Museums + Galleries

The MIA’s “Terracotta Warriors”

An ambitious collection of statues and other objects from the vast tomb of China’s revolutionary emperor, Qin Shihuang.

The MIA's
Photo by Xia Juxian and Guo Yan
These life-size soldier sculptures are among the 130 objects on display at the MIA.

The first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, came to power in 246 bc, at age 13, and work on his elaborate tomb complex began almost immediately. Upwards of 800,000 people labored for 38 years to secure an afterlife befitting the ruler who initiated construction of the Great Wall, unified China, and, incidentally, sparked a major shift in Chinese art.

China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy, a new exhibition curated by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, goes well beyond the tomb’s famous statuary to explore both the style and substance of this fascinating period. In 1974, Chinese archaeologists discovered approximately 8,000 life-sized terracotta warriors in a vast tomb complex built to ensure the emperor’s immortal glory, but the scale and realism of the figures also marked the beginning of a new chapter in Chinese art history.

“The first emperor really started this revolution in art,” explains Yang Liu, MIA curator of Asian art. The exhibition features some 130 objects from Qin’s tomb, including a carefully selected cross-section of the very best sculptures of generals, archers, infantry soldiers, and horses. In addition, there are pieces of jewelry and other objects made of gold, silver, and jade, as well as a group of life-size bronze waterbirds—a crane, swan, and two geese. There is even a replica of one of the ornate chariots found in Qin’s tomb.

“Everyone knows the terracotta warriors,” says Liu, who has spent years visiting Chinese museums and gathering scholarly input for the exhibition. What is less known is the context that gave rise to Qin’s ascendance, which is why the period preceding the Qin dynasty is a major focus of the show. “It’s a fascinating story that has never fully been told,” says Liu. Opens Oct. 28. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 612-870-3000, artsmia.org

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