Terra-cotta Lessons  

As the old saw goes, “You can’t take it with you.” Even though we know better, we still gather up the stuff of our lives, organize it, polish it, insure it, and pass it on—keepsakes of this journey. We hope that by the work we do that we will be remembered when we are gone. We write books. Put our handprints in cement. Throw pots.

Last year, I traveled to China to visit my son who was teaching English in Hangzhou. Together, we toured some of that enormous country before traveling on to Xi’an to experience the terra-cotta army of Emperor Qin. I checked one more item off my bucket list and came away changed forever. According to the guidebook, construction of Qin’s terra-cotta army took “38 years, from 247 BC to 208 BC.” Qin died in 210 BC, two years before his tomb was entirely finished.

He amassed a collection of life-size warriors, horses, and chariots that fills three pits roughly the size of a football field. Originally, huge timbers supported the pits. An elaborate framework divided them into corridors and separate rooms with fiber matting overhead. Each of the figures was assembled from clay molds. Each wore a different facial expression and was brightly painted and arranged in formations that indicated their place in Qin’s army, palace, or civic organization and hierarchy.

As a potter, I couldn’t help but notice how the figures featured strategically placed holes that might have accommodated their being moved and shifted into position or that would have allowed for steam to escape during firing, preventing cracks in the clay. Some of the same moves we make in the studio today have been in potters’ tool kits for millenia and were conspicuous in the buried terra-cotta. It was thrilling to see.

World leaders have visited the site, and traveling exhibitions have brought examples of the terra-cotta warriors to museums in cities around the globe. Archaeologists and preservationists continue to dig and to study and interpret Qin’s life and death and what he left behind. The sight has continued to resonate for me, too.

I know full well that I can’t take any of this life’s “stuff” with me. Staring at the expansive pits and trying to understand Qin’s intentions and motivations may have been an act of futility, but one thing does seem clear, the ceramic arts is a tradition that employs skills across time, bridges cultures beyond miles, and fully engages the intricate mysteries and the profound importance of creative endeavor. We welcome you to join us.

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