Feat of clay

Andrew Lambirth
Spectator, The London

Sep 14, 2007 20:00 EDT

The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army British Museum, until 6 April 2008 Sponsored by Morgan Stanley

Here's a show to pull in the public. More than 100,000 advance tickets already sold (Michelangelo's drawings, though popular, sold only a fifth of that before it opened), and so much media coverage you scarcely need my review. Except, of course, that most of what passes for reporting is ill-informed and simply parrots the party line of press release and salesmanship.

In other words, it's just another form of advertising, which is why the art institutions of our country are desperate to get it -- the life-support system of free publicity apparently necessary to the economic survival of museums. So often exhibitions are invented around an idea which someone (or a committee) hopes will be popular, because they need the turnstile revenue and the visitor numbers. Even great institutions are guilty of this, and sometimes scholarship is put on the back-burner in favour of sensation or popularism. But there are also, from time to time, properly scholarly yet accessible exhibitions which touch a chord with the public. The First Emperor is that rare item.

The man who gave himself this primary title has been called one of the greatest military leaders and administrators in history, far more impressive than Alexander the Great, Caesar or Napoleon. Accounts of him vary, with historians showing their teeth (and their prejudices) in typical fashion when subsequently writing up his achievements. His great cruelty and ruthlessness were legendary, but based on what facts? It seems that many of the more colourful stories attached to him, such as the occasion when he ordered a mountain to be stripped of its trees and painted red to punish the mountain god for causing a storm, were later inventions. (Shame. ) 'The Tiger of Ch'in', as Leonard Cottrell called him in his 1962 bestseller, was an inspired autocrat who as Ying Zheng became King of Qin (pronounced Chin) in the west of the country in 246 BC, before conquering the other six major kingdoms of China and unifying them for the first time. Thus was China created as a political entity, its currency and script standardised, its bureaucracy centralised; 120,000 of the most powerful and wealthy families were uprooted and moved to the new capital of Xianyang. Ruthless?

You might say so. Great achievements have never been built by committee.

The country was transformed. When Ying Zheng became Qin Shihuangdi, the First August Great Qin Emperor, or Thearch, in 221 BC, he began an early form of the Great Wall against raiding nomads, the muchfeared northern barbarians. To facilitate its maintenance and garrisoning he built a Straight Road north to the frontier, part of a new communications network which included speedways with a privileged centre lane for the Emperor himself. He encouraged new ideas about the universe and the connection of the cosmos with the earth, mapping his own buildings as a mirror to the dispositions of the stars, with himself at the centre as supreme authority. As he commanded an inscription to read: 'The bright virtue of the August Emperor aligns and orders the whole universe.' Modest chap.

But he was not content with dominating his bit of the living world; he wanted to control the spirit world also. He saw himself as ruling over the community of the dead, and thus his grave complex had to be fully and adequately caparisoned for a great and unique ruler. The year that Ying Zheng became King of Qin he ordered work to start on his tomb; 700,000 workmen were drafted into the area to construct the massive site. When he died suddenly 36 years later, his quest for eternal life cut short, it was still unfinished, though the magnificence we experience today is remarkable enough. Fear of bad luck preserved the site and for more than 2,000 years it remained buried to world view until a family of local farmers accidentally dug it up in 1974. Since then, the Terracotta Army has captured the popular imagination, with its rows of lifesize clay warriors guarding the Emperor. There are estimated to be some 7,000 figures, most of them still underground, awaiting rediscovery as the slow patient work of archaeological retrieval goes on.

The British Museum's exhibition is built round a dozen terracotta warriors and has been superbly installed in the historical Reading Room. Sydney Smirke's worldfamous mid-19th-century round room has seldom held more distinguished occupants. The great dome soars palely above some 120 objects from the tomb of the First Emperor, creating a setting which is quite simply stunning. Coupled with this, the exhibition design has been brilliantly conceived and immaculately executed. There's a real feeling of spaciousness throughout (though admittedly I was privileged to see the show before it was officially opened and therefore fairly empty of people), with the exhibits arranged in large glass display cases and viewable from both sides. The visitor entering the exhibition as it winds around the circular space is greeted first by a kneeling terracotta archer and then by cases of less dramatic objects such as bells (one bo and three zhong), arrowheads, weapons such as sword and lance, and a bronze percussion instrument called a chunyu.

There is a danger at this point that the impatient visitor, who has after all really come to see the warriors, will press on swiftly to the heart of the maze to find them, thus ignoring or giving scant attention to the fascinating artefacts on the way. There are many things worth pausing for, while on the walls of the Reading Room itself are projections of contextual images and explicatory film. Among the less martial exhibits are a fine bronze garlic-headed vessel, perhaps for wine, a mirror, and a beautiful gold and silver inlaid basin. A trough-like wine-warmer enables wine to be warmed in the cup by placing burning embers beneath it, while a rare jade beaker reminds the viewer that eating or drinking from jade or gold was thought to prolong a person's life.

Among the more choice items is a miniature solid gold wash basin and a gold tiger fitting. A bluey-green bronze Edict, stating that standard weights and measures are to be used throughout the Empire, is the stuff to make the EU envious.

Among the other objects of interest are a measuring cup looking like a tortoise at rest, bronze architectural detailing (reinforcements for wooden beams), and a discarded mass of collapsed roof tiles. Also pigeonshaped pottery roof-ridge decorations, tile ends with frog, dragon or deer designs on them, and a wooden model of the imperial palace. Drainpipes, paving and a modern fibreglass reconstruction of how the workers made the terracotta army are all part of the preamble to the central exhibits. And then finally we are in the presence of these extraordinary lifesize figures. Eight warriors and five horses with a replica wooden chariot. Another chariot with four bronze horses half-lifesize. A more recent find excavated in 1999, a heavily-built strongman and an acrobat to amuse the Emperor in the halls of the dead. And two civil officials to ensure the smooth running of his administration.

Note on their belts the knife and grindstone without which no self-respecting bureaucrat would be properly dressed. The grindstone is to sharpen the knife, and the knife is an eraser to remove mistakes from the bamboo strips on which they wrote.

In a cabinet nearby are examples of the bronze knife and grindstone. You can look from them to their sculpted representations to the projected backdrop on the wall behind of the serried ranks of the warriors in situ. Other curious objects are here: a coffin for an exotic bird or animal, a model of a granary. A kneeling stableboy or groom.

Stone armour. But perhaps the most poignant exhibits of all are the most recent finds: two terracotta musicians, one sitting, one kneeling, with three bronze birds. The musicians are about to play and the tame birds -- a swan, a goose and a crane -- are about to dance, as they have been trained to do.

It's a magical tableau.

Final displays demonstrate how brightly coloured the cast terracotta figures would originally have been (although there is great variety among the warriors, there are at least eight basic face moulds, and the body parts would have been mass-produced, though individually assembled and accessorised), rather like the Greek temples and sculptures which look so glorious to our eyes in their pristine whiteness. A modern reconstruction makes a kneeling archer look hopelessly garish. Better by far to salute what is now the real thing, in all his dun and biscuity livery, by the exit. The show is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue (

© 2007 Spectator Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Source: Spectator, The London