I was lucky enough to attend the press preview of the British Museum’s new show, The First Emperor, earlier today. Intimately enclosed within the Great Court’s reading room, it presents the largest group of important objects relating to China’s first Emperor—Qin Shihuangdi (秦始皇), who ruled from 221 to 210 BC—ever to be loaned abroad. It’s also set to be one of the most-visited shows in the history of the museum, with 160,000 advance bookings and a target of at least 500,000. It barely scratches the surface of the vast archaeological site in China the artefacts are drawn from, yet offers glimpses of the world over 2,000 years ago that are astonishing enough to induce a kind of historical vertigo.
Qin’s greatest legacy to the world is what UNESCO describe as the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, better known as the “Terracotta Army”—the largest and most elaborate tomb the world has ever known. Determined to live as gloriously in the afterlife as he had on earth, Qin had 700,000 workers spend almost four decades crafting an entire world for him to rule after death, and an army of over 8,000 fantastically detailed figures to rule it with. Discovered entirely by accident in 1974, its excavation is an ongoing mission that will not be complete even in my lifetime.
Seeing the figures in China—massed in battle formation in the pits they were buried in, beneath aircraft-hangar-sized roofs—is an awesome experience, and one that drenches visitors in the sheer scale and massed labour of Qin’s vision. The British Museum have, necessarily, opted for a quite different emphasis: on the First Emperor himself, and the astonishing force of will he brought to bear on his new empire, from the standardisation of its language, weights, measures, transport and laws to the beginnings of what would become the Great Wall.
It’s a far cry from the picturesque, “mystical” Orient of western myth-making, and all the better for it. This is China as the Chinese like to see it, with a proud and disciplined history of government, culture, invention and military might. In such an intimate setting, moreover, it’s the exquisite quality of the items on display that is most evident. The terracotta figures, astonishing as they are, took second place in my appreciation to the quite beautiful etched bronzes—ornamental bells and massive, elegant vases and urns. Moreover, as the Chinese know very well (and every major sign is conspicuously translated into Mandarin) these masterpieces were being created at a time when most of Europe, let alone the United States, consisted of tribes attacking each other with crude iron tools. Even ancient Greece and Egypt had nothing like this mastery of clay or metal.
Perhaps the greatest wonder of the show, though, is that which no-one has seen: the interior of the giant earth pyramid that is the Emperor’s actual resting-place, reputed to contain a miniature universe made of precious metals, stone and pearls, with mercury seas and gilded stars. Exploration of this has barely begun—largely because of the huge technical challenges involved—and the ongoing excitement of discovery is palpable in the exhibition’s orchestration, which guides you carefully through the Emperor’s life and times and his planing of the tomb before revealing its scale and riches.
There is also a great irony at the heart of it all. This incredible repository of art and information was the product of a brutal, futile egoism—the self-immortalisation of an all-powerful despot, intended for no-one but himself, built by criminals and slave labour, buried away from the eyes of the world. The First Emperor was his empire, which collapsed into civil war soon after his death, and as the exhibition makes clear he believed in a universe that literally centred on his own being. Yet of all history’s achievements, few are more enlightening or affecting than this most unenlightened and deluded of projects.