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Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor

By Karen Toussaint

These terra cotta warriors stand ready to defend their emperor, even after his death.Larger During his reign, Qin Shihuangdi, China’s first emperor, was so concerned about assassination that he rarely stayed in the same palace two nights in a row. To make sure he was safe in the afterlife, he had an army of life-size warriors made out of clay and buried around his tomb. In all, 7,000 terra cotta figures were buried, row upon row, facing east toward a pass in the mountains through which enemies might be expected to attack.

It is to be assumed that the army did its job well, for no one has yet opened the grave of Qin, who died in 210 B.C. The guardians themselves were undisturbed until 1974, when some farm workers digging a well near X’ian in Shaanxi province found them. The excavated site is now a favorite tourist attraction in central China. To date, only about 1,000 figures have been excavated and restored.

The National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., offers visitors a chance to stand face to face with some of these figures in “Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor.” The 12,000-ft. exhibit, which runs through March 31, 2010, features 15 terra cotta figures—two infantrymen, a chariot driver, two officers, an armored warrior, two archers and a cavalryman, two musicians, a strongman, a court official, a stable attendant and a horse—the largest number ever to leave China for a single exhibit. Also on display are artifacts including weapons, armor made from plaques of limestone, coins, jade ornaments and roof tiles. The National Geographic is the final venue for this exhibit after a two-year tour of the U.S.

Three terra cotta warriors stand guard at the National Geographic Museum exhibit.Larger The figures are almost six feet tall and weigh between 300 to 400 pounds apiece. They were made in an assembly-line process in which legs and feet were molded from solid clay slabs and torsos were built from coils. Limbs, heads, ears and hands were molded separately. After a layer of fine clay was applied to the finished figure, workers carved details like belts and armor. Heads were finished with different hairstyles, expressions and facial hair so that, it is said, no two are alike. It is thought that the faces were made to resemble the artists themselves or military persons of the day.

No two faces are alike in the terra cotta army made to defend Emperor Qin after his death.Larger During firing in a kiln, the neck was left open so that hot air could escape. Heads were put in place afterwards. For horse figures, an opening was left in one side during firing. The fired figures were coated with lacquer and painted in bright colors.

Today, almost no pigments remain, and the weapons the warriors once clutched in their hands are gone, either rotted through the centuries or stolen during uprisings which followed the death of the emperor.

This bowman was probably meant to hold a crossbow.Larger Ying Zheng, who ascended to the throne of the state of Qin at age 13, renamed himself Qin Shihuangdi, First Emperor of the Qin, after consolidating his kingdom in 221 B.C. During his reign, he brought surrounding areas under his control, rewarding soldiers for each enemy head they took. He stifled opposition by burying dissenters alive. Under his unified rule, he standardized currency and weights and measures and built an extensive network of roads. It is ironic that despite the impressive achievements of this ambitious emperor, his best claim to fame is the army he created to protect him after his death. Paranoid in life, he appears to have been equally paranoid in his expectations for the afterlife.

This stable attendant and a life-size horse greet visitors at the exhibit.Larger Hours at the National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th Street NW in Washington, D.C., are daily (except for Dec. 25) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with extended hours on Wednesdays until 9 p.m. Timed and dated tickets can be bought online at the Buy Tickets page of the exhibit web site (, by phone at 202-857-7700 at the National Geographic ticket office at 1600 M Street, or at the ticket booth at the exhibit entrance on 17th Street. Prices are $6-$12. An audio tour in English, Mandarin or Spanish is available for $5. Each Wednesday evening at 5:30 p.m., the PIMCO Foundation, one of the exhibit sponsors, will give away 200 free same-day tickets for the 6 p.m. viewing.

In the extensive gift shop at the National Geographic Museum, you can buy items from teacups to terra cotta warriors at reasonable prices.Larger At noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and some Saturdays, free screenings of the hour-long film, “The Real Dragon Emperor,” will be shown in the National Geographic’s Grosvenor Auditorium.

Be sure not to miss the exhibit’s large and well-stocked gift shop. Along with the official companion book by Jane Portal which sells for $14.95, items ranging from teacups to replica terra cotta warriors are offered at reasonable prices. You may also check out the National Geographic Store and visit the Official Tourism Site of Washington, D.C. for information about hotel packages.

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