For more than two millennia, 8,000 stone figures of the Terracotta Army guarded the burial site of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The Virginia Museum of Fine Art's latest special exhibit assembles 10 such figures and an array of other artifacts, transporting Virginians across the globe and back in time with “Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China.”
“This is the greatest archaeological discovery of all time,” said VMFA President Alex Nyerges, calling the dynasty “one of the most amazing civilizations in the history of our planet.”
During the second century B.C., King Ying Zheng of the Qin state conquered China’s other warrior states and unified the nation. At age 38, he declared himself Qin Shi Huang, “First Emperor of Qin.”
“The legacy of the first emperor is enormous, including administration, law, language, art, architecture, interstate roadways and the Great Wall,” said Li Jian, the museum’s curator of east Asian art and co-curator of the Terracotta Army exhibit. “Our exhibition is organized to bring our audience a better understanding of Qin history and ancient Chinese technology and archaeology.”
In 1974, farmers in China’s Lintong District discovered pottery shards and bronze arrows while digging a well. The site’s excavation has continued ever since, unearthing the army of warriors, horses and chariots, alongside other artifacts, with more secrets yet to be discovered.
The exhibit marks the culmination of a collaboration between several organizations. Hou-mei Sung, curator of Asian art at the Cincinnati Art Museum, contributed as co-curator of the Richmond exhibit alongside Jian. They also worked with several museums and archaeological institutes from the Shaanxi province of China.
“I believe this exhibition will provide a great opportunity for American audiences to understand the daily life of Qin people and the visual culture of the empire,” said Dr. Zhao Rong, director of the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau. “This exhibition actively promotes cultural exchange between China and the United States and increases understanding and friendship between peoples of both nations.”
Curators split the exhibit into three sections, exploring Qin’s rise to becoming emperor, the history of his dynasty and his ongoing search for immortality.
It features a collection of more than 130 artifacts and works of art, including weapons, armor, jewelry, architectural components and more, with 40 making their U.S. debut. The museum also offers two audio tours, one for adults and one for families, to provide additional context.
“Come here and you’ll actually get closer to the objects,” Nyerges said. “No one in China gets this close.”
A Terracotta Army chariot greets visitors at the start of the exhibit. More stone soldiers assemble in the final room, each standing 6 feet tall and weighing 600 pounds. Those remnants from the past and the other artifacts in between serve as a reminder of the people who witnessed a turning point in human history.
“They’re real people,” Nyerges said. “We’re gazing back to people who were breathing and living.”
Want to go?
“Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China” runs through March 11 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Blvd., Richmond. Admission is $20 for adults, $16 for seniors and $10 for children 7-17 or college students with ID. Tickets are available online at bit.ly/2hrp9Tv or by calling 804-340-1405. Admission is free for VMFA members, children younger than 7 and active duty military and immediate family members. For more information, visit vmfa.museum.
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.