Sprawled out in front of me in a dusty hangar in Xi’an were rows and rows of soldiers: an army fit to protect the dead.
I first saw the Terracotta Warriors in 2010, when working as a journalist in China. The experience was overwhelming. Yet unlike the Great Wall – another legacy of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, which sends shivers down my spine to this day – the site itself was a letdown. Jostling with the crowds, I felt a stab of guilt: I knew I should be enjoying the experience more than I did.
This week the National Gallery of Victoria opened its winter exhibition Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality, alongside an installation and painting by the contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. And, while small in scale compared with what is on display in Xi’an, Guardians of Immortality is big on giving space to detail – providing for me, at least, a second chance to admire the artistry.
Rather than a procession of the estimated 8,000-strong ghostly army, just eight are on display in Melbourne (China only lets 10 soldiers leave the country at any one time). Encased in sleek glass boxes, surrounded by mirrors, these are the warriors up close and personal, each sporting an individual expression and stance.
There’s the armoured general: on a face etched with experience, I can count the lines on his forehand and the strands of hair in his beard. With a paunch and strong legs (not to mention backside), he looks glossy and well fed. “You can feel the authority of the face and the stance, the broadness of his shoulders,” Wayne Crothers, senior curator of Asian art at the NGV, tells me. “He’s not a young warrior. He’s middle aged.”
Then there’s the archer, captured in the moment after he has released his bow. His eyes follow the arrow’s trajectory. Legs parted, chin slightly raised, shoulders drawn back, he is the epitome of grace and elegance. A horse, meanwhile, stands alert: its ears pricked forward, nostrils flared, ready for action.
Discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well in north-western Shaanxi province, the Terracotta Warriors are often dubbed the eighth wonder of the world. In 1982, nine warriors left China for the first time, travelling to Australia to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, alongside 10 additional artefacts.
Some 30-plus years later, Guardians of Immortality ups the stakes: alongside the warriors, the two horses and two replica mini-carriages are 150 Qin and Han dynasty artefacts. The pieces reflect the continued research into the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, who ordered the construction of the site, now estimated to be 56 sq km, when he ascended the throne aged just 13 in 246BC.
According to the court historian Sima Qian, writing a century after the emperor’s death, 700,000 workers laboured on the mausoleum for more than 36 years. Many, he said, were buried alive – along with their intimate knowledge of where the treasures were located.
“The inner passages and doorways were blocked, and the exits were sealed to trap the workers and craftsmen inside,” he wrote. “No one could escape the tomb and vegetation was planted on the mound so that it resembled an ordinary hill.”
Some of those treasures have now found their way to Melbourne. They include a bronze goose, one of 46 life-sized bronze birds discovered in the emperor’s underground pleasure garden, replete with an artificial lake.
Yet isn’t only the ancient treasures that make Guardians of Immortality special.
Wearing nifty double denim, his head shaved, Cai Guo-Qiang says he first saw the Terracotta Army while at college. “What struck me is that they were made to be buried underground, rather than being appreciated by people,” he recalls. Many foreign exhibitions today, he says, don’t “convey the sense of miracle or monumentality”.
To gesture towards this, Cai has created 10,000 porcelain birds – 10,000 represents infinity in China – suspended from the ceiling in the formation of the sacred Mount Li, where the tomb is located. Leading the viewer through the exhibition, sometimes just one or two birds hover above; sometimes it’s an entire flock or cloud.
For Cai, they symbolise the lingering spirit of the warriors, a sense of the size and scale that he hopes will provide “a more authentic experience compared to a few lonely scattered sculptures”.
Darker undertones, too, are hinted at. Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum is, after all, a grave – and not only for the emperor. Aside from the workers buried there (some still in chains, indicating they were slaves or prisoners), are young men who have been murdered: they are believed to have been princes. Mutilated female skeletons – their limbs dismembered – have also being discovered; some say the women are concubines who were ordered to join Qin in death.
The birds, reflecting this, have been coated in black gunpowder ash, Cai’s trademark. An adjoining room contains a porcelain peony mountain, also stained black, representing not life but death and decay.
Qin Shi Huang was a man obsessed with living forever. He eventually died after ingesting mercury – ironically taken in hopes of becoming immortal.
In one sense, the emperor has has his wish, with more than 50,000 people visiting his mausoleum every day – including the hot summer’s morning I went all those years ago.
Yet I can’t help but think he would have been horrified. That an entire underground city constructed to protect and guide his spirit has become a tourism site. That, at the end of the day, his army of the dead could not save him.
• Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality and Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape are showing at NGV International, Melbourne, until 13 October