By Simon Gilbert
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Exhibition: The First Emperor

This article is over 14 years, 10 months old
British Museum, until 5 April 2008
Issue 318

In 1974 a farmer digging a well in China’s Shaanxi province stumbled upon one of the world’s most stunning archaeological finds, the terracotta warriors. The 7,000 or so life-size and incredibly detailed figures formed part of the vast burial complex of China’s first emperor, Qin Hsihuangdi. Around a dozen of these figures form the centrepiece of a new exhibition at the British Museum.

While the terracotta warriors are world famous, little is known here about the emperor himself, yet he was responsible for the unification of China in 221 BC – one of world history’s great turning points. The founding of the empire marked the culmination of several hundred years of warfare between rival kingdoms, a period aptly known as the “warring states”. But this wasn’t just an era of inter-state warfare; there were also intense conflicts between an emerging class of educated officials and the older aristocracy.

In the core states the entrenched aristocrats retained the upper hand, but in the more peripheral Qin state a bureaucracy came to dominate. This new form of state could mobilise huge numbers of people, not just for the army, but also for key economic projects. The building of two huge water control projects, both still in use today, was seen by the earliest Chinese historians as central to their victory. The increased manpower also enabled the construction of the emperor’s mausoleum as well as the first Great Wall.

The exhibition itself is thoughtfully laid out and the exhibits are beautifully presented. It includes a fascinating model, also made of clay, illustrating the process by which the warriors were made – one of the craftsmen is being beaten by an overseer.

Many of those involved in these projects were prisoners of war or conscripted labourers. Those who died in the construction of the wall, a tamped earth structure, not the later brick wall of the tourist pictures, are said to have been buried in the wall itself.

Eventually even the enormous resources of the empire were stretched to breaking point and the dynasty was overthrown. But the essential features of a new social order had been established, an order that would continue for more than 2,000 years and produce one of the world’s great civilisations. The First Emperor exhibition provides a fascinating glimpse into a society undergoing dramatic change.

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