Chinese warriors invade SeoulObsession sometimes drives people to alter the face of history.
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, had one such obsession. His drive to sustain his power, even within the afterlife, has changed the history of modern archeological discovery.
Qin Shi Huang was buried along with an army. When his tomb was sealed for all eternity, over 7,000 terra-cotta soldiers stood guard to protect the emperor and ensure his power in the afterlife.
The tomb of Qin Shi Huang, including 23 statues from the vault of terra-cotta soldiers and 163 artifacts in total, is currently on display at the COEX special exhibition hall. The exhibition is on loan from Qinshihuang Mausoleum garden, Shaanxi Province, where most artifacts from the emperor’s tomb are being stored as national treasures.
The details of the emperor’s tomb are fascinating, filled with thousands of models of palaces, pavilions, warriors and precious emblems, all exact replicas of the emperor’s imperial residences while he was alive. Text is inscribed on the walls of the mausoleum, the names of the important figures of the period. There is even a replica of the Yangtze River, done in mercury. It has all hardened now, solid as the stone figures, but it once flowed like the river it was made to represent.
Many of the artifacts illustrate the artistic and technical sophistication ancient Chinese artisans possessed. The use of natural pigments extracted from minerals and mixed with tree resin yielded a vast variety of nuanced colors. The details of the facial expressions of the terra cotta warriors, their varied standing postures, even down to particular shape of each moustache, reflect that every one of the sculptures has gone through a laborious process in the artist’s hands. There is no mass-production when mortality is at stake. Stories abound about how sculptures on such a massive scale could have possibly been formed. Some scholars say they likely were cast from clay molds, then individualized by a sculptor’s diligent hands. Others say the artists literally poured a bucket of molten clay onto a living body to make an accurate cast of the human structure, a frightening possibility considering that thousands of civilians died during the construction of the masoleum.
Indeed, when Qui Shi Huang died, his son, Er Shih, ordered that his father’s concubines who had not yet borne sons be buried alive in the emperor’s grave. It is also said that artisans and palace guards who knew “too much” about the mausoleum and its secrets also met their fate in the emperor’s dark tomb, buried alive.
The tomb of Qin Shi Huang Cemetery was hidden in a city within a city, all underground. The total length of the city walls extends up to 12 kilometers, close to the length of the city walls around Xi’an, built in the Ming Dynasty.
What would make a man go to such lengths to preserve his earthly power? Emperor Qin Shi Huang was the founder of the first unified empire in the history of China. He established an autocratic state with centralized power over the feudal society. His political ambitions, which historians often compare to Napoleon, had reached their peak when he abolished the currencies of six kingdoms, in their place establishing a standardized currency along with a standardized written script. He built hundreds of imperial palaces and established the system of prefectures and counties. He ordered the construction of a road system between states, allowing economic exchanges and diplomatic trade. The emperor died in 210 B.C., on a trip away from home.
His tomb, long lost, was discovered in 1974, by peasants digging a well during a drought. Within the next 40 years, hundreds of archeologists have worked on the excavation project, turning a bulky mass of an underground mausoleum streaked with mud and buried for nearly 2500 years into a stunning document of ancient Chinese civilization.
The artifacts are in surprisingly good shape. There are a few body parts missing here and there and several torsos are broken. The paint has inevitably lost its original pigment, due to time corrosion and exposure to air when the sculptures were first brought out of the earth. Rare gems from the chamber of Qin Shi Huang as well as bronze chariots signifying the emperor’s royal tours after the end of civil wars are also on display.
The display at COEX is impressive, filling a whole room with treasures including the full-scale terra-cotta figures, which are being displayed for the first time outside of their home in china, a long way from their civilization beneath the earth.
by Park Soo-mee
“Qui Shi Huang: The First Emperor of China” runs through Oct. 26 at the Special exhibition hall, 3rd floor of COEX. COEX center is located at Samseung station, subway line No. 2. For more information call, 02-5252-922, or check out www.Qinex.com. Adult admission is 12,000 won ($10).