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Museum: First Emperor

The First Emperor exhibition is another impressive job by the British Museum – it is well done and informative as well as being splendid to observe. You really should take the chance to see the Terracotta Warriors of Qin Shihuang up close – the exhibition is on until April next year, although you can’t get a Saturday slot until the next year – and admire the impressive detail of one man’s enormous ego and desire for immortality.

A brief bit of history: Yeng Zheng was the king of Qin, one of the seven warring states of the country that would become the basis for what we now know as China. After killing lots of people (via having a huge army that was well organised and armed with weapons produced to high quality on a massive scale), he declared himself First August Divine Emperor and started laying down his legacy. He standardised the written language, weights and coins, started building the predecessor of the Great Wall (the one we know is from the Ming dynasty), built a ridiculous number of palaces, and built the grandest monument to himself in the form of his burial chamber and associated aspects for his rule in the next world, the most famous being the Terracotta Warriors, found several miles to the west of his burial mound.

If you have seen the army in Xi’an, you don’t forget the spectacle of seeing hundreds of warriors in rows, slightly larger than life and all different, standing for eternity to protect their emperor. It is a staggering sight, standing in what is essentially an aircraft hangar and looking down on these mass-produced sculptures from over two thousand years. What you don’t get to see as much of are the warriors up close; there are a few in air-tight glass cases, but the ones open to air are a distance away from you. The British Museum allow you to see them in the flesh, as it were.

The Library in the centre of the museum has been turned into the location for the exhibit, containing short films to set the scene, artefacts from the time and informative notes to help you understand something of the time. The centrepiece is the selection of pieces from the Xi’an find, set in the middle of the room, and all at arms’ length. Although there are a couple of archers in glass cases (to protect the remnants of the original paint that has been lost on the majority of pieces), there are about a dozen pieces in the open – some infantrymen, a standing archer, two generals (very rare), a charioteer, as well as other pieces to show that it wasn’t just a large bodyguard but also everything necessary for life in the afterworld: some bureaucrats to run affairs of state, an acrobat and a strong man to entertain, and some musicians playing to cranes.

It is completely fascinating and truly amazing; even though you know about all the people who died making these (Qin Shihuang had all the labourers of the terracotta figures entombed alive with him in his burial chambers), it is still a startling reflection of one man’s obsession with himself. Seeing it up close brings this home even more. I did not see the figures in this exhibition in Xi’an (they were in Rome at the time), so I now have seen the complete set, and this showcase complements the awe and majesty of seeing the multitude in their original location. Go see it.

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