Once Were Warriors

Back in my footloose and fancy-free pre-parenting days, my mother and I travelled to China together as a part of a tour group. Our route took us to many stunning places, including a trip to the city of Xi’an to see the famed excavation of First Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s funerary tomb containing the army of Terra-cotta Warriors dating back to 210 B.C.

We went in a tour bus that had seen better days, as we had to keep pulling over on the side of the road so the driver could toss buckets of water through a grate on the side body of the bus which seemed to be responsible for the workings of the A/C. Throw water into the grate on the side of the bus, get working A/C for another half hour or so. I cannot tell you the gratitude I had for our hard working bus driver who was responsible for our transportation and comfort that day because Xi-an in July is HOT. Hell’s gates hot. Rumor has it that within China, Xi’an is known as one of the countries “inferno” cities. So yeah, it was hot.

Our group was largely composed of adults with the exception of one family, that was traveling with their children, two cute little girls ages 5 and 7. I had deep admiration for this family, because at the time I was pretty child-phobic and could not imagine traveling with rugrats in tow. But to their credit, these little girls were troopers. They went everywhere with the group relatively happily until we hit Xi-an. These little people did not want to leave the previous hotel (which had a pool), travel hours on a day via bus where the temperatures were in the triple digits outside (thank you again to the bus driver who regularly doused the bus with water so that we American snowflakes could have the requisite A/C that we seem to expect everywhere we go), all to go stand in the excavation pit to see an ancient army of terra cotta warrior sculptures.

I distinctly remember the 5-year-old saying, “But I don’t want to go to a stinky old pit!” Her remark gave me pause. Can these young ‘uns appreciate what they are seeing? Because when you think of what they are getting to see, in situ– a remarkable UNESCO world heritage site. For most of us, it is a once in a life-time opportunity.

Once we arrived and situated ourselves in the child-dubbed “stinky old pit” (which arguably makes it sound like we were visiting someone’s unwashed underarm…), everyone, children included, were awestruck. Previously, while on the bus, the tour guide had spoken to us of the excavation pit, the story of its discovery, the construction of the building around the tomb area to protect the archeological site from the elements, but he had not prepared us for the sheer scale of the uncovered army. The site is massive. A veritable sea of army men and horses. There are approximately 8,000 life-size terra-cotta army sculptures, each of them unique, possibly representing specific individuals at the time contained in a structure that seemed to be the size of two airplane hangars back to back (to read more about the site and more recent discoveries click here).

The space had a haunting electricity to it. I had a tiny sliver of an idea how the farmer must have felt when he initially made the discovery back in 1974. We got to meet the old farmer who uncovered the first warrior. He was a farmer, digging a hole for a well when he haphazardly dug into one of the walls of the ancient tomb revealing the face of one of the terra-cotta warriors. He said that screamed because he thought he saw a ghost. He was staring at an ancient face staring back at him. He reported his finding to the local government and he subsequently lost his land to the archeological site. He was “transitioned” to working in the tourism industry on the site of his old farm, as a tourist attraction unto himself, signing autographs and taking selfies with the sightseers who come to see the army of terra-cotta warriors. I think that meeting the man himself who had unearthed the warriors and hearing his story brought the whole site to life for the little girls on our tour (and, honestly, for the adults too).

I am curious to hear about Maki’s experience taking her son to see the traveling show of the terra-cotta warriors that are currently on exhibit at The Pacific Science Center in Seattle. How did Maki’s son fair seeing the work away from its original environment?

Terracotta Warriors of The First Emperor

Unlike July in Xi’an, which Anouck described as an inferno, July weather in Seattle is quite pleasant– sunny, dry, 75 degrees. Perfect! It’s one of the reasons why I don’t mind sticking around close to home during the summer months. Lucky for us, Emperor Qin’s terra-cotta warriors crossed the ocean to be displayed at the Pacific Science Center, one of only two engagements in United States. Here is what we saw.

The Exhibit

The Terracotta Warriors of The First Emperor exhibit lets in visitors every fifteen minutes to avoid overcrowding. A popular exhibit like this one will always be busy, but not unpleasantly so. You won’t feel rushed.

The exhibit begins in a red room with two large laser-cut trees on the wall. The trees are actually screens, and an introductory film gives you a quick overview of how the terra-cotta warriors were discovered, who Emperor Qin was, and how this emperor had far-reaching cultural influence on China. Once the film ends, a scroll between the two trees rises to let visitors into the main exhibit. It’s rather dramatic!

The armored general

The first terra-cotta warrior we meet is the armored general. Standing alone against the gallery’s red walls, his facial expression serene but stern, he commands our attention, as though we were his soldiers. The gray patina on the body gives him a bronze-like sheen, enhanced by lights from above. The statue’s condition is pristine, and yet it’s 2000 years old. And back home, there are thousands of statues like this one in the Emperor’s tomb. 

Once you move past the armored general, the exhibit opens up into a larger space. You’ll see seven other Terra-cotta figures throughout the exhibit, including one noncombatant. Another is a horse next to a cavalryman, and the quality of the sculpt was such that historians could tell what type of horse it was. All of the figures wear serene yet focused facial expressions, capable soldiers ready to strike. Now imagine facing down 8000 of them. 

If you rent an audio guide, which I recommend for teens and adults, you’ll learn that ancient burials of those with high status contained offerings for the afterlife, including human sacrifice. The human sacrifices eventually gave way to small figurines. That was before Emperor Qin’s time, but his terra-cotta warriors are rooted in the same tradition. 

Also on display are artifacts buried alongside the terra-cotta soldiers and near Emperor Qin’s tomb. The limestone armor is especially striking. Each piece of armor has been hand-carved and linked in the same manner as the metal armor soldiers wore to battle. The exhibit explains the mass-production techniques used to create weapons, armor, and terra-cotta warriors for the tomb. There are interactive stations throughout the exhibit for some hands-on experience. 

Little is known about Emperor Qin, but we know that he ruled over vast amount of land with different cultures. Since peasants were required to pay taxes (of course) in rice, standardized measurements were developed and bureaucrats were placed to enforce those standards.

The exhibit ends with a replica of Emperor Qin’s coffin. It remains untouched due to safety concerns—both for the protection of the coffin and for the safety of archeologists due to the high level of mercury found in the spot.   

It’s amazing how the exhibit gives you the sense of the tomb’s grandeur, even with just several terra-cotta statues on display.

Terra-cotta Warriors of The First Emperor will be on display at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle until September 4th, 2017, and at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia from September 30th, 2017 through March 4th, 2018. Its stop in Philadelphia will be the second and final exhibit in the US, so if you’re anywhere near Seattle or Philadelphia while the show is running, don’t miss it!

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