Old model army

Old model army

China's terracotta warriors are on the march once again - as part of a Hong Kong exhibition

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One of the exhibition's multimedia displays; a terracotta archer (below).
One of the exhibition's multimedia displays; a terracotta archer (below).
Photos: Sam Tsang/SCMP
Qin Shihuang was the first emperor of China, but as intelligent and powerful as he was, he feared ageing and death.

The emperor tried to find life-extending elixirs, but failed. The only wish he left when he died in 210BC was to continue his reign - in the afterlife.

Seven hundred thousand slaves were put to work to build him a huge palace and tomb near Xian . Today the tomb is famous for its massive underground pit packed with squads of terracotta armies and horses, all made to accompany the emperor into his afterlife. It is one of China's most visited tourist attractions, in the province of Shaanxi.

If you have never heard of Qin's story, or had a glimpse of the terracotta warriors, now is your chance. The Hong Kong Museum of History has brought 20 of them to the city, accompanied by up to 120 different relics, as part of "The Majesty of All Under Heaven: The Eternal Realm of China's First Emperor Exhibition".

In the exhibition's first atrium, you will see lots of images projected onto the wall. The biggest is the one next to the entrance of the room, which plays in sync with background music.

"This short clip is called 'The Qin and Their Horses'," says Wong Nai-kwan, the assistant curator. "This clip introduces a story seldom told - the important relationship between the Qin people and their horses, which later became an essential element of their ruling of the ancient China."

The feudal state of Qin rose to dominance over six other states during the Warring States Period. Its people were good animal trainers, specialising in horses. It used to be an insignificant place until the training talent was uncovered by kings of the Zhou dynasty.

In the Warring States Period - the later part of that dynasty - that talent gave the state an edge over the six others in battle: horses were used to carry knights and pull chariots. This skill with horses, and Qin Shihuang's ambition to rule when he was only 13, led to China's first unification.

"We want others to know how important these horses were to the Qin army," Wong says.

In the next room is the highlight of the whole multimedia experience - "Journey Into the Mausoleum of the First Emperor".

The room, shaped like an oval, has its left and right white-painted sides tilted up gradually like a U-shaped track in a skateboard park. When the images from the projector begin, you find yourself hovering on top of Shaanxi, witnessing the birth and death of the terracotta army. "This shows how the army was built, destroyed, and discovered," Wong says.

This clip reveals another fact that is often overlooked by people: it is a misconception that the terracotta warriors became damaged just from sitting in the pit. Wong says that at the end of the Qin dynasty, these pits were raided by rebel fighters, led by the notable Xiang Yu. The terracotta warriors all had real weapons in their hands, so these pits were of great use to people looking for arms.

You will then enter the exhibition area, where the terracotta warriors and the relics are. "The statues are all originals, not duplicates," says Wong.

Among the warriors are archers, generals and foot soldiers.

The intricate detailing is so refined that you can find palm lines on the hands of the statues and markings on the soles of their shoes.

"It is really amazing to see that people from that time could make sculptures in such detail," Wong says.

"This style was not found before - or after the Qin dynasty. Until now, no specialists can come up with a logical explanation for this loss of art." For more details, go to firstemperor.lcsd.gov.hk

The "Majesty of All Under Heaven" exhibition runs until November 26 at Hong Kong Museum of History

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