Warriors in Terra Cotta: Art for Then & Now (China)

Cher’s Famous Art

01 March 2021

Terra Cotta Warriors:

Guardians of the Legacy of First Emperor of China

China: one of the few places remaining on my Bucket List of places to visit. With the roots of this pandemic in China, it will probably be a while before travel opens up again to this enchanting part of the world.

The Terra Cotta Warriors are one of China’s artistic masterpieces that should be on everyone’s Must See List. They are on mine!

Meanwhile, Armchair Travel will suffice.

China’s Terracotta Army in Xin is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China.

It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BC. Its purpose? Protecting the emperor in his afterlife.

Modern-day warriors come to mind! There are warriors in our armed forces, fighting around the world to defend our freedom, and warriors on the front lines at home, along side of our health care workers, to combat COVID-19 .

This post is to also recognize and honor OUR thousands of Modern-day Warriors!

Today’s Terra Cotta Army

A friend posted this photo on Facebook of American service men (“Please Pray for our Troops,” Patricia Wing-Green, 04 February 2020).

When I saw this photo, it immediately reminded me another bunch of warriors: the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian, China! They are even lined up in the right position–and are the right color!

What’s the difference?

Today’s Army is alive and en-route to protect others who also alive.

The Terra Cotta Army was never alive; neither is the emperor whom they are charged to protect. Big difference!

Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century!

Along with the discovery in Egypt of King Tut’s Tomb in 1922, this discovery is a history-changing event!

Discovered in 1974 by local farmers, it is just outside Xi’an, Shaanxi, China. The originals date from approximately the late third century BC.

Interesting Side Note: While King Tut’s tomb in Egypt was discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter, I find it interesting that most great archaeological discoveries were accidentally made by common folks like us! China’s terra cotta warriors were discovered by local farmers. The Venus de Milo was discovered in the Greek island of Melos by a peasant woman. Prehistoric cave paintings were discovered in Lascaux, France by some boys playing in the woods with their dog. A young girl exploring the caves with her father, discovered the prehistoric cave paintings in Altamira, Spain!

TRAVELER NOTE: Xian is a bit inland so, coming from Beijing or Shanghai, a visitor will probably need to fly or take a fast train–but well worth the effort, I’m told!

Each sculpture is one-of-a-kind

One of the things I find most fascinating is that each figure is different down to features of his face, stance, hair, clothing and pose. Considering there are thousands of them, this is quite an ambitious feat.

Ranked by height according to their roles, warriors, chariots and horses vary in height with the tallest being the generals.

Thousands of figures

More than 8,000 soldiers have been unearthed so far–plus 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses. The majority are buried in the pits near the mausoleum of the First Emperor of China, Oin Shi Hang.

Non-military figures were discovered in other pits. They include officials, acrobats, strongmen, musicians and even beautiful and elaborate birds.

Facing East

All the terra cotta warriors face east. According to historical records, the original ruling area of Qin was in the west; the other states were in the east. The First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, always planned to unify all states, so it is speculated that having the soldiers and horses facing east might confirm his determination for unification. Of course, only speculation!

Interesting side note: Christians historically tend to bury their dead facing east. Biblical Scripture teaches that Jesus Christ will come from this east in His second coming. Then, when the dead in Christ are resurrected as well, they can meet Christ face-to-face during this event by already facing east.

Prep for the Afterlife

The ancient Chinese believed in an afterlife. It was typical that if one was a part of the elite such as kings and nobles, he would want to take his servants with him (and of course, it was a “he.”) To do this, human sacrifice was practiced. It is believed that at some point in time, this practice was changed and servants needed in the afterlife were replaced with terra cotta figures.

Terra Cotta–or Color?

The statues we see today are terra cotta, but the original statues were brightly painted, colored with red, pink, blue, green and purple along with natural tones. The color was applied after the firing of the terra cotta figures.

When the statues were uncovered, they were exposed to the air. Unfortunately, this oxidation resulted in the immediate loss of color which stuck to the soil, leaving the foundational terra cotta exposed as we see them today.

Preserving the Color

To attack the issue of the rapid loss of original color, extensive conservation work has been employed.

Excavation of the remaining plots have been delayed pending more successful preservation techniques.

What did they look like?

Visitors to the museum can see sample models on display showing how conservationists think the statues might have appeared with the original colors.

To many of us used to enjoying them in their current natural–terra cotta–state, they seem wildly garish.

However, it does take my of appreciation of these masterpieces to the next level!

Color on Classical Marble

Side Note: This reminds me of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures which we have grown accustomed to seeing in beautiful gray or white marble. We know that they too were originally brightly colored!

Here is the the first emperor of the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus.

Marble: should it be painted?

I recall when I first saw a garishly colored version of Caesar Augustus at the Vatican Museum!

I was honestly quite appalled! It seem almost sacrilegious!

Art and Travel

In 2013, the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) had a special exhibit on The Terra Cotta Warriors as it toured around the United States. It was a phenomenal experience.

The Mia is renowned for its participation in touring exhibits such as this.

More info on the Mia can be found on my Mia blog post highlighting some of its key permanent collection.

Armchair Travel to China

I hope this whets your appetite for further Armchair Travel to China and independent study about the Terra Cotta Warriors. I have only touched the tip of the information on these fascinating sculptures, how they were made and by whom–and the infamous emperor they were created to protect! Maybe the opportunity will open again soon for us to see them in person, up close!

TRAVEL TIP: China is one of those countries that I recommend booking and traveling with a tour company and utilizing a guide–at least the first time. Options abound, depending on what you are want to see and do. There are group as well as personal tour guides that will take just your small family/group. They know the culture, the language, the food, the politics… There are options for wonderful river boat cruises, fast trains, and typically a flight is needed to get inland to Xian where the Terra Cotta Warriors can be seen. Also, having Shanghai and Beijing as the two book ends of your trip is fairly typical, along with a stop in Hong Kong. China is a huge country, so there are many legs that can be added if you are interested in moving beyond this main fare.

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2 thoughts on “Warriors in Terra Cotta: Art for Then & Now (China)

  1. Indeed a work of art to behold in person. China is on my bucket list too. I have studied Chinese history many times striving to understand the Oriental mind.

    Liked by 2 people

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