Thursday this past week I went over to see Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana -- the exhibition's first stop on a North American tour. I have known about these figures for some time, of course, and was excited at the prospect of seeing them at first hand. What I had in mind -- somewhat naively, I suppose -- were those serried ranks of foot soldiers and cavalrymen I had seen in photographic reproduction, and I have to say that what I got was something different from my expectations. No less valuable in its way, perhaps, but different.
What I got was a great deal of historical and cultural information about China at the time of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang (250-210 B.C.) and a lot of fascinating information about the creation of those figures, their re-discovery centuries later, and the archeological restoration process that it took to bring them back to something close to their original splendor. What I missed was what I can only describe as the oomph I had expected, the spectacular quality of the sheer mass of them, the "serried ranks" I mentioned above. The relatively small number of restored figures were exhibited separately, as individuals -- marvels in themselves but deprived of their
grandeur. I got a lot less
than would have met my expectations, and had to satisfy that desire through the photographs and video that accompanied the show.
(Thanks to the Bowers Museum for providing me with these images. I should point out, however, that they are not installation shots from the current exhibition, but rather from the Museum of the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses at Qin Shi Huang, Lintong, China.)
That said, I did learn a lot; and I was awed, in a minor key, by the marvelously skillful construction and the quiet serenity of the isolated figures. It's amazing, given their numbers, that each is an individual, with individual physiognomy and posture, each with an individual energy and emotional affect. No two, as I understand it, are identical. In their centuries-old silence, they exude an inner strength and purposefulness that is, yes, awesome in itself. They stand before us, somehow above the vicissitudes of the current history of the world, secure in their deathless certitude and improbable survival.
What is it, I wonder, about we humans that we have been so obsessed, throughout our history, with making images of ourselves? There was a practical/spiritual purpose, of course, to the creation of this terra cotta army: the emperor needed their protection in the afterlife. Installed at strategic locations at the outskirts of his necropolis, they have stood guard for centuries, in defense of his eternal soul. Well, not quite. The non-romantic, Buddhist part of me needs to point out that this army, too, fell victim to the ravages of time, and was utterly destroyed before modern man came along to meticulously recreate it. Dust to dust... and back again!
Still, we turn our human skills to the attempt to perpetuate who we are, and it is certainly moving, amongst these figures dignified by age, to feel that we are in some small way in touch with those who walked the earth so many years before us; and that their spirit can still in some small way walk amongst us. I value enormously the small statue of the Buddha that sits in eternal contemplation in our garden, where I sit writing these words on a sunny Saturday morning in twenty-first century Southern California; and the larger face of the Buddha, down whose cheeks the water of our fountain runs like ever-compassionate tears for the suffering we bring upon ourselves through our attachments. These figures are true presences in our lives, reminders of the values that we try to live by. I know they are not the Buddha, that they do not remotely "look like" what the Buddha may have done, twenty-five hundred years ago; and even so they bring something of his serenity of spirit into the garden, along with a healthy reminder of the impermanence of all things.
As for the warriors, eternally stalwart and eternally loyal to their emperor, they too bring something of value into our lives, reminding us in their wordless way of the deepest fears and grandest aspirations that we share with our fellow mortal beings throughout history, and in all parts of the globe.