China's terracotta army to invade British Museum

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When the First Emperor of China was buried, ceramic bureaucrats and acrobats were laid alongside him to cope with paperwork and keep him entertained in the afterlife.

The new finds are included in the biggest exhibition of treasures ever lent overseas from the emperor's burial site in Xian, which will open at the British Museum this September.

Examples of the famous terracotta warriors, which have been hailed as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, will also go on show.

The central Reading Room will be transformed at a cost of around £1m into a temporary gallery to cope with the thousands expected for what will be the largest show the museum has ever staged.

Neil MacGregor, the British Museum's director, said: "We are delighted to be able to give visitors the opportunity to see these important and iconic objects in London. They are key objects for understanding the history of China from 221BC to the present day."

The exhibition is about Qin Shihuangdi, a man who changed the world by uniting neighbouring states into one country, but he has been little known in Britain because of a failure to teach world history in schools, Mr MacGregor said."This is the man who made China, created the idea of China, created the oldest political entity that survives anywhere in the world.

"The China made by the First Emperor is in many recognisable aspects the China of today. We thought it very important the museum should address that."

What was extraordinary about the emperor was that his state was not as rich or culturally developed as its neighbours but he organised it better, added Jane Portal, the show's curator.

The existence of a burial tomb for Qin Shihuangdi was known to scholars through the words of Sima Qian, a historian, although he was writing 100 years after the emperor's death in 210 BC. The tomb was built over 37 years - from the moment he became king aged 13 - and was designed to ensure that he ruled forever.

But the vast underground complex was discovered only in 1974 by accident when peasants were digging a well. Nearly all that is now known about the emperor stems from excavations of the site, which measures 50 square kilometres - about the size of Cambridge.

A small exhibition of warriors was seen by 225,000 people in Edinburgh more than 20 years ago but many more mass-produced figures, including bureaucrats, acrobats and sculptures of birds, have been discovered since then.

Visitors see them up close in a way that is not possible in China, but Mr MacGregor warned they should book early. Comparisons are already being made with the exhibition of Tutankhamen treasures in 1972 which attracted 1.7 million people in nine months.

The exhibition will be followed by one dedicated to Hadrian to examine why the Chinese empire survived for centuries while the Roman empire declined.