Treasures for all Time Art: The army of an ancient emperor marches even today, as ambassadors from another time and place.

March 02, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Even though they are billed as life-size terra-cotta figures from the tomb of China's first emperor, one does not anticipate how life-size they will be.

Step into the Walters Art Gallery's early Renaissance gallery and directly in front of you, standing out against the deep-red walls, are a 6-foot-tall cavalryman leading a horse that stands almost as tall and 7 feet long. The horse has a braided tail and ears pricked as if eager to be off. The cavalryman wears an armored vest complete with details of the straps and rivets that hold it together, and his shoes are laced and tied. He, too, looks attentive, as if awaiting an order.

These figures command the viewer's attention so thoroughly that they make a complete exhibit in themselves. Yet they are only two of 14 tomb figures that, together with more than 60 related objects, constitute the show "The First Emperor: Treasures from Ancient China," which opens at the Walters today. It is the largest and most complete show of these imposing figures ever to travel from China in the 23 years since the beginning of what has been called the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century.

In March 1974, farmers digging a well near the city of Xian in northwestern China uncovered some fragments of terra-cotta figures not far from the burial mound of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi. The mound, though never excavated, has always been known. But no one anticipated what was about to be discovered. Subsequent archaeological excavations uncovered a huge army of more than 8,000 figures -- infantrymen, cavalrymen, archers, charioteers, officers, generals, horses -- in three underground pits covering five acres.

The figures are thought to have been made in molds in separate parts -- feet, hands, torso, etc. -- and joined together before firing. There are about a dozen separate types of figures (officer, cavalryman, etc.), but certain details such as facial features, hair and headdress are individually fashioned so that each figure is slightly different from all the thousands of others. It has been estimated that 700,000 people worked on all the parts of the emperor's vast tomb complex. For how long is not known.

Since discovery of the army, the world has clamored for these figures, and a few have periodically traveled from China. This is the first time as many as 14 have traveled to the United States. The show was organized by the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Ala., and opened there last July at the time of the Olympic Games in Atlanta. The Walters exhibit is the only other venue for the show before the figures return to China in May.

As impressive as they are, these figures have not traveled alone. The exhibit includes more than 60 objects from nine other museums and institutions in Shaanxi province, where Xian is located. Some were only recently discovered and have never before been shown. They are not only striking individually, but together they help establish the background and explain the accomplishments of the first emperor, perhaps the most important ruler in China's history.

Unifier of China

In 246 B.C., when he was only 13, Yin Zheng, the future first emperor of China, came to the throne of the kingdom of Qin in the northwestern part of the country. At that time, the country had been divided into seven warring states for more than two centuries.

By 221 B.C. Yin Zheng had conquered and unified all of the states into the single entity we know today as China -- which takes its name from Qin, pronounced chin. The ruler now took the name Qin Shihuangdi, which means first sovereign emperor of China.

But that was only one aspect of his accomplishments, which seem utterly incredible. He standardized weights, measures, coinage and the written language, established a uniform code of laws, opened up new areas to agriculture by relocating part of the population, built canals and irrigation systems and more than 4,000 miles of roads, built part of what is now the Great Wall and had 270 imperial palaces constructed for himself, the largest of which is said to have been eight times the size of the White House. All in addition to his tomb complex.

A total of 3 million people, 15 percent of China's total population of 20 million at that time, are thought to have worked on these public projects.

Qin was a cruel despot who burned books and had scholars put to death. He probably went somewhat mad before his sudden death at the age of 49 in 210 B.C. His dynasty, which he hoped would last 10,000 generations, only survived him by four years, until his successor was deposed in 206. But Qin's acts, from conquest to standardization, gave China the concept of unity, which it has subsequently retained for thousands of years.

Obsessed with immortality, Qin had the terra-cotta army created near his burial mound to guard him in the afterlife.

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