The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army
 by Ya & Shi

China's terracotta army represents one of the most significant archaeological finds in the 20th century.  While the existence of the tomb of the First Emperor is well known and well chronicled (more about this later), the discovery of an extensive necropolis and the terracotta soldiers didn't occur until relatively recently, in 1974, and happened completely by chance. 

The Exhibition at the British Museum

There's something ironic about viewing an exhibition on China's First Emperor in the celebrated Reading Room of the British Museum.  Ostensibly, this is a story about China and The First Emperor, who unified China in 221 BC by defeating other kingdoms and established a preferred system of writing and standardized weights and measures.  But one is also reminded about the vicissitudes and the rise and fall of Great Powers.  By the time the British Empire was at the peak of its powers, China was on the decline.  The Reading Room, the site of the current exhibition, was where Karl Marx and many others toiled, and Marx's theories influenced the development of modern China.  Now China is once again on the ascent, and an exhibition on China has taken London by storm.  To cope with the incredible demand, the British Museum remains open until midnight from Thursdays through Sundays.  I visited on a Sunday night at 10:30 pm.

I found the exhibition a little disappointing.  There were only about 20 terracotta figures on view.  The underground mausoleum covers an area of around 56 sq. km, and though I've never been to the actual site, I can imagine one's awe at seeing entire platoons of soldiers.  The 20 figures represented a tiny fraction of the 7000 or so in the complex.  Interestingly many of the figures are over 6 feet tall:  This is remarkable since men during the Qin period were most likely much shorter than Chinese men today.  Perhaps the First Emperor felt that a slighly larger than lifesize army would better protect him from enemies after death.

However the exhibition compensated for the lack of quantity with a sense of intimacy.  I was able to view the figures closely and admire their individual features.  I learned that the figures were probably manufactured in assembly-line style, with groups of workers responsible for various parts.  There were even quality control stamps from the various groups so that defects could be traced.  Some of the figures were initially painted.  But each figure still looked distinctive despite the manufacturing process. 

According to the book edited by Jane Portal (reference below), under certain assumptions, "the production of the 7000 soldiers breaks down to not more than seven completed sculptures per year and per team."  (p. 179)   It's been conjectured that construction of the soldiers took at least 12 years.

The objects chosen for the exhibition represented a thoughtful sample.  Not all the terracotta figures were soldiers or warriors.  There were also officials and entertainers (such as acrobats).  The mausoleum represented a way to provide for the First Emperor in his afterlife, and other artifacts, including bronze chariots and animals (such as swans and birds) were also unearthed and included in the exhibition.  Finally other objects in the exhibition, including utensils, weights and measures, money, gold, jewelry and jade, gave a sense for what life under Qin dynasty rule was like.

Mysteries Surrounding the Burial Chamber

The most fascinating features of the mausoleum will perhaps remain a mystery forever.  As the exhibition pointed out, the actual tomb has not yet been excavated, though its site is well marked by a mound shape and its existence has been chronicled by the historian Sima Qian (司馬遷) in his book Records of the Historian (史記), written about a century after the First Emperor's death.   While Sima Qian makes no mention of the surrounding necropolis and pits, he intriguingly offers the following description of the interior of the burial chamber:  "Craftsmen were ordered to set up crossbows and arrows, rigged so that they would immediately shoot down anyone attempting to break in.  Mercury was used to fashion the hundred rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, and the seas in such a way that they flowed.  Above were set the heavenly bodies were, below, the features of the earth.  'Man-fish' oil was used for lamps, which were calculated to burn for a long time without going out."  (p. 126) 

The translation comes from the book edited by Jane Portal, and the original Chinese passage by Sima Qian can be found on a Wikipedia page.  The book summarizes various scientific studies that suggest that there's indeed mercury in the burial chamber as indicated by Sima Qian and that the mercury's concentration corresponds to the distribution of the bodies of water in China.  Studies also suggest that the burial chamber is still relatively well preserved even after 2200 years.  There's even support for an underground drainage system that's still functioning and keeping the burial chamber dry.


  • Reviews in the British press:
    1. Telegraph (For a slideshow, click the "In Pictures" link) 
    2. Times UK 
    3. Guardian

  • Next venues for the exhibition:  
    1. Press release 
    2. Bowers Museum (May 18, 2008 -- Oct. 12, 2008) 
    3. High Museum (Nov. 16, 2008 -- April 26, 2009) 
    4. Houston Museum of Natural Science (May 18, 2009 -- Sept. 25, 2009) 
    5. National Geographic Society Museum (Nov. 19, 2009 -- March 31, 2010) 

  • The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army, Jane Portal, editor
    1. US version 
    2. UK version 

I've included two links to Amazon for the book edited by Jane Portal.  The US edition is published by Harvard whereas the UK one is published by the British Museum.   Notice the price differences between the two.  I wish that I had waited until I returned to the US to buy the book!  Instead, I paid 35 pounds for it at the British Museum bookshop.


© 2008 Ya & Shi

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