Opening on April 3, Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.– A.D. 220) explores the art of a unique historical period in China. Beginning with the country’s first unification in 221 B.C. and running through its classical era, the exhibition examines the lasting impact of the Qin and Han dynasties on Chinese cultural identity. Of the many exquisite and rare artworks in the exhibition, one of the most iconic are the terracotta warriors, known worldwide due to their immense scale. Before the exhibition opens to the public, take a journey back in time with us to learn about this exceptional array of artworks.
In 247 B.C., at just 13 years old, Ying Zheng ascended to the throne of the State Qin. Adhering to Chinese tradition, Ying Zheng immediately began design and construction of his mausoleum as soon as he was crowned. At the same time, the young ruler also began a mission to unify the many warring states and nomadic groups scattered across mainland China. At this time, there were at least a dozen known kingdoms during the period of Warring States (475-221 B.C.), the State Qin being just one. Though he was not the first to attempt the feat, the young ruler quickly composed a powerful military with the help of his advisor Lu Büwei, and by the age of 38 he had completed his goal of unifying China and renamed himself Qin Shi Huang, meaning the First Emperor of Qin.
During this short period, Qin Shi Huang also built the Great Wall, which was formed by connecting various fortifications that were composed during the period of Warring States. As a part of his military unification of China, he also implemented a uniform system of law, currency, systems of weight and measure, transportation, and a single written language. Spanning an entire country, these standardizations allowed for an exchange of ideas never before possible on the continent and gave birth to new ideas.
Upon crowning himself the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang took imperial tours throughout his empire as a display of his power. He had metal weapons melted down in order to build monuments in his own honor, which were then scattered across the country as a reminder of his prowess. These, among other artworks commissioned by the Emperor, contributed to a unified artistic style that would have a lasting impact on Chinese art for centuries.
One of the most impressive examples of the Emperor’s ambitious achievements is his mausoleum, which comprised a replica of a palace city, a diagram of the cosmos, and the terra-cotta army, along with live animals, working weapons, and other luxuries such as the Emperor’s gold, jade, and pearl-adorned funerary suit.
It was Qin Shi Huang’s belief that the afterlife was much like his present life, and so he commissioned replicas of hundreds of objects and people to provide everything he might want or need in the next life. Because these replicas would serve him in the afterlife, the accuracy of their designs was of the utmost priority. Records from the period show that as many as 700,000 prisoners and artisans may have been involved in the project, which took a staggering 40 years to complete.
Included in this extraordinary monument are 7,000 life-sized terracotta soldiers and horses designed to accompany the Emperor into the afterlife. Mirroring the careful organization of Qin Shi Huang’s real life army, the warriors are arranged in a battle formation, and placed in eleven parallel subterranean chambers. Though the mausoleum itself took 40 years to complete, historians estimate that the warriors and horses were completed in a comparatively short period of just 12 years (221 – 209 B.C.), through the combined effort of thousands of highly skilled artisans.
To create this awe-inspiring display, artists modeled each figure individually, lending unique characteristics ranging from hairstyle to mustaches, facial shapes, and expressions to every face. Produced as a single piece with the exception of the head and hands, artisans designed the basic figure, then added details like facial features or suits of armor. After being sculpted, left to dry in the shade, and fired, each figure was painted in vibrant hues reflecting their military rank and unit, ranging from reds, greens, pinks, purples, and blues. Even minute details like shoelaces or patterned shirt collars were delicately painted. Once they were complete, each member of the army was outfitted with genuine working weaponry.
Because of the incredible detail and uniqueness of each figure, some historians believe they are based on actual members of Qin Shi Huang’s army, including bowmen, archers, infantrymen, charioteers, and warriors. Though most figures were created at life size, viewers will note that some are presented on an even grander scale as a symbolic reflection of their power and rank.
Among the 1,225 warriors and 88 horses that have been unearthed to date, the archer figures reflect some of the most artistically advanced elements of the army. Showing a sense of movement, weight, and anatomical correctness not seen in other figures, the incredibly fine detail in the modeling of their uniforms adds to an overwhelming sense of naturalism.
The horse-drawn chariots are another outstanding example of the fine craftsmanship and attention to detail lent to the making of Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. Created at one-half scale, each terracotta horse is outfitted with scales reproductions of actual bronze chariots that would have been used by the Emperor during his life. Made using the most advanced techniques to date, artisans smelted, cast, and welded each piece with incredible precision.
Upon the Emperor’s death, the fully assembled mausoleum was buried, leaving behind a mound of dirt approximately two meters above ground level in an effort to create a visible landmark honoring the dead. It is estimated that just five years later, the mausoleum was looted of weapons and any other valuable items; terracotta sculptures were smashed; and the looters even started fires in hopes of destroying anything too large to carry with them. In fact, the fires did not harm the terra-cotta replicas but did damage their painted surfaces, leaving behind the brownish patina we see today.
Discovered by chance in 1974 when a group of peasants were digging a well to tap the local groundwater, a section of the mausoleum was excavated by expert archaeologists and remains on view to the public today. The rest of the mausoleum, including Qin Shi Huang’s palace city, remain undisturbed as we await the technological advances necessary to excavate and study this area further without causing it harm.
To learn more, visit the exhibition, and shop our exhibition catalogue here.