On Friday evening, thanks to friends who got us tickets, we went to the exhibition at the British Museum called The First Emperor – China’s Terracotta Army.
The army, a huge collection of fully armed warriors, together with vehicles and horses, all made out of terracotta (apparently by a company that originally made drainpipes!), was created for the first emperor of China in the second half of the third century BCE. This man, the first to conquer and unite the whole land, named himself Qin Shihuangdi, Emperor of Qin (pronounced roughly like the English word “chin”) and thus gave us a name for the new empire – China.
Obsessed by death – he survived at least three assassination attempts – the Emperor sought to live forever and pursued many projects to achieve this. Perhaps realizing at last that even he could not reign eternally on earth, he decided to create a huge and complex tomb from which to rule in the after life. Central to this eternal kingdom was an army of warriors, made of terracotta but bearing real weapons, slightly larger than life-size, who were to protect his person and perhaps engage in military conquest in other worlds.
The modern discovery of the tomb occurred in 1974 though it had been entered and robbed in antiquity. The wooden vehicles and harnesses have rotted away, the weapons have been stolen and the brightly coloured paint that decorated the warriors and made them more realistic has peeled and faded with time but something of their mystery and wonder remains. So much so that this army’s greatest conquest – conquest of the world – is now under way.
In our era when mass-production is the watchword, we might expect such a vast number of warriors to have been churned out from a few moulds but the remarkable fact is that they are all individual pieces and one cannot help wondering who the artists were and who served as their models.
Only a sample selection of warriors, horses and other artifacts are in the exhibition, of course, but they give some impression of what the tomb contains and fire our imagination at the thought of so powerful an Emperor, and the resources he could muster in order to carry out so mighty an undertaking, which took 30 years to complete.
The Chinese developed a great and sophisticated civilization almost entirely in isolation from the West. For this reason, the culture of China, its philosophies and art, its literature and even its basic concepts, often differ profoundly from our own while being no less successful in meeting the problems and ambitions of life. Hence the fascination we feel when we encounter China, her people and their ideas. The exhibition offers a fascinating glimpse into a critical moment of Chinese history and is well worth seeing.