of particular note are a set of armor and a helmet made of stone plates, as well as a life-size bronze goose.

The Harmonious Era of the Han (206 B.C. – A.D. 220)

The third section examines the political and social changes that marked the rise of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) after the sudden death of Ying Zheng in 210 B.C. The Han emperors maintained the First Emperor’s administrative policies, as well as the burial practices of his era. They also buried terracotta figures for the purpose of caring for their needs in the afterlife, but their size never equaled that of the sculptures created under the Qin. Smaller and arranged in groups, the statuettes created at the beginning of the Han dynasty were inspired by different themes more representative of everyday life. Presented in this part of the exhibition is a large selection of terracotta objects, unearthed from the tombs of the emperors Gaozu and Jing of the Han dynasty, including beautifully painted terracotta women and soldiers, as well as an assortment of farm animals that evoke the relatively peaceful life of this period, during which traditions that still live on in China today were established.

Ying Zheng, who succeeded in uniting seven warring kingdoms into a single nation, of which he was the sole monarch for 37 years, remains a controversial figure in the history of China. If his autocratic rule was characterized by tyranny and slaughter, his achievements were many: the establishment of a strong central government; codification of laws; standardization of currency, weights and measures, establishing a national road and canal system, and the Great Wall of China, which was designed to thwart invaders from the north. Not only did he lend his name to this vast country, he created a bureaucratic system that endured to the dawn of the 20th century. However, the terracotta warriors are the most tangible proof of his legacy. During his reign, 700,000 workers spent close to 40 years erecting a gigantic mausoleum to hold 8,000 large terracotta warriors and other remarkable sculptures. It is supposed that building began as a result of a series of assassination attempts, as the complex and its guardsmen were meant to protect Ying Zheng in the afterlife. Recent archaeological studies have shown that this necropolis, at 35 square miles, is much larger than originally thought, comprising a complete underground palace that even boasts imperial botanical gardens. After a few decades of excavations, it is now known that the terracotta warriors make up only a minuscule part of this huge site. Over 180 pits, including those containing the buried army, are arranged on both sides of the double-walled enclosure within which the burial mound is located. A total of more than 500 archaeological remains, such as graves, walls and gates, have been discovered since the 1970s.

For details visit the museum’s website at www.mmfa.qc.ca/en/index.html