BANGKOK — The ongoing exhibition of four terracotta soldiers – and a hundred other artifacts – imported from China is not just about China’s past, but also its present and future.
The temporary exhibition, titled “Qin Shi Huang: The First Emperor of China and Terracotta Warriors”, uncovered a wide range of topics, from the terracotta warriors’ advanced weaponry and Chinese imperial rule to introduction of meritocracy and the Silk Road.
That is why the exhibition includes not just artifacts from the necropolis of Emperor Qin (247 BC – 221 BC), whose name is believed to have lent China its current English moniker, but also those of the subsequent dynasty who began the trade along the legendary Silk Road.
Before coming face to face with the four terracotta warriors airlifted straight from the ancient capital of Xi’an, visitors are treated to a chronology of how the Qin faction succeeded in crushing its rivals and imposing its iron will over China.
As shown in the exhibit at the National Museum, markedly better horse bred in Central Asia were acquired, giving military edge to the king of Qin Dynasty who eventually unified China two millennia ago and declared himself emperor.
There’s more. A 2000-year old bronze crossbow trigger was among the 133 artifacts. During its time, it was the equivalent of a hi-tech assault rifle, capable of penetrating all types of body armor with a destructive range of 500 meters. The weapon’s simple mechanism could turn any peasant recruit into a battlefield killer after little training.
The Qin’s metallurgical advancement also allowed its 600,000-strong army to be equipped with sharp and extra-long steel swords – one of which was on display. Their arrows were durable and flexible, while the infantry were armed with deadly dagger-axes to cut down enemy cavalry and chariot troops.
“Based on the excavated Terracotta Warriors, we have learned that the Qin army benefited from an industrial-scale weapon production,” an exhibit description concludes.
And then there’s the stars of the show: four life-size, or rather slightly larger-than-life-size, terracotta warriors from the 60-square-kilometer sprawl of subterranean complex in China’s Shaanxi province.
For those wondering what an area of 60 square kilometers is like, bear in mind that Singapore is 721.5 square kilometers or just about 12 times the size of the Qin’s necropolis.
Housed in two transparent glass displays along with other artifacts from China, they are but four of the 8,000 discovered by accident in 1974 by farmers tilling the land.
We are told it took 38 years to complete, thus it began when the future Emperor of China was just a young king of his region.
Standing face to face with the Terracotta Warriors was worth an hour-long queue on Sunday. One marvels at how none of them have the same facial characteristics, though they all look solemn, as though prepared for an afterlife battle in order to protect their emperor.
These are not idealized forms of humans like Greek and Roman marble statues. Instead, they showed us the likes of real human beings who lived and fought during China’s defining chapter.
One can either see the grim terracotta warriors as a magnificent feat of grandeur and faith in the next world, or an excessive project of afterlife vanity. Or both. About 700,000 laborers were “mobilized” for the mausoleum; some of them were probably forced to work and suffer for one man’s pursuit of undead glory.
Emperor Qin may still be reigning in the underworld as speak, but his life and legacies on earth were certainly shorter than he might have hoped. He died at 50 while on a trip to search for life-extending elixirs. The Qin Dynasty he founded lasted for only 15 years before it was taken over by the Western Han Dynasty in 206 BC.
“It is no exaggeration to say that being unable to live an eternal life was the Emperor Qin Shi’s only failure throughout his lifetime,” archaeology expert Somchai na Nakhonphanon writes in a guidebook sold separately at the exhibition.
The exhibit concludes with intricate artifacts from the time of Western Han Dynasty, such as majestic gilded pot in the shape of a mythical bird imported from Xi’an Museum.
Standing at about 50 centimeters tall and 30 centimeter in diameter, the vase was very proportionate and charming. It was definitely a party item of its days, as green wine-like liquid was discovered inside the vessel by archaeologists.
A video about the Silk Road tells visitors that China is back to reclaim its place in the world as one of the most, if not the most, powerful trading nations under the command of a different type of emperor today.
Qin Shi Huang: The First Emperor of China and Terracotta Warriors is on exhibit at the National Museum in Bangkok until Dec 15. It opens from 9.30am to 4pm from Wednesday to Sunday. Sadly for foreign visitors, dual pricing is applied; Tickets cost 30 baht for Thais and 200 for foreigners.