The Terracotta Warriors' epic journey from China to Te Papa

by Redmer Yska / 13 November, 2018
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A kneeling archer excavated from Emperor Qin Shihuang's tomb.

For curator Rebecca Rice, bringing the Terracotta Warriors to Te Papa caps a personal pilgrimage.

In May 2017, Te Papa curator Rebecca Rice was in a field in north-west China peering at a line of Terracotta Warriors. One suddenly caught her eye. “He was a standing archer, simply clad, freshly dug out of an ancient sea of mud,” she told the Listener, relaxing on a chair in the museum cafe.

“I spotted this little bone near his wrist. I couldn’t stop staring, taking in the attention to anatomical detail: his hairdo, the ties on his shoe, and the fall of his robes,” Rice says, flipping open her laptop and clicking on the archer’s picture.

Rice has helped assemble Te Papa’s forthcoming exhibition, Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality, which opens in December and runs for four months.

The centrepiece is a phalanx of the funerary army, including soldiers, horses and chariots. Also included are about 160 works of ancient Chinese art crafted from gold, jade and bronze.

In 1974, farmers digging a well 1.5km east of the First Emperor’s great tomb in Shaanxi province chanced upon the terracotta figures. The 8000-strong army (about 3000 objects have been retrieved to date) is now judged one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. Some call it the eighth wonder of the world.

With their lifelike clothing, armour, hair and facial features, the Terracotta Warriors have proved a blockbuster attraction wherever they appear. They were last in New Zealand in 2003.

“We’re offering visitors an immersive and intimate experience, a chance to see the warriors up close in breathtaking detail,” says Rice, an art historian better known for her knowledge of New Zealand’s colonial art.

A bronze replica chariot.

A bronze replica chariot.

“I want people to have the same, very personal kind of encounter that I did in Xi’an [the Shaanxi capital],” she says.

A regular reviewer for Art New Zealand magazine for a decade, Rice may look like your classic Wellington brainbox, yet she boasts one of those wonderfully varied Kiwi CVs. The daughter of an Ōamaru traffic officer, she trained as a physiotherapist. A love of the arts and music then led her to become an art historian in the capital, and she later completed a doctorate at the University of Wellington.

She now calls herself an avid Wellingtonian, the city where she lives with her partner and children. She loves the rich variety of food: hand-pulled noodles on Vivian St, Mr Go’s, Sixes and Sevens, and Petone’s Seashore Cabaret.

You might spot her at the latest gallery opening, or dancing to Bailter Space at San Fran. She especially enjoyed Chelsea Jade and SoccerPractise at the opening of Te Papa's Toi Art gallery.

Rebecca Rice.

Assembling Terracotta Warriors has been something different. She’s used to curating 19th-century paintings. She terms it “humbling” to be around works crafted up to 3000 years ago.

“Once they’re dug out of the ground, they piece them together like some incredible jigsaw puzzle," she says.

"It is a bit like watching a body being bandaged and brought back together. This army was just lying there, secretly guarding the emperor.”

Rice offers the mind-boggling statistic that the enterprise was carried out by as many as 700,000 people, mainly day labour, and probably conscripted.

“Each soldier was made from the feet up, with successive body parts shaped from thick coils of clay.

"The head was made and fired separately, then joined to the body with soft clay.

“Sculptural detail was added by hand, including individualised facial features and hair. The figures were then dried in the shade and fired in large kilns.”

Iron and gold sword blade with inlaid turquoise, excavated from Yimen village.

Rice first toured south China as a student in the 1990s. “A girlfriend and I spent two months travelling by bus and train.

“Westerners were then allowed to stay only in certain hotels, and a flurry of anxiety would erupt when we’d try to check in at an unapproved place.

“I’ve since made another major tour of the north.”

She admits to being a Sinophile. “That probably helps in putting together an exhibition like this.

“But you can’t deny that the culture from which the warriors came is incredibly rich, not just materially but in terms of those shared human ideas about life and death.

“So we’re really hoping to get people to make a connection, to have a personal encounter. That might seem hard when exhibits are 3000 years old, but Māori, European and Chinese cultures all share resonant beliefs about the afterlife, around ritual and around ancestors.

“Above all, we want visitors to go, ‘Wow, they are amazing – they’ve come out of the earth, they were made that long ago, and we’re face-to-face with them.’”

This article is sponsored by Wellington Tourism.

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