Sunday, 25 November 2007

The First Emperor

It's Sunday evening and I'm sitting on the sofa writing this blog and watching 'Cranford' on television at the same time so I reckon that means I'm multi-tasking. I'm also surrounded by a sea of paper that's drifted into the house via the letterbox: some of it needs shredding, some needs filing and yet more of it simply needs recycling, but there is one piece of paper I won't be throwing out immediately. It is the brochure describing the exhibition that's pulling in the crowds at the British Museum and that's 'The First Emperor, China's Terracotta Army'.

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be part of a focus group at the British Museum. This group spent most of the day, guided by facilitators, visiting exhibitions at the museum and discussing them afterwards. The results of these discussions will provide the museum staff with our opinions on what we thought worked well and what didn't. One of the threads that found its way into our conversations during the day was 'Isn't it great that we're getting to see the Terracotta Army as well!' The tickets for this exhibition are selling like hot cakes and rumour has it that visitors are queuing outside the museum every day from around 5.30 in the morning to snap up the 500 tickets that are released every day for sale. All our group had to do was turn up at the main gate at 9.15 am and be shown where to go and this made us feel very priviledged.

We congregated in the Great Court which is covered by a vast glass, domed roof which was installed in 2000 and is wonderfully light and shows off the sculptures to great effect but is very drafty to stand around in for too long. (Note for the future: wear more layers.) Once we had all arrived we were herded by our facilitators, gripping our notebooks and pencils in our hands, towards the entrance to the 'Terracotta Army' exhibition and encouraged to push aside the patiently waiting queue (remember they'd been waiting for hours) to arrive at the beginning of our journey 20 minutes before the paying public could go in.

Here we enjoyed, or endured, a nice piece of theatre. We had to navigate our way through a dark, narrow corridor with the only clue as to where we were going being the view of rows of books above us in the reading room to guide our way. Then we emerged into a lit area and had to ascend a flight of steps to reach the start of the exhibition which reminded me of climbing a pyramid. This served to create the atmosphere that we were entering a sacred space which was enhanced by the silence that surrounded us. There was the expected explanatory detail about the First Emperor who was born Ying Zheng in 259 BC and lived until he was 49 until 210 BC. He became the King of Qin when he was very young at the age of 13. The state of Qin was one of seven main states competing for power. Under his leadership Qin conquered the other states using highly developed weapons technology and military strategy. After his first campaign the King of Qin declared himself Qin Shihuangdi: First August Divine Emperor of the Qin. What a modest man he was!

As we proceeded around the exhibits we learned that the Emperor introduced reforms and enforced strict laws in order to govern his empire. Many of us were genuinely impressed that he established a standard weights and measures, a single currency and a universal script across the empire: all of this happened thousands of years ago. We were also surprised to discover that one of their measures for liquid is almost identical to our litre and that 'Qin' is pronounced 'Chin' which may be the origin for the name China. So we moved on past weapons, arrowheads and decorative glass vases but I was becoming impatient to see the warriors themselves. I skipped some of the exhibits so I could rush through the doorway that marked the division from life to the afterlife and finally gazed on the terracotta warriors.

There were about 14 in total - not the 7000 that the Emperor was buried with - but that didn't detract from the spectacle. The sculptures are life sized and originally would have been painted in bright colours. Every figure has individual features and their own personal clothing. One of them is a fat strongman which amused a number of us because he looked like a sumo wrestler. Another one had slouching shoulders and a concave chest. There was also an acrobat whose limbs were partially missing and there were life size horses pulling a wooden wagon. Archaeologists have also excavated civil officials and musicians, bronze chariots and birds in an area 56 km square. The tomb was more than 30 years in the making and once the Emperor had been buried the whole complex was concealed and seen by no-one until a farmer digging nearby found a terracotta head back in 1974. This exhibition deserves a second visit so next time I'll just have to go and join the queue and wait patiently like everyone else.