I was entranced from the moment I entered the first shadowy room.  A huge pair of Chinese metal doors with geometrical grating guarded the entrance behind me.  Ghostly heads with topknots were projected onto the side walls, almost filling the space.  The heads appeared from the back:  four to the left, four to the right.  This was the first sight of the eight life-sized terracotta warriors at the heart of the exhibition.

In front of me, a brilliant circle of light picked out a whirl of movement frozen in bronze—a charioteer tensely controlling the traces of horses fanned out in a row of four.

I seemed to be underground in the distant mausoleum of the first emperor of China, walking from one chamber to the next.  Precious jade, bronze and terracotta objects in one room showed things used in daily life that had been re-created for immortality in the tomb—bells, mirrors, cauldrons, kettles, a pestle and mortar, all to supply banquets in the afterlife.  What the Chinese didn’t have in daily life was pockets:  they carried their bits and pieces dangling from the hook of a metal belt fastener.  What they did have was chrome plating for arrow tips, which wouldn’t appear in the west until the nineteen twenties.

Ten Soldiers
Walking Soldiers, Western Han Dynasty
(206 BCE – 9 CE), Painted pottery.
Photography by Ann Palmer

Another room showed weapons and armour. Yet another had an architectural theme—hollow terracotta bricks, ornamental ends for roof tiles, bronze sheathing for wooden wall posts, none of which would ever be exposed to the weather above ground. Nothing, however functional, was without its intricate carving and sculptural form.

This tomb art was a re-creation of life above ground, for an emperor who would continue to reign from his mausoleum. It showed the concept of immortality central to Chinese culture, where life coexists with death.

The path through the exhibition created a continuously unfolding experience of this culture. It was like walking through a piece of music. The prelude, with variations, was this opening series of rooms. The main theme, at the centre of the composition, was the great chamber with the eight life-sized terracotta warriors and two horses. Finally, the coda: a further series of rooms with tomb art from a different emperor.

This series was more domestic, with little terracotta and bronze farmyard animals, a miniature well, small soldiers with only a terracotta body and legs because the wooden arms had decayed.

The lighting was superb. Shadowy space placed us in the tombs, and brilliantly focused lights isolated each object against the black wall.

The labels had their own focus: a specific use for the object, or its significance in Chinese culture.

I have been to many international exhibitions in London, where I had the same experience of awe: the great Matisse cut-outs at Tate Modern; dramatic 17th-century Spanish still lifes at the National Gallery; the unforgettable Henry Moore at Tate Britain. This exhibition at Te Papa stands alongside them.

The exhibition Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality showing at Te Papa until 22 April 2019.

Ann Palmer

Member, Friends of Te Papa

Images by Ann Palmer