As a Chinese journalist working for Radio-Canada International in Montreal, I often report on shows related to China for a Mandarin-speaking audience, and there are times I find myself wondering what people here in the West find interesting in such shows. This is a question that does not even arise when it comes to the current show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, The Warrior Emperor and China’s Terracotta Army.
With its focus on an ancient civilization and artifacts from the tombs of emperors, the show showcases one of the great archeological finds of the 20th century and has universal appeal similar to that of an Egyptian mummy exhibition.The curator of the show, Dr. Chen Shen, is a Chinese who came to Canada almost 20 years ago as a doctoral student in archaeology at the University of Toronto. He is now the Senior Curator, Bishop White Chair of East Asian Archaeology at the Royal Ontario Museum, which hosted the show before it travelled to Montreal. In its focus on the terracotta army, the exhibition succeeds also in highlighting social customs, technological development and prosperity of two early dynasties in Chinese history, the Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 BCE) and the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). For the Montreal show, Dr. Shen worked with the assistance of Dr. Laura Vigo, the Montreal Museum of Fine Art’s first Curator of Asian Art.
When I spoke to Dr. Shen on the night the show opened, he said he did not choose the sculptures based on how well known they are, but rather on how well they fit in with his idea of connecting with the West. This is a curator clearly intent on introducing ancient Chinese history to the West in such a way that people here can relate to and understand. In Toronto it was a surprise to him that the show attracted so many children, for whom this likely provided a first encounter with Chinese history.
It’s a thoroughly modern and western show with an ancient Chinese core. All 240 items in the exhibition have been arranged with carefully-designed lighting and positioning, which is often not the case in such a show in China. There are two videos on a loop, one of which provides documentary footage of archaeologists working on the First Emperor’s pits; the other is the visually stunning feature film Hero, about an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the life of the First Emperor.
Visitors to the First Emperor’s tomb in Shaan Xi province, in Northern China, are overwhelmed by the sheer size and number of the terracotta warriors. Imagine facing more than 2000 life-sized – or larger than life-sized – excavated warriors, horses and chariots over an area of about 12,000 square meters. At an exhibition such as The Warrior Emperor and China’s Terracotta Army, it is impossible to have that visual effect, which makes the accompanying text and presentation all the more important in creating a sense of the magnitude of the original site.
Dr. Shen’s comprehensive and subtly humorous introduction to the exhibition reveals both his deep understanding of Chinese culture and his knowledge of and sensitivity to western visitors. The terracotta warriors were created in order to protect the First Emperor’s hereafter, but their purpose now is to fascinate visitors around the world. As Dr. Shen puts it, “The First Emperor could never have dreamed that 2200 years later, his terracotta soldiers would travel to almost every corner of the world, while he still rests in his mysterious underground palace.”
The exhibition includes recently discovered items from the First Emperor’s underground garden – which he thought of as his “eternal paradise” – including a bronze swan and lively acrobats. This was not only a general who conquered six rival states and built the first united kingdom of China, but also a man with very clear ideas on how to set himself up for eternal comfort.
The last section displays items from emperors and noble families in the Han Dynasty, which is regarded as one of the most prosperous periods in Chinese civilization. These less violent, less aggressively huge artefacts – pigs, dogs, wine vessels and braziers – reflect everyday life at a more harmonious and peaceful time. The clothing of female maids on display are examples of traditional ethnic Han design, which disappeared over the course of China’s long and turbulent history; elements survive today in traditional Japanese garments.
The original plan was for the show to continue to western Canada after its stay in Montreal, but because of a change of policy in China, the Canadian tour of the terracotta army will end in Montreal. It can be viewed at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until June 26, 2011.
[The exhibition guide is on sale at the Museum in English and French ($5.00; $4.50 for Museum VIPs).]
Yan Liang is a prize-winning journalist and translator based in Montreal with more than ten years’ experience working in Canada and China. She presently works for Radio-Canada International (RCI) as a host and journalist. She was involved in several translation projects, such as Arthur Miller’s autobiography Time Bends (2010, Shanghai 99Read), Stan Douglas’s film transcript Journey into Fear (2004) and others. She is also a freelance writer for several magazines in Taiwan and China.
Photo: Li Zhao