The Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor is an incredible museum exhibit, and I’ll say right up front that it is worth the cost. But despite their stunning visual appearance, being in the presence of their almost unbelievable story is the real reason you should visit them if you have the chance.
We visited them in Philadelphia at the Franklin Institute, a cultural hotspot on the famed Ben Franklin Parkway near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We went there on an extremely busy Saturday near the end of the exhibit’s run there, and it was CROWDED and sold out. We got the audio tour and the IMAX upgrades, which proved to be well worth the extra $10 each.
The exhibit began with a video projected onto two silhouettes of trees, with a different projection on each screen. It created an immersive effect, allowing us to switch between two visualizations while we learned more about the history of what we were going to see. It provided a general overview of the two main positions that the Terracotta Army holds in history: their creation and their discovery.
The Story of the Terracotta Army
The basic story of the Terracotta army is that they were buried with the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, all the way back in 210-209 BCE. It is believed they were created to protect Qin in the afterlife. Their age is shocking, but the fact that they were found by accident by a well-digger on March 29, 1974 makes their story that much more mysterious and incredible. How did such a large repository of valuable artifacts and expensive materials, let alone a set of artifacts created to memorialize China’s very first emperor, remain unseen and unknown for 2,000 years?
The exhibit helps visitors formulate a potential answer to that question while providing vivid details of what life may have been like at that time.
Puzzling Over the Mysteries of the First Emperor
At first impression, the army seems almost frustratingly excessive, but as you delve deeper into the story of the emperor and imagine the magnitude of what he envisioned, his excess makes a certain kind of sense. The more you learn, the more you can see two ways of thinking about the existence of the Terracotta Army and the Qin Shi Huang mausoleum.
One way of thinking about it is to empathize with the young Emperor. In his lifetime, he conquered all of the other ruling states of China, standardized methods for measurement, and built highways to make delivery of resources possible and/or more efficient for the people of China. He accomplished, in a very short time, changes for the country that would bring them into a more powerful position in the world. And, he couldn’t have known for sure at the time, but China remains in a powerful position today because of what he started in the 200 BCE era.
The First Emperor also experienced two attempts on his life, and he survived. It is hard to say how these two events shaped the decisions he later made. Ancient Chinese religion dictated that you would go into the afterlife and continue to do what you did in this life. People who lived during that time also believed that you would take with you all of the things you were buried with. Qin saw his death as an opportunity to enter the afterlife with power and influence, but he believed he would have to prepare for the afterlife by surrounding himself with an army, entertainers, and more.
However, in direct contradiction to accepting the knowledge that he would die, but still in the same vein of thinking, he became obsessed with making himself immortal after the second attempt on his life. He began going about that in two ways: ordering the Terracotta Army be built for his burial site and ordering doctors and alchemists to go out into the world to find an elixir to make him immortal.
The Terracotta Army was never completed and was hidden underground for 2,000 years. The elixir his alchemists found was mercury, and it is believed to have eventually led to his death.
Thus, the emperor’s influence on China’s infrastructure and his obsession with being immortal make the irony of his hidden memorial even more profound.
Why Was the Terracotta Army Underground?
One reason this elaborate memorial could have been out of the public eye for so long is a direct consequence of its very elaborate-ness. A theory posed in the exhibit is that it was the very excessiveness built around his obsession with being remembered that led Qin Shi Huang’s memorial to be hidden by the next emperor. In other words, because he was so hell-bent on being immortalized, his memorial was intentionally hidden from the world.
The Han dynasty, which came after the Qin dynasty, put small, doll-sized warriors in their tombs. While archaeologists did find tiny leather armor outfits complete with matching belt buckles and boots, they paled in comparison to Qin’s warriors, which are an average of six feet tall. The portion of the tomb that was actually finished took an estimated 40 years to build, and there were plans to build more.
In addition to the incredible relics, archaeologists also found a pit of human remains. It is believed that the lead foremen and designers who managed the project were put inside the tomb so as to conceal any information about it and silence questions about its continued development forever. They could have never imagined images of the remains would remind people thousands of years later and for thousands of years to come.
Seeing the Warriors “In Person”
There are more than 6,000 warrior figures that were buried in Qin’s tomb. There are also horses, chariots, geese, and armor. Researchers have painstakingly uncovered the composition of the warriors and the paint that was on them, and make it clear that there is a lot of work left to be done. Many of the pieces in the exhibits that China has shared with the world have been placed back together to figure out their original shape.
When you look at the warriors in an exhibit and read details about how they were made, their extravagance is at the forefront of your mind. Because they are life-size, it’s impossible not to think about the lives of the people of that era, and imagine what the king’s army may or may not have meant to them. Many of the people who built the army were slave laborers and many of them were literally worked to death. It is terrible to think about, but also incredible.
To look upon the face of one of the warriors is to look at an expression of emotion that is over 2,000 years old. And it is striking how relatable and recognizable the expressions truly are. Sure, some are happy, some are stern, some are sad, but when you look closely, you can see that their carvers took great care to make nuanced expressions, like they have a reason for feeling that way in that very moment, not that they are merely representations of a generic emotion. Yet, when they are all together, they mean one thing: power.