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VMFA Exhibit Brings Chinese Emperor Qin’s Underground World to Richmond

In 1974, farmers in a rural Chinese province came upon some shards of pottery. Their discovery led to one of the biggest archaeological finds of the 20th Century -- several football-stadium sized pits that housed the Terracotta Army. Part of the find is on display at the VMFA. And as Ian Stewart reports for Virginia Currents, the exhibit is a window into an ancient Chinese dynasty.

Learn More: Find information on the VMFA’s exhibit “Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China,” read about recent discoveries and see a map of the tomb complex and see more images of the UNESCO World Heritage site.

Transcript:

Warriors are dressed for battle, archers kneel ready to shoot and a cavalry horse stands almost chomping at the bit, bracing for what comes next.

Alex Nyerges: The biggest wow factor, obviously, is Emperor Qin’s terracotta Army.

Alex Nyerges is Director of the VMFA. Standing near 10 life-size figures, he says the exhibit gives visitors a better understanding of the Emperor’s Army. Some of the sculptures are more than 6-feet tall and weigh more than 400 pounds. Nyerges says each statue’s head was made separately, modeled after the soldiers who protected Qin.

Nyerges: And then as you look at each of them, they’re actually portraits of real people, from 22 centuries ago.

But the real “wow” factor could also be  the scope of the Terracotta Army, which was found in Shaanxi Province.  The statues were buried in the Lingtong District, just outside of Xi’an about a mile east of the burial site of the First Emperor. Archaeologists estimate there could be about 8,000  life-sized soldiers — along with an entire kingdom -- buried underground.

Nyerges: It’s the most incredible Archaeological find—not only of the 20th Century but of all time.

Curator of the exhibit Li Jian says Qin is significant in history because he brought the country together.

Li Jian: He unified China and then ended 500 years—many hundred years of turmoil in China, otherwise it would be a Civil War and continue Civil War.

After defeating six separate states in battle, Qin combined them into one unified nation. Nyerges points to the ruler’s other achievements: standardizing roads, measurements, weights and currency.

Nyerges: An extraordinary character that literally defined the next two millennia for China.

And in order to defend the unified nation, Emperor Qin linked the existing walls of the former states. This created what is known today as the Great Wall of China.
Like many rulers throughout history, Qin had a quest for immortality and wanted to be protected in the afterlife. His underground mausoleum is at least 20 square miles. It includes replicas of his kingdom like palace structures, an arena, stables and an armory.

Nyerges: Not only is there the army but he has acrobats, he has diplomats, there are animals because this is the world as he knew it, that he would then take into the afterlife.

Anni Qu: You can feel that the history is in the dust.

University of Richmond student Anni Qu has seen the mausoleum site up close.

Qu: You can actually feel that it’s so old that you can’t imagine how they survived all those thousands of years underground.

When Anni Qu saw the exhibit, she translated the Chinese text for her classmates. She explained that English-speakers named the discovery after the material used to make the statues, “Terracotta.” In Chinese, they refer to the function of the statues.

Qu: So it’s actually called ‘Bing my on,’ which is soldier, horse and yun, specifically means burial statues.

Qu’s classmate, Junru Zhou had a favorite statue--it is the finely detailed archer.

Zhou: When he’s kneeling down, you can actually see the backside of his shoes. And when you kind of—zoom into it, you can really see the texture, like the patterns of the bottoms of his shoes. And it’s just, it’s just so cool.

Junro says she felt most proud about how the exhibit at the VMFA showcased her culture.

Zhou: When my friends, like the American friends in my class, walk into the exhibition house, they’ll be like “wow, this is so cool,” and at that moment, I was like I’m so proud of my culture and our long history.

A Han Dynasty historian documented how the mausoleum was built, using an estimated 700,000 laborers, prisoners and craftsmen, according to the scientific journal Nature. Recent studies of the UNESCO World Heritage site suggest the underground complex is much larger than previously thought. For Virginia Currents, I’m Ian Stewart.