China's ancient terracotta army set to march on British Museum

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The biggest exhibition of the terracotta army of Xian seen outside China is being planned by the British Museum.

The deal to bring to Britain a large number of the more than 8,000 figures buried with the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, 2,200 years ago is being brokered by the museum's director, Neil MacGregor. If the detailed negotiations are concluded successfully, the show would be the most dramatic result of a partnership signed between the two countries last year.

The Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, and Tony Blair, together with their museum leaders, signed a memorandum of understanding, agreeing to a programme of cultural engagement. It promised exchanges of treasures and skills as well as other joint projects.

Mr MacGregor held talks about the potential blockbuster show while on a visit to Shanghai last week where the British Museum has lent works for an exhibition on the treasures of Mesopotamia.

That follows the successful presentation of treasures of the British Museum, a show marking its 250th anniversary, in Beijing in March this year. Talks are also under way about an exhibition at the Palace Museum in Beijing examining the 18th century, when Britain emerged as a world power.

In return, the loan of the terracotta warriors, one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, would be an exciting coup. If China does agree to the loan, the public interest could rival that prompted by the exhibition of the treasures of Tutankhamun in 1972.

The show would showcase the warriors as the centrepiece of an examination of the importance of the first Qin Emperor. He was buried with his clay army in his own necropolis in 210-209BC.

The life-size warriors and horses were found in 1974 by farmers digging a well. Investigation into the site is continuing and the planned exhibition would include the latest archaeological finds.

A much smaller exhibition of warriors was seen in Britain in 1985 when some of the figures were exhibited at the City Arts Centre in Edinburgh. That was attended by more than 200,000 people.

In China, the army is popular with tourists, attracting nearly two million visitors a year.