The Terra Cotta Army at the ROM

The Royal Ontario Museum’s latest big exhibition, The Warrior Emperor and China’s Terra Cotta Army, builds you up to an odd sort of crescendo, one of quiet, almost reverent contemplation and more than a little awe.

The exhibit is located in the Garfield Weston space in the lower level of the recent Crystal renovation at the museum. I’ve praised this space before, with its strange shape and angled beams, as being perfect for unusual and creative displays. And it shines again as the setting for this journey through Chinese history.

Visitors start at the beginning, before the Qin (or sometimes called Chin) dynasty even began, in the third century BCE. I’m always surprised at how much can be known about a civilization that existed so long ago. But we are able to trace changes in the art and pottery associated with the Qin, for example, as opposed to the Zhou dynasty that preceded it. And much of that fine work applies particularly to things like the bridles or other accessories of horses. The Qin were a military-oriented state.

In fact, progressing through the exhibit, we watch the ruling family of the Qin state start out controlling just a small area in the eastern region of what we know as China today. But we see the holdings of this state grow. And grow. And grow. Until it creeps north, east, and south, swallowing everything in its path. At the height of its power, twenty percent of the Qin citizenry were military.

Once the exhibit establishes the background and context, we finally meet the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang Di, in 221 BCE. Not only did he geographically unify most of what we now think of as China, but he extended that unity into everything: currency, a national road system, and a sometimes cruelly enforced national belief system as well. It was also during this period that the first stretches of the Great Wall were laid, as the Qin consolidated and protected the lands they had won.

By this point, we are almost two thirds of the way through the exhibit, and have not yet seen what, supposedly, we have come to see. But the signs are building, as we now examine the building of Shihuang Di’s tomb. His giant, grass-covered pyramid and its attendant funerary centre is the most massive tomb complex in the world. Yet the full extent of the other buildings, rooms, and even planned gardens buried in the acres around the pyramid is still not fully known.

But in 1974, for the first time in almost 3000 years, we learned about the gigantic terra cotta army Shihuang Di created as guardians of the tomb and of his political administration in the afterlife. Comprising about 8000 warriors, 130 chariots, and more than 500 horses, the army was discovered by accident, as some local farmers tried to dig a water well.

And ten of these figures are here.

We come upon them probably as suddenly as those well-diggers did: rounding the slanting beams angling from ceiling to floor, and entering a large area of the hall that has been draped in black, with white figures of Chinese writing projected onto the drapery. And placed all through this space are – at last – some of these ancient warriors.

Each one stands on his own pedestal, surrounded by low barriers and illuminated with his own special lighting. You can walk completely around any figure and see the details: the tread on the sole of an uplifted boot, the thin scales of armour that some of them wear, the curl of a moustache, or the unusual hats, made of large, elaborate bows and tied under the chin, that only the high-ranking officers could wear.

Terra cotta archer

It is darker in this space, and the isolation and separate illumination of the figures creates an almost reverential atmosphere. Here you stand and contemplate the weight of history. This tall, stern general with his hands folded as though resting on a sword with its point on the ground was buried for 3000 years, yet still he stands silent guard. That horse, with its flared nostrils, braided tail, and charioteer close by, looks almost ready to charge.

All that buildup of history, information, and context, fascinating as it was, was just a prelude to this. This space was truly the crescendo toward which we’d been working. The sensitive and creative arrangements made by the ROM curators enhanced the majesty and power of the terra cotta figures themselves. And the final result, an almost sacred space, served to draw us and the people in the Qin Dynasty’s time closer together for a profound and fleeting moment.