Bern - A Qin of Magic

The terra cotta statues and other ancient Chinese objects provide a fascinating introduction to a mysterious cultural universe



06 June 2013

A fascinating chapter in Chinese history has been brought to Europe by the Bernisches Historisches Museum, in Bern, Switzerland. The exhibition 'Qin – The eternal emperor and his terra cotta warriors,' running until 17 November 2013, describes the rise of the 'Middle Kingdom,' and it includes ten terra cotta statues and another 220 objects shipped from China specially for this event. (In the photo below: a glance around the exhibition "Qin – The eternal emperor and his terracotta warriors," © Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern. Photograph Nadja Frey)

The statues, discovered by chance by farmers in 1974, have become an important part of the Chinese cultural identity, along with the mysterious personality of the first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (221-210 B.C.). They have become a recurrent leitmotif both in China and elsewhere, as shown by their presence in films, theatre, opera, and the arts. Mao Tse Tung himself said that he admired Qin Shi Huangdi for “his consolidation of modernity and the abandonment of everything old." Qin Shi Huangdi in fact unified weights, measures and currency, and adopted a unified system of writing for the new state. (In the photo below: from right to left: commander, soldier with breastplate, soldier, and charioteer).

The story of the 8,000 full-size statues in the terra cotta army has all the ingredients to ensure an undying fascination with the public at large. The emperor had the sort of vision that spawned ambitious enterprises (larger than life would be an appropriate description); another example is the Great Wall, also launched by Qin Shi Huangdi. In addition, the army possesses the sophisticated beauty of art. But at the end of the day, the dominant impression remains the magnetism, power and magic of the emperor's personality. After having 'brought peace to everything under the sun,' unifying kingdoms that up until then had been fighting one against another, Qin Shi Huangdi embarked on an even more ambitious project: the quest for immortality.

According to the chronicles, he died during the search for the elixir of eternal life. After his demise, his ministers were conscious of the devastatingly destabilizing effect that this news would have on the peoples in the empire, above all the most recently-conquered provinces, and so, during the last journey towards his burial site, they ensured that a cart filled with very smelly salted fish was in prominent view in the procession, so that none of the onlookers would notice the telltale odours from the dead body.

Qin Shi Huangdi had been making plans for his life in the underworld for many years, constructing a court as sumptuous as the one that had accompanied him during his earthly existence. Construction of his gigantic mausoleum, not far from what is now Xi'an, began soon after he had claimed the princedom of Qin, at the age of 13, in 246 B.C. The work was conducted by a huge army of prisoners, as shown by the iron chains and shackles that they wore.

The quality of the terra cotta warriors is obvious at first glance: the soldiers, cavalrymen, charioteers and archers are all different; their rank can be deduced from their uniforms and hairstyle; and their expressions are as individual as living people. As the director of the Bernisches Historisches Museum, Jakob Messerli, said, "It feels as if you are looking straight into the eyes of someone from 22 centuries ago." Even though the army is universally known as the 'terra cotta warriors,' the people accompanying Qin Shi Huangdi beyond the grave also included dignitaries, musicians, acrobats, and even bronze birds such as swans and geese, which were originally arranged on the banks of an artificial stream, as shown by the traces of dry mud found in situ. (In the photo below: kneeling archer; the remains of the lacquer decoration can be seen).

If the ancient historian Sima Qian was right, the emperor's burial chamber, in the hill close to the terra cotta army excavation, contained rivers of mercury, because this metal, together with cinnabar (mercury sulphide), was, according to ancient treatises of Chinese alchemy, a fundamental component in the elixir of eternal life. The dream of eternity is expressed, in the Bern exhibition, by a sea of 8,000 silvery banners hanging from the ceiling. (In the photo below: looking at the terra cotta acrobat and the kneeling terracotta musician as well as the bronze swan in the exhibition "Qin – The eternal emperor and his terracotta warriors," © Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern. Photograph Nadja Frey).

Up until now, the emperor's burial chamber has not been excavated, neither the many other locations taken up by the mausoleum. The principal reason for this is that the archaeologists are aware that as soon as the statues are uncovered, the brusque decrease in humidity immediately destroys any trace of the colourful lacquer that originally decorated the statues. One of the attractive features of the show in Bern takes the form of reproductions of the statues, made using the same Chinese lacquer ('qi') and pigments that were originally used to decorate the terra cotta warriors. A triumph of brightly-coloured, glossy lacquer. (In the photos below: reproductions in plaster, and pigments, of a commander and a kneeling archer).

Useful information:

Bernisches Historisches Museum
Helvetiaplatz 5
3000 Bern 6, Switzerland

Opening times:
Tuesday-Sunday, 9.00 a.m.-6.00 p.m., closed on Mondays