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'Terracotta Warriors' arrive at Field Museum

One of 40 "kneeling archers" that were buried in a pit near the emperor's tomb is on display at the Field Museum's new exhibition, “China’s First Emperor and His Terracotta Warriors,” which opens March 4. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Starting this week, Chicago visitors can get a look at a small contingent of the army of thousands of terra cotta sculptures that spent the last 2,200 years silently guarding the tomb of China’s first emperor.

The life-size, ornately detailed warrior sculptures are the showstoppers for the Field Museum’s new exhibit, “China’s First Emperor And His Terracotta Warriors,” but Zhou Kuiying, deputy director general of the Shaanxi Province Cultural Relics Bureau, hopes museumgoers will also notice the relatively ignoble terra cotta pipes also on display — plumbing that was state of the art anywhere in the known world in 221 B.C., when Qin Shihuangdi conquered the warring states of what would become China.

“This exhibition is about our cultural heritage,” Zhou said through a translator at a special media showing of the exhibit Tuesday. “I hope the public in the U.S. will get to know the techniques, and the materials and the significant [historical] figures.”

And so museum visitors will see a Qin dynasty general that stands 6 feet tall as well as expertly tooled wagon wheels; trigger mechanisms for crossbows; and a tiny, gold-inlaid brass bell stamped by the “Department of Music” — a ministry of the Qin-era imperial bureaucracy.

The exhibit will be on display from Friday until next January. It’s the first time the artifacts have been brought to Chicago since 1980, only six years after the first of the terra cotta warriors were unearthed by a rural farmer digging to build a well near Xi’an in central China.

A terra cotta cavalry horse is on display at the Field Museum. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Shihuangdi was the first to unite all of China under a single rule, a campaign he began after ascending to the throne at 13, said Deborah Bekken, adjunct curator of Chinese anthropology. His relatively brief reign saw the sprawling kingdom standardize its currency and its writing, and the construction of the Great Wall.

His massive, 22-square-kilometer mausoleum complex included about 8,000 terra cotta soldiers, each with unique facial features, posed in orderly columns to defend the emperor in the afterlife. The sculptures were entombed with the emperor, and then buried as the wooden ceilings above them collapsed over the centuries.

The mausoleum site — including Shihuangdi’s tomb, which is rumored to have a pearl-inlaid ceiling to mimic the sky and rivers of Mercury — still is under excavation, though the location is a popular tourist attraction in China, Zhou said.

Work on Shihuangdi’s memorial site began shortly after he unified the warring factions in 221, and about 700,000 workers would toil at the site, Zhou said. Their work was likely incomplete when Shihuangdi died in 210 B.C.

Replicas of chariots are on display at the Field Museum. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The figures of one of several clay generals, some sort of servant-functionary, and the headless statue of an acrobat are also on display in Chicago. In their prime, each would have been brightly painted, and each warrior would have carried an actual weapon, though many were looted from the site after Shihuangdi’s dynasty fell, said Lisa Niziolek, a postdoctoral researcher who has visited the site.

“Most, if not all, of [the statues] you see had to be put back together,” Niziolek said.

The site shows the extraordinary attention to even the smallest details in the early empire, Niziolek said. Despite the sheer number of statues, each was stamped with the name of the shops that prepared them, the better to check for quality, she noted.

Sixth-graders from Lincolnwood’s Lincoln Hall Middle School got a special tour of the exhibit Tuesday. Gazing up at the impassive face of a terra cotta general and posters of the faces of a dozen other of Shihuangdi’s clay guardians, 12-year-old Abbey Adams was amazed at the tiny details in each face.

“They’re all unique,” Abbey said, regarding the scowling general’s brow. “Look, this one has wrinkles on his forehead.”