Thursday, March 4, 2010

Terra Cotta Warriors at the National Geographic Museum

In 1998 I was lucky enough to travel throughout China with my family. As avid readers know by now, my mother is Chinese and her parents made it a point of rounding up all the kids and grandkids to show them the "old country." That was the first time I saw the Terra Cotta Warriors. It took 12 years before I saw them again.

Growing up as bi-racial or "hapa" (a Hawaiian word that literally means half, and usually refers to Asian and Caucasian mixed kids), I've always been aware of my unique heritage. In some ways, it has been a source of strength in that I've been able to pick the best of both backgrounds. On the other hand, it was sometimes difficult to fit in, since I wasn't white enough for some groups or Asian/minority enough for others.

But like so many other childhood circumstances, being hapa was all I knew, and I didn't realize until I was older how unique and special it was. For example, did you know that it wasn't until 1967 that interracial couples could marry in Virginia (that's only 6 years before my parents married)? It's true, look it up (Loving vs. Virginia). Worse still, just last year a Louisiana justice of the peace refused to marry an interracial couple stating, "I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way." It certainly is an interesting counterpoint to a country with a biracial President and many other public figures of mixed heritage... but I'm getting off topic.

The point of all this is that as a newly married couple, J and I have tried to take an active role in blending both of our backgrounds, racial and otherwise. By embracing our heritage, we learn about who we all are and possibly, who we are going to be.

With that in mind, we made a point of checking out the National Geographic Museum's exhibit on the Terra Cotta Warriors. For a little background, the warriors were created by China's first emperor over 2000 years ago as part of his burial complex, but it was only discovered in the late-1970's. This exhibit is on loan from China, and has been traveling the States for the last couple of years. It is a tough ticket to get, but if you're willing to go during the daytime, you'll have a shot of seeing it before it leaves DC at the end of March.

The exhibit is small but extremely well done. 1 hour is recommended, but slow reading aside, I could have spent a lot more time there. We opted for the audio tour, but the text at the exhibit is just as thorough.

Time is spent winding through various artifacts that help tell the story of the life and death of Qin Shihuangdi before you get to the warriors themselves. As a product of American public schools, we seem to be experts on European culture and events, but often don't get to learn about Eastern history. This made both the historical and warrior sections of the exhibit very worthwhile.

Having seen the real thing on the outskirts of Xi'an, I'd recommend that you spend the $12 and go to NatGeo before trekking to the other side of the world just yet. Other than the sheer size and magnificence of the actual site, I found the more intimate setting far more engaging. There, you're under a massive tent (think of one of those huge wedding tents, only if it covered several football fields), and look down into a partially dug out pit of mostly broken warriors. The scope is tremendous but I felt very removed from it all. Instead, being able to walk completely around some of the best preserved warriors, look in their eyes, and study particular aspects of their artistry, allowed me to appreciate the details.

The other thing I liked was the more modern, and probably more Western approach that was taken in educating visitors. Other than the sometimes Beijing-worthy crowds, I can't say enough good things about it all.

So in the end, I was able to learn a little bit more about China's history and about my own history. What's more, being able to share that with J and reconnect with those fond memories of my grandparents, was invaluable.

J Says

One of my favorite photos from B's China trip is a shot of his grandparents posing with the terra cotta warriors (and imitating their stoic faces) in the gift shop in Xi'an. That picture sparked my interest in the warriors. We even have small two terra cotta warrior replicas in our bedroom. I was thrilled to get to see them up close in DC.

As I struggled through the crowds in the first room, I began to wonder if these old clay dudes were worth the trouble. Luckily, the crowds thinned out and I let the audio tour sweep me away to China, and into the life story of this wacky emperor. Like B said, it was neat to get to see them up close where you could really see the intricate details and craftsmanship. If you don't have the time or money to go to China, hurry up and get on over to 17th Street before the warriors waddle on to their next destination.


blunoz said...

I'm envious that you got to go. A friend and I were planning to go, but he recently told me all the tickets were sold out. Maybe I should check again. Did they not allow photography? I was surprised there weren't any photos in your blog post.

J said...

Unfortunately, no photos allowed in the exhibit. There are some weekday tickets still available if you act fast!

Amy J said...

I loved the exhibit, my whole family went. Then the next day my in-laws went.