Terracotta Worriers: the First Emperor exhibition, British Museum

First Emperor Terracotta Warriors exhibition at the British Museum 2007-8. Anna Chen
The First Emperor exhibition. Terracotta Warriors at the British Museum 2007-8

I was so looking forward to being Flavour Of The Month at home in Old Blighty for a moment or three, what with the excitement of the Beijing Olympics in August. But due to certain events at the roof of the world, any profile I might have enjoyed has been relegated to somewhere between Empress Ming The Merciless and the Evil Daughter of Fu Manchu. Here I am, plonked in the middle of a three-minute hate where someone’s lost the stopwatch. Less Anna the Honey and more Atilla the Hun.

Still, that’s showbiz. On with the show …

I caught the first and biggest of the UK China-themed events, the Terracotta Warriors at the British Museum, which drew to a close in April (Stop the presses!) having played to packed audiences. Which is understandable, because an hour after you’ve seen it, you want to go round again.

This being the adoptive home of the Elgin Marbles, the looted treasures of the pyramids, and assorted plunder from around the globe, it never was going to be a simple task for the curators. Unable to make up their minds whether the First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi was the heroic uniter of the seven warring kingdoms or one of the biggest baddies the ancient world had ever seen, the narrative of the display resembled a wolf caught in a trap, chewing off its own foot with the madness of its own contradictions.

But I enjoyed it. It was a good-looking beast, lit and designed by artists in the world famous Reading Room where Marx, Lenin and Orwell once studied and changed the world, though only Gandhi rated a biopic.

As an added bonus we sat in the Great Court cafe, afterwards, watching dusk fall, with an intrepid mouse foraging food off the floor around us. A magic moment.

Honey, they shrunk the warriors!
Honey, they shrunk the warriors!

The First Emperor, who united China in 221 BC, is said to have loved war. He said the only way to make everyone else enjoy his hobby was to make peacetime so horrible that they welcomed a bit of rape, pillage and bloodshed just for the relief. On the other hand, he did standardise measurements, weights, money, laws, taxes and much else that nailed this longest lived empire into place.

But his namesake of 2,500 years ago, the Yellow Emperor, also known as Huangdi, loved life. He was the Sting of his day, a practitioner of tantric sex, feeding off female energy, believing it would help grant him longevity. How sad that women never loomed as large in the First Emperor’s sex-life as they did in the Yellow Emperor’s. Women figured not at all in his after-life fantasy world according to the artefacts on show. There were soldiers, acrobats, musicians, civil servants and stable boys, but not a single female in sight.

Chinese women — invisible even in ancient China.

Here’s a tea-towel for the ladies. Holy merchandising!
Anna hosts the Terracotta Warriors Exhibition Live night at the British Museum
Anna hosts the Terracotta Warriors Exhibition Live night at the British Museum, 6 December 2007

The First Emperor Exhibition at the British Museum, 13 September 2007 to 6 April 2008

Ancient China chronology (from the First Emperor exhibition book, Editor Jane Portal):

2697 BC Mythical reign of the Yellow Emperor

2500 BC Jade artefact production

2000 BC Bronze-casting technology developed

1600 BC (previously 1766 BC) Beginning of the Shang dynasty

1700 BC Earliest known bronze ritual vessels

1500 BC first glaze used on ceramics

1350 BC earliest surviving Chinese writing found on oracle bones

1050 BC The Western Zhou dynasty begins

770-221 BC The Eastern Zhou dynasty

697-678 BC Duke Wu of Qin

604 BC Laozi, founder of Daoism, is born

551 BC Confucius is born (551-479 BC)

475 BC The Warring States period of the Easten Zhou dynasty begins

384-362 BC The reign of Duke Xian of Qin

372 BC Mencius is born

361-338 BC Reign of Duke Xiao of Qin

356 BC Legalist reforms in military and political affairs by Shang Yang empower Qin

325 BC First time title of “king” is adopted – King Huiwen of Qin

316 BC The state of Qin conquers Shu state

286 BC Qin conquers Song

259 BC Birth of Ying Zheng who will become Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor or huanghdi

256 BC Qin conquers Zhou

246 BC Ying Zheng becomes King of Qin at 13

230-225 BC Qin conquers the states of Han, Zhao and Wei

223 BC Qin conquers Chu

221 BC Qin conquers Qi and begins the Qin dynasty

215 BC Construction begins on the Great Wall

210 BC Qin Shihuangdi dies aged 49 and is entombed near Xian. His terracotta army is buried 1.5km to the east.

206 BC The Qin dynasty ends after only 15 years. The Western Han dynasty begins.

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