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Published on September 04, 2019 with No Comments

Catch one of China’s great archaeological discoveries at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.



In 1974, farmers digging a well in China’s Shaanxi province uncovered a strange life-size clay figure of a soldier poised for battle. The Chinese authorities were immediately notified of this discovery and soon government archaeologists were dispatched to the site to investigate further.

What they found at the site remains one of the greatest discoveries in the world today – thousands of clay soldiers, each with unique facial expressions and positioned according to rank. Further excavations revealed swords, arrow tips, weapons, clay horses and wooden chariots, many in pristine condition.

The discovery is often described as the eighth wonder of the world. The Terracotta Warriors, as they are known, were created over 2,000 years ago and represent the armies of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China. They were his ‘guardians of immortality’, designed to protect the first emperor in the afterlife. It is estimated that there are more than 6,000 of such warriors.

According to writings of court historian Siam Qian during the following Han Dynasty, Qin ordered the creation of the warriors and the mausoleum they were kept in shortly after taking the throne. More than 700,000 labourers – mostly forced labour consisting of prisoners and convicts – worked on the project. The mausoleum is a vast site that ranges over kilometres, and the Terracotta Warriors are located in an important part of the overall mausoleum that is sited around one-and-a-half kilometres from the First Emperor’s burial mound.

Excavations revealed many pits within and outside the walls of the mausoleum. But further excavations are on hold to best keep the ancient tomb preserved due to the complex conditions inside. Currently, only four percent of the site has been excavated.



If you don’t have the opportunity to visit the actual mausoleum site of the Terracotta Warriors at the Shaanxi History Museum (Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Center), you can still experience for yourself the grandness of these ‘guardians
of immortality’ at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) from
now till 13 October 2019.

NGV presented the very first major exhibition outside of China of the Terracotta Warriors in 1982 in a historical exhibition. This year, the warriors return for a second time to the Gallery. In this large-scale presentation, a total of eight warrior figures and two life-size horses from the Imperial Army as well as two half-size replica bronze chariots each drawn by four horses will be featured.

These amazing sculptures will be accompanied by an extraordinary presentation of more than 170 treasures from ancient China, on loan from museums and archaeological sites in Shaanxi province and spanning more than 1,200 years of Chinese history. Both Terracotta Warriors and these priceless artefacts offer incredible insight into the formative years of Chinese civilisation.



At the Gallery’s hall of the Terracotta Warriors, the first warrior you will see is an Armoured General, the highest ranking of all the warriors at the exhibition. Other warriors you’ll see include a range of military men in different ranks and styles.

Each warrior consists of seven different parts – a plinth, feet, legs, torso, arms, hands and head. They were each given an individualised appearance through the use of different moulds and by manipulating the position of fingers and arms while the clay was still soft. Workers of these Terracotta Warriors were each held personally responsible for the quality of the work. They had to sign their names on parts they made and were punished if the part did not meet certain standards.

While they may appear a light grey now, the Terracotta Warriors were first brightly coloured. Their faces in flesh tones with dark brown hair and eyes, and even eyelashes delicately brushed in. They wore clothes in tints of red, blue, green, yellow, purple and white.

Horses were important for work and warfare in ancient China. The two terracotta horses at the Gallery’s showcase are of those found at the mausoleum that pulled chariots. There is also a replica of the chariot at the Gallery.

It is known that the excavation uncovered both clay objects as well as real people and animals. This is because the Qin has an ancient practice of human and animal sacrifice where their religious ceremonies included ritual offerings to the gods that sometimes required the slaughter of animals.

With this in mind, excavations at the Terracotta Warriors mausoleum uncovered the skeletons of animals such as horses. Human remains were also discovered, including female remains presumed to be those of Qin’s concubines and the male remains thought to be stable hands and grooms as well as labourers.

Alongside the Terracotta Warriors in the Gallery’s exhibition is an astounding collection of artefacts from early Chinese dynasties, including the time of Confucius, that reflect the cultural diversity of China. Ones to look out for include the Chinese bell or bo, a prestigious object that belonged to the Duke Wu. The bo played an important role in ancient China’s rituals and ceremonies where it may have been used for musical entertainments or more serious ceremonial functions. Look closely and you’ll see shapes of auspicious mythical horned dragons and serpents, reminding us that the supernatural worlds were very much an important aspect for the ancient Chinese.

Another unique artefact on display? The Han dynasty’s version of Terracotta Warriors, a marked difference from the Qin version. At around a third of the size of the Qin Terracotta Warriors, the Han’s version is less monumental with a humbler appeal. It’s a true reflection of the contrast between both dynasties and its emperors – the Qin emperor was more grandiose while the Han rulers were more modest.


Young emperor Ying Zheng took the throne in 246 B.C. at the age of 13. By 221 B.C., he unified a collection of warring kingdoms and renamed himself Qin Shi Huangdi – the First Emperor of Qin.

Aside from his ferocious character, Emperor Qin was known for many things – he introduced a new imperial currency and standardised weights and measures. He ordered for the Chinese writing to be made uniformed, interlinked the states with canals and roads, and is credited for building the first version of the Great Wall.

He relocated influential families from their home provinces to the Shaanxi capital where he could keep a close eye on them to ensure that his ruling was followed and no one would be out of line. If they did, they would suffer the consequences, like the 460 scholars who were rounded up and executed for criticising the government.

The emperor was also obsessed with the idea of immortality. Hence his most stunning project – the Terracotta Warriors, which started shortly after he took the throne. Today, the warriors and other statues serve as a symbol of the scale of the emperor’s reign and his influence over the vast land of China.


Presented in parallel with the Terracotta Warriors exhibition at the Gallery is contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s new artwork inspired by his home country’s culture and philosophical traditions. The exhibitions include a must-not-miss monumental installation of 10,000 suspended porcelain birds spiralling over visitors’ heads at the Gallery. The birds create a three-dimensional impression of a calligraphic drawing of the sacred Mount Li, the site of the ancient tomb of China’s first emperor and his warriors.

The Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality and Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape will be on display from now till 13 October 2019 at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, Australia. Tickets and information are available from the NGV website

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