An ongoing exhibition in Hyderabad on the “Treasures from Ancient China” showcases about 95 antiquities from the Neolithic age to the Qing dynasty.

Imagine farmers engaged in the drudgery of digging for water when they come upon a sculptured human head, and as they go deeper, a complete life-size figure, and another and another in a never-ending line. The year was 1974, and eventually 1,848 terracotta warriors were discovered, possibly more, in serried ranks in the tomb of Qin Shihuang, arrayed to fight his battles in the other world.

An entire army was found, with horses, chariots, spears and other weaponry; and cooks, officials, acrobats, musicians and dancing courtesans. For food there were pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and stores of grain. The pit contained 8,000 items now standing in trenches pictured on the walls of the exhibition venue, showing the magnitude of the find.

As far as megalomania goes, Nero, who entertained himself by turning Christians into human torches, was a toddler compared with Qin. Thirteen years of age when he ascended the throne in 221 BCE, he set 700,000 workmen to build an obscenely luxurious mausoleum to cater to his every whim in the after-life; and to keep its location secret they were all executed or entombed alive. In an obsessive search for immortality he employed alchemists to find the elixir. When two were caught deceiving him, 460 scholars, probably many more, were buried alive in one of the worst excesses in recorded history.

The terracotta army is only a small part of his enormous tomb, the remainder of which is yet to be located. Two of its warriors, a General and a soldier, form the centrepiece of the exhibition.

It was decreed that no warrior could be exactly like another, giving full scope to the talent of the hapless artisans whose superlative skills became their death warrant. The left arm of one is poised as if carrying a bow, now missing; and the other has broader cheekbones, a luxuriant moustache and an elegant topknot. There is a mystique about these ancient figures. Witnesses and survivors, they have seen the rise and fall of empires and dynasties, and carry the burden of history in their hooded, inscrutable, eyes.

Made of coiled earth, the soldiers are among the oldest freestanding hollow figures of antiquity and, being lightweight, were liable to topple over. They were stabilised by giving them solid legs, to which hollow torsos, arms, and heads were attached. Wet clay was then applied to the surface, and every detail of clothing, the elaborate armour, and the facial features was stenciled or shaped by hand while the clay was still moist.

Buddhist heritage

China's Buddhist heritage is represented in stone statuary of later provenance discovered in the Longmen Caves, where more than 2,000 limestone grottoes were cut into the hillside on the facing banks of the river Yi from 316 CE onwards. Inside there was a huge hoard: 100,000 statues, 25,000 inscriptions, 60 pagodas, epitomising the stone carver's art. A serenely smiling Bodhisattva is on view, contrasting with a brawny, bare-chested warrior with sharply defined musculature, the soft drape of his clothing showing the Gandhara influence.

The shift from hunting to agriculture in the Neolithic period is evident in the implements on display: an axe, a spade, a ploughshare. These humble tools, awe-inspiring in their antiquity, are thought to be more than 10,000 years old.

As life became more settled, the arts found expression in painted pottery, bronze weapons, jewellery and storage containers. There are swords and scabbards, a hairpin topped with a lacy floral spray, a bronze mirror patterned on the reverse, and a Ding or ritual utensil 2,500 years old. This eye-catching tripod, about two feet in height and diameter, is decorated with geometric motifs and cloud patterns. Six dragons, emblems of good fortune, clamber up the sides, their jaws clamped to the rim of the vessel, and tiny fantastic creatures issue from their heads and tails. The bronze, aged over the millennia, has acquired a grayish-green patina.

The Ding's symbolic value far exceeded its function judging by the many found in the tombs of the Zhou dynasty. Its ownership was restricted to the blue-blooded and was a hierarchical signifier. The Emperor, the Son of Heaven, possessed nine; the nobility a step below owned seven; then five; and so on down the social scale, in odd digits ending with one.

Minimized models of buildings were buried with the dead. A quaint barn of grey pottery about the size of a large doll's house has four storeys rising around a rectangular courtyard, the lower two for storage, the third and fourth for living space. A small tower tops the structure.

Age-old remains and funerary objects form the bulk of the “Treasures”, but there is little evidence of the fine arts that flourished under courtly patronage. Ceramics, chinaware and glazed stoneware formed a significant part of this splendid heritage of which we see all too little.

A few jars are in standard blue-and-white porcelain and a rarer one, bulbous and narrow-necked in the West Asian tradition, has a design of dragons in red and blue. But the one to die for is an exquisite vase with handles edged in red and gold showing graceful spotted deer in a landscape of trees and sparse foliage in shades of green, ranging from bottle to aqua.

Jade has been the most coveted of stones in China for more than 7,000 years. Imbued with sacramental and medicinal qualities it was associated with moral virtue, aesthetic purity and eternal life. Magnificent jade burial suits have been unearthed from Han tombs of the 2{+n}{+d} century BCE, encasing the royal dead to preserve their bodies in perpetuity; also jewellery, elaborately carved totems and drinking cups. Here we see none of these, only three flat round discs about three inches in diameter, probably ornaments for sword handles.

No evidence

There are other disappointments. Magnificent silk hanging scrolls from the Ming Period, faithfully recording courtly life; lacquer ware; robes of silk gauze “thin as a locust's wing, as fine as mist” more than two millennia old; rich brocades; and Chinese landscape painting greatly admired by no less a connoisseur than Tagore — of all these “treasures” there is no evidence here.

Exhibitions come and go, living on in sumptuously produced catalogues exhaustively captioned. Prized possessions, they can stand as art books in their own right. This one, to put it bluntly, cannot.

Only two copies were for sale with six-line captions, and none were available for journalists. A 10-page leaflet provided an overview. Had Ms. Bilwa Kulkarni not helped with additional material it would have been impossible to do justice to this prestigious event.

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Arts, Entertainment & EventsMay 14, 2012