We went to the British Museum today to see The First Emperor exhibition. We had booked online about a month ago, and it wasn’t too crowded when we arrived – only 500 tickets are allocated for each day and they had been sold out hours earlier. I brought my Hearing Dog and not a single person stopped me and queried my dog, I was really really impressed with that. They had lots of information guides in Braille and large print, and headphone sets for hearing people – but, nothing for deaf people. If the Tate can provide BSL guides, why can’t the British Museum? The BM do have BSL tours but you had to go and ask a staff member for details (brilliant thinking if you can only sign and the staff can’t sign back). There were plenty of little signs attached to the exhibits with information about them, and the film clips were, amazingly, subtitled. So I did manage to gain a lot of information during the time I spent there.
I had heard of The First Emperor but didn’t know anything about him. He was born Ying Zheng in 259BC and became King of Qin when he was 13. Qin was a small region in China. He developed sophisticated weaponry and military strategy, and conquered the other main Chinese states, and declared himself the Emperor of China – and of the Universe! Egotistical wasn’t in it.
What I really liked were all the additional exhibits which added depth to the exhibition. Not just the terracotta warriors were being shown, as I had thought. A single currency was ordered to be used – the coinage was round with a square hole because this signified earth under heaven, as the circular shape represents Heaven, the square hole, Earth.
The First Emperor also commanded that a single script be used. The script has changed so much, it’s quite different from modern Chinese characters. It’s an ancient style of Chinese calligraphy called unified small seal script, cave drawing style.
He built more than 270 palaces in his capital city of Xianyang, which housed the rulers of the states he conquered. Each palace was furnished with the war goods from that region. Walls were joined between states to create the First Great Wall. The belt holders and jewellery were to die for – such amazing craftsmanship.
The most fascinating part of the collection were the items that had been discovered underneath the ground. The First Emperor wanted to live forever, and built a tomb with an underworld complex reminiscent of the Egyptians. His tomb took more than 30 years to build. Film clips in the exhibition show the extent of the underground complex – it was huge. Seven thousand terracotta soldiers have been found buried outside the tomb, and there are likely to be many more, made to guard the First Emperor in the afterlife. Only a few had been brought to the exhibition.
They were individual, with different expressions, hairstyles, and clothing. They were a little larger than a real life soldier at 6′ – 6′ 5″ and were absolutely stunning, even though the colourful paints had worn off with exposure to sunlight.
The First Emperor died when he was 49, one year after the tomb was completed. Over 700,000 workers had been used to build the tomb and the terracotta army, many of them had been worked to death, and thousands were buried with the First Emperor, so no-one would know the location of the tomb. Spooky! The Emperor’s 3,000 harem was buried alive with him as well – these women were told they would get eternal life with him, so they went to their deaths quite willingly. The farmer who discovered the terracotta warriors in 1974 lost his farmland and was paid 30 yuan (worth £2.14 today) in recompense, but he is now quite happily making money out of his notoriety, posing for photos with tourists.
Amazingly, the tomb has still not been excavated, as geological tests have shown high mercury readings under the tomb. The man-made mountain is larger than the Giza pyramids, protected by hair-trigger crossbows and is rumoured to contain a scale model of his empire with rivers of mercury. The underground complex is littered with bronze birds and chariots, pottery musicians, entertainers, and horses – all of which had an example shown in the exhibition. Every pottery item was individual. The terracotta soldiers had held real weapons (many stolen by the Hans) and wore armour made specially for them in jade and stone.
This exhibition totally wowed us over.