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Home > Articles > Features > Fab four: art of China

Fab four: art of China

Stuart Forster picks out four of the country’s most significant artistic attractions


The Terracotta Warriors

The Terracotta Army is a global attraction, but what’s even more remarkable is that the warriors form just a fraction of the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, who lived from 259-210BC and was the first emperor of a unified China. Its 180 pits cover a vast area, 22 miles from Xi’an. The tomb’s construction began in 246BC, shortly after Qin Shi Huang’s coronation, and lasted 38 years. Literary sources suggest the centrepiece is an underground palace and that the warriors are protecting their ruler from threats from the east. Fragments of the terracotta guards were first unearthed in 1974 by villagers digging a well. The area, and the 1,000 or so life-size figures and 24 horses excavated so far, now stand under an arched, hangar-like structure known as Pit One. Two further pits were found in 1976. The L-shaped Pit Two contains infantrymen, archers and cavalrymen with horses, while Pit Three, with 68 warriors and four horses, represents the army’s headquarters. As well as reflecting the ethnic diversity of Qin Shi Huang’s empire, the clothing and armour depicted in this imperial army have been key to understanding ancient Chinese military history. The bronze spearheads and swords the figures once held have also shed light on the weaponry and the metallurgy of that era. Half-sized scale models of horses and chariots, cast in bronze, provide insights into the emperor’s transport. The on-site museums display a range of archaeological artifacts and, based on pigment found on the 6ft-tall warriors, give an illustration of how colourful the army would have looked over 2,200 years ago.

Mogao Caves. Image: Corbis

Mogao Caves. Image: Corbis

Mogao Caves

This large cave temple complex, near Dunhuang, dates from 366, when Buddhist monks — travelling to India on the Silk Road — began hollowing out meditation chambers in a cliff that’s over a mile long. The complex grew over successive dynasties and in total there are over 700 caves. Their walls bear scenes painted by monks, including landscapes, portraits and depictions of Buddha’s life story. The frescoes are significant as they record the evolution of Buddhist and Chinese art over a period of around 700 years, until 1000, when the complex was abandoned due to a decline in the Silk Road’s use. Around 2,400 clay sculptures are located here, including two giant seventh-century Maitreya Buddha statues, the largest over 116ft tall. The world’s oldest known printed book — the Diamond Sutra, dating to 868 AD and now in the British Museum — was among the manuscripts discovered here.

Gold seals from the King of Nanyue. Image: Corbis

Gold seals from the King of Nanyue. Image: Corbis

Mausoleum of the Nanyue King

The tomb of the Nanyue King Zhao Mo — who ruled from 137-122BC — was discovered in Guangzhou in 1983. Today, the site is protected by a red sandstone building, housing a museum showcasing many of the thousands of artifacts discovered at this site, including musical instruments, jade ornaments, gold seals and cooking utensils, along with the remains of 15 courtiers thought to have been buried alive in order to serve their master in the afterlife. The most significant item on display is Zhao Mo’s well-preserved burial suit, consisting of 2,291 pieces of jade stitched together with silk, a detail that makes this treasure unique. The seven-chambered tomb also yielded a chariot and items from elsewhere in Asia, including a silver box from Persia.

Dazu Rock Carvings. Image: Alamy

Dazu Rock Carvings. Image: Alamy

Dazu Rock Carvings

Between the ninth and 13th centuries, skilled craftspeople utilised the contours of the cliff faces near Dazu to create around 60,000 stone carvings. The sculptures have two focal points: Beishan, meaning the ‘north hill’, one mile from Dazu; and Baodingshan, which translates as ‘precious summit’, 10 miles to the north east. The sculpting is noteworthy for its rich variety of styles and subject matter. Zhao Zhifeng, a monk, oversaw the creation of the Tantric Buddhist shrines at Baodingshan, carved between 1179 and 1249, in a valley that’s 1,640ft long and 45ft high. They include a 103ft-long, red-painted Buddha, depicted entering nirvana, surrounded by mourners. To engineers, the site is noteworthy for its skilled water management and use of stone. The 26ft-tall figures of the three sages — Amidhaba, Puxian and Wenshu — protrude at a slight angle from the cliff face. The outer two carry pagodas in their hands, weight that’s ingeniously distributed using architectural techniques usually seen in balcony construction.

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