Terracotta Army
The Legacy of the
First Emperor of China

Richmond’s VMFA-China Relationship Lands Terracotta Army Exhibition

© Emperor Qin Shihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum.
Kneeling Archer, Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), earthenware. Excavated from Pit 2, Qin Shihuang's Mausoleum, 1977.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts spent years building relationships with Chinese institutions to land their coveted Terracotta Army exhibition

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts spent years building relationships with Chinese institutions to land their coveted Terracotta Army exhibition

© Emperor Qin Shihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum

Armored General, Qin dynasty (221–206 BC), earthenware. Excavated from Pit 1, Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum, 1977.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond has spent years fostering relationships with Chinese cultural institutions. This hard work helped land them the exhibition Terracotta Army: The Legacy of the First Emperor of China, open from November 18, 2017, through March 11, 2018. Previously, the VMFA was the exclusive US venue for the 2014–15 exhibition, Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing. In 2016, the Palace Museum in Beijing displayed the VMFA’s collection of Fabergé eggs and objects, marking the first time a US institution had exhibited in that museum.

Alex Nyerges, the VMFA’s executive director, gives full credit for the museum’s accomplishments with China to “the genius of Li Jian,” the VMFA’s E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Curator of East Asian Art and co-curator of the exhibition (with Hou-mei ung, curator of Asian Art, Cincinnati Art Museum). “In many ways,” says Li Jian, “the exhibition was born out of VMFA’s ongoing cultural exchange with China…”

Li Jian began working at the VMFA in 2007, helping oversee the museum’s collection of East Asian art and its renovated and expanded galleries for Chinese, Korean, and Japanese art. Before joining the VMFA, she was curator of Asian art at the Dayton Art Institute. Other exhibitions on which she has worked include Glory of the Silk Road (2003), Selected Works from the Dayton Art Institute Permanent Collection (1999), and Eternal China: Splendors from the First Dynasties (1998). Li Jian received her undergraduate degree from the Beijing Second Foreign Language Institute and her master’s from the University of Minnesota.

To shape the narrative of the VMFA’s new exhibition, Jian says she first “identified the themes of the exhibition and then selected artwork around the thematic sections, including the First Emperor’s unification of China and his significant reforms; the second section looks back to the birth of Qin as a state, how it grew from a small state into a powerful empire over a course of 500 years. The last section explores Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s afterlife—his quest for immortality [through the] terracotta warriors and figures excavated from the Emperor’s mausoleum.”

Terracotta Army Marches into Virginia’s Capital

The 130-plus items comprising the Terracotta Army show come from 14 art museums and archaeological institutes across the Shaanxi Province—40 of the works having never been on display before in the United States. The sculptures depicting the First Emperor’s armies showcase a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BC and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife.

Each of these historically important small figures is unique: with their horses, chariots, and weapons, they are masterpieces of realism. Visitors to the VMFA were able to get up close and personal with figures such as an armored general (221–206 BC). According to Michael Taylor, VMFA chief curator and deputy director of art, “We’re installing the warriors so that visitors can walk around them a full 360 degrees.”

Standing Archer and Kneeling Archer
© Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum

Standing Archer (left) and Kneeling Archer (right), Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), earthenware. Excavated from Pit 2, Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum, 1997.

Chariot No. 1 with Horses
© Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum

Chariot No. 1 with Horses (Replica), Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), bronze, pigment. Excavated from Bronze Chariots and Horses Pit, Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum, 1980.

© Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology

Armor, Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), limestone. Excavated from Pit K9801, Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum, 1999.

© Shaanxi Provincial Institution of Archaeology

Goose, Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), bronze. Excavated from Pit K0007, Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum, 2000.

© Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeolog

Bracelet, Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC), nephrite, agate, faience. Excavated from Tomb 26, Liangdaicun, 2008. 

© Xi’an Museum

Tiger, Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC), gold. Excavated from Fengxiangxian, Baoji, 1979.

Mounted Warrior
© Xianyang Municipal Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

Mounted Warrior, Warring States period (475-221 BC), earthenware with pigment. Excavated from Xianyang Steel Tube Factory, 1995.

© Baoji Bronze Ware Museum

Ritual Bell, 7th century BC, Spring and Autumn period, Duke Wu of Qin (r. 697-678 BC), bronze. Excavated at Taigongmiaocun, Chencang, Baoji, 1978.

Installation of any exhibition is a busy, exciting time for VMFA teams, as the final elements of a show rapidly come together. Jian says of Trang Nguyen, exhibition designer, “She has designed an immersive exhibition that truly honors the integrity of the objects on display. The museum will host four colleagues from our partner institutions in China, who will assist with the installation in various capacities.”

Included among the items on display are arms and armor, horse and chariot fittings, ritual bronze vessels, works in gold and silver, jade ornaments, precious jewelry, ceramics, and architectural components that were excavated from Emperor Qin Shihuang’s mausoleum and other tombs. Dating from the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC) through the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC), these objects reflect the complex history, myths, and burial customs of ancient China and explore the First Emperor’s profound influence on Chinese history, art, and culture.

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the legacy of the First Emperor, including his name: China takes its name from Qin—pronounced Chin in English. “The legacy of the First Emperor is enormous,” Jian says, “including administration, law, language, art, architecture, interstate roadways, and the Great Wall. Our exhibition is organized to bring our audience a better understanding of Qin history, and ancient Chinese art and archaeology.”

Ongoing Discoveries

Discovered by local farmers digging a well in 1974, this archaeological site still holds thousands of statues waiting to be unearthed. Qin (d. 210 B.C.), the first unifier of China, is buried surrounded by the famous terracotta warriors, at the center of a complex designed to mirror the urban plan of the capital, Xi’an. The VMFA’s catalogue and exhibition contribute new scholarship and research to the study of this World Heritage Site, including information gleaned from recent excavations. The VMFA’s contributions to unraveling this centuries old mystery make this exhibition especially exciting.

An interactive exhibition in the museum’s Memorial Foundation for Children Teaching Gallery, Dig It!, complements the Terracotta Army show and offers visitors of all ages the opportunity to explore the field of archaeology through the use of augmented reality. Focusing on discovery, excavation, and lab study, Dig It! encourages visitors to uncover objects in the VMFA’s permanent collection through a virtual dig and learn about their date, function, and how archaeology contributes to the knowledge of life during specific historical periods.

On February 2, 2018, the VMFA hosted an Archaeology Forum. The program featured scholars and archaeologists from China and the United States, and addressed topics such as recent excavations and new research as well as innovative approaches to archaeology.

About the Author

Martha Steger

Martha Steger is a Midlothian, Virginia–based freelance writer. She received the second-place award in the category of Arts & Entertainment in the National Federation of Press Women’s 2017 Communications Contest.

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