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6 / Death

Terracotta Army (detail) from the Tomb Complex of Qin Shi Huangdi
Terracotta Army (detail) from the Tomb Complex of Qin Shi Huangdi
Artist / Origin Unknown artist(s), China
Region: East Asia
Date Qin Dynasty, ca. 210 BCE
Period: 500 BCE - 1 CE
Material Terracotta
Medium: Ceramics
Dimensions H: approx. 72 in. (182.8 cm.) (each)
Location Museum of Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shi Huangdi, Xi’an, China
Credit Courtesy of the Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, California

expert perspective

Chao-Hui Jenny LiuAssistant Professor of Chinese Art, New York University

Terracotta Army (detail) from the Tomb Complex of Qin Shi Huangdi

» Unknown artist(s), China

expert perspective

Chao-Hui Jenny Liu Chao-Hui Jenny Liu Assistant Professor of Chinese Art, New York University

The first Chinese empire came about with the young princeling. His name was Ying Zheng. He was the crown prince of the western kingdom of Qin during the Warring States period in China. At the time, there were all these states which were vying for power in China, and China had never been unified before. And Ying Zheng was a fourteen-year-old sort of hostage prince at a foreign court. Eventually, he returned home and took up the mantle of kingship command—built up a mighty army with very strict legal codes, and with that army, he conquered the rest of the warring states, one by one, and became the first emperor of China. He wanted to be immortal actually towards the end of his life, and he sought all sorts of Taoist concoctions and possible remedies to cure old age, but he didn’t quite succeed. So death was on his mind, and he spent more than a decade building his final resting place, the tomb.

The tomb has an entire world that would show the magnificence of the emperor. The famous terracotta soldiers everyone knows is only actually three pits on the east side of the main mound. The main mound has never been excavated, but there are slightly later textual descriptions which talks about rivers of mercury inside a complete palace. These soldiers are just about life size. So it was an enormous production to make over 7,000, even if they were constructed in the tomb over ten years. Each soldier looks like an individual portrait of actually a soldier from that time. Of course this is not true. They actually pieced together the figures on an assembly line, so they would make perhaps twenty different kinds of molds for the hair, for the face, for the arms, for the feet, and then they would piece them together in different ways. And so it gives the appearance of having individual human beings.

In the West you have ideas of portraiture, a portrait being the likeness of someone. Now a portrait could look realistic, but doesn’t look like the person. For the first emperor, his tomb is sort of his portrait that he would like to present to the underworld. The fact that it was hidden actually wasn’t so important, because the idea of kingship in China was hidden in a way that is not common in the West. In the West, kingship is all about splendor and putting on a show, and people could see, you know, the king’s face is actually on a coin or something like that, very public. Now power in China is largely hidden and it derives its power mostly from being hidden. This is the first emperor’s bid to pass his portrait on to posterity, or show to the world who he was—the most important man of the times. The scale of the tomb of the first emperor is unprecedented, and we never see a tomb of this scale after.” 

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