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China is a country which has long fascinated me, but I am yet to visit it. When I heard they were bringing some of the Terracotta Army to exhibit in London, I was very excited and booked my ticket. I actually opted for the Boxing Day deal, where they had dance shows and free Chinese tea and cake in addition to the exhibition itself.
It was a very powerful experience being around these ancient relics and reading about their histories. The queues were very long but well managed, and the entire exhibition took about 1 and a half hours to see everything.
It was very hard to find tickets but it was definitely worth it; it felt like a priviledge and an honour to be there. It's a shame it was not around for longer but it made it a bit more magical. If you can find some of the books that were sold at the British Museum in conjunction with the exhibition, I strongly recommend them.
It doesn't seem six months ago that we heard that The Terracotta Army was to leave the shores of China for the first time and take up temporary residence in The British Museum. This was an opportunity that simply could not be wasted as this exhibition may never find it's way to these shores again. We therefore booked tickets on-line and had a wide choice of availability in terms of time slots/dates given we were booking so far in advance.
Tickets cost £12 adults/child under 16 free so for 5 adults and a child it cost £66 including booking fee. Booking was a very simple process and all tickets are for a timed entry slot (ours was 11:30, Sunday 23 March 2008). However, given the exhibition is nearing an end all advanced tickets are sold out although up to 500 tickets (Monday - Friday) or 700 tickets (Weekend) are available on the day from the Museum. At the time we went there were few people in the queue for on the day tickets so try and get there as early as possible.
The First Emperor, Ying Zheng, was born 259 BC and was one of the world's great rulers. At the age of 13 he became King of Qin (pronounced Chin) one of seven states at war with each other and competing for power. He conquered the other states using highly developed weapons technology and military strategy and upon completion of his campaign declared himself Qin Shihuangdi: First August Divine Emperor of the Qin. He introduced strict laws and reforms bringing in a common language, standard weights & measures, a single currency and built 270 palaces in his capital city Xianyang, as a display of power and to house the rulers of the states he had conquered. A truly remarkable achievement given the sheer size and diversity of the seven warring states.
He wanted to govern forever and tried many potions to prolong his life. For over 30 years until his death in 210 BC he over-saw the building of his tomb complex, the centre of which stood his tomb which to this day remains undisturbed given it is surrounded by mercury, with no plans to excavate it. The reasons for building the complex and all the artifacts within it were to help in the afterlife. It is fair to say that the Terracotta Army has done him proud.
The presence of his tomb has been known for many years although it wasn't until 1974 when a local farmer was digging a hole for a well when he came across a terracotta head. He had discovered the first of what became three pits of around 7000 terracotta warriors and other artifacts. He had stumbled upon what was to become one of the world's most important archaeological sites covering an area of 56 square kilometers. Now I don't know how big this is but it is big and it is truly fascinating that an area this large can remain undiscovered for over 2000 years.
Over 30 years later the archaeologists have literally only scratched the surface of the site and to date around 7000 warriors have been found of which only around 1000 have been excavated. The site will clearly keep archaeologists in work for many years to come.
Now I don't know about anyone else but I had never heard of Yinh Zheng or Qin Shihuangdi but I have certainly heard about the Terracotta Army and watched in amazement the TV pictures showing the rows upon rows of soldiers in the original site. When I heard a selection were going to be on display in the UK then this was an opportunity not to be missed.
Firstly, I don't think there is a better place anywhere in the world for this exhibition to be shown. The British Museum is probably one of the largest and most famous museums in the world but when you add into the mix the Reading Room there where the exhibition resides then a more appropriate place is difficult to find (or more accurately mounted above the reading room floor). With the high vaulted, stunning ceiling and history seeping out of every crevice then it justifies housing such a phenomenal exhibition there.
The exhibition includes 120 pieces which in one way is disappointing given it provides no sense of the overall scale of things but the reality is it provides just enough of a flavour. What is good is that there is a specific order to the exhibition which promotes you to view it the correct way, take note of what you are seeing and how it fits in to the overall plans of Ying Zheng. When you first enter you are confronted by a kneeling Archer which even from a distance takes your breath away. The lighting is very dull and difficult to get used to but it does suit the exhibition given the artifacts are lit strategically. It is at this stage you become aware of the crowds and whilst the timed tickets help to control crowds enormously they only determine when you enter the exhibition and there is no restriction on how long you stay in there. It is initially frustrating that you cannot view the exhibitions without some jostling but be patient and your time will come. If you remain patient you will see everything there in its glory and read the history. If you decide to rush through something then you could miss some important information which means something else down the line doesn't make sense.
Starting at the history of The Warring States right through to the Mystery of the Tomb you are presented with both the history and physical evidence from the exhibits which build you up to the next step, whilst giving you a tantalizing glimpse of a Terracotta figure in the distance. Don't even be tempted to rush forward to view it though. Take your time. Take it all in and get to understand the man behind it. They have been around for over 2000 years and will certainly not be marching anywhere in the next hour or so.
The majority of exhibits are enclosed in glass cases but the main display isn't and whilst you cannot touch you can get up close and personal and walk between some of them enabling you to view them in great detail. There is also a miniature terracotta production line showing how they think the pieces were made. Whilst the bodies were largely a standard design each head was crafted individually and is unqiue.
Don't be misguided thinking this exhibition is about The Terracotta Army. It isn't - it is about Ying Zheng and his role in what has become modern China and perhaps a missed trick by the Marketing Department. The soldiers are but a part of both the exhibition and the contents of the tomb. In addition to the warriors there were also terracotta acrobats, weightlifters, archers, horses and bureaucrats (thought to be tax collectors!), armour as well as bronze birds and chariots. The sheer detail in each piece is truly amazing from the creases in the sleeves, whiskers on their chin and rippling of muscles in the headless weightlifter. This is another thing that I really admired as well. Where pieces were missing they resisted the urge to fill them in. What you saw is exactly what was found. The producers of these were clearly true artists.
I was also under the misconception that the figures were found intact. Again, this is not the case and they have photographs of the site showing thousands of pieces of broken clay which were painstakingly pieced together. Some of the exhibits have pieces missing or were clearly holding something when first made such as a sword, the wooden handles of which have rotted away. Again, the curators have declined not to guess what it was and so show it as it is.
This is a stunning exhibition and I would urge anyone to visit although time is running out. It is excellent value for money and an opportunity to view part of the world's history. Whilst it merely provides a glimpse of history of The First Emperor it provides an insight into his many achievements from a very early age.
It would be very easy to exit and feel under-whelmed and I would suggest that anyone who has had this feeling has not given the exhibition justice. You really need to take in everything including the written history (or even hire headsets for £3.50) and only then will you appreciate the exhibition for what it is. Do not be seduced by thinking this is about The Terracotta Army as it is much more than that.
The venue is both wheelchair and push-chair friendly but give yourself time to get around. Information is freely available in large print or Braille and there is an audio loop for the hard of hearing.
Unfortunately, photography is banned.
The exhibition runs from 13 Sep 07 - 6 April 2008. Address: The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG. Telephone: +44 (0)20 7323 8000/8299. Five minute walk from Tottenham Court Road Tube Station.