The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army

Sponsored by Morgan Stanley

13 September 2007 – 6 April 2008
Reading Room
Admission charge

The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army  – a major loan exhibition - will open at the British Museum on 13 September 2007. The exhibition will feature the largest group of important objects relating to the First Emperor ever to be loaned abroad by the Museum of the Terracotta Army and the Cultural Relics Bureau of Shaanxi Province in Xi’an, China. The exhibition will be housed in the Reading Room at the heart of the Museum which has been temporarily converted for this purpose.

The majority of the 120 objects loaned come from the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, a tomb complex which is unparalleled in terms of its extent and magnificence. Arguably the most famous archaeological site in the world, it was discovered by chance by villagers in 1974, and excavation has been ongoing at the site since that date.

The exhibition will feature around a dozen complete terracotta warrior figures of different ranks. An extraordinary feat of mass-production, each figure was given an individual personality although they were not intended to be portraits. Displayed alongside these iconic figures will be examples of significant recent finds which have very rarely been seen outside of China. Since 1998 figures of terracotta acrobats, bureaucrats, musicians and bronze birds have been discovered on site; designed to administer to or entertain the Emperor in his afterlife they are of crucial importance to our understanding of his attempts to control the world even in death.

The exhibition will demonstrate the historical and archaeological context of these famous objects, as well as detailing the most recent research and excavation. It will also present a reassessment of the First Emperor himself, the man who created China as a political entity.

Jane Portal, exhibition curator, said “The chance discovery of the terracotta army astounded the world. This exhibition will provide a wonderful opportunity to see these extraordinary objects close up and to learn about an empire which at its height was the rival of Rome and was to prove historically more enduring.”

The exhibition, sponsored by Morgan Stanley, provides an unrivalled opportunity to see these iconic examples of Chinese culture in the UK. A face to face encounter with these extraordinary objects will give the visitor a chance to understand China’s past, its present and possible futures.

For information or images please contact Hannah Boulton on +44 (0)20 7323 8522, hboulton@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk or

Benjamin Ward at Brunswick Arts on +44 (0)20 7937 1297, bward@brunswickgroup.com

Exhibition structure and design

The exhibition will be the first to take place in the temporarily converted Reading Room in the Museum. Exhibition designers Metaphor have worked with the British Museum to create a space which will capture the power and drama of the objects on display. The exhibition will examine the First Emperor’s life, his unification of the country and his military prowess. It will look at his achievements, the innovations he introduced and the monuments he constructed. The second section of the exhibition will focus on his quest for eternal life, how he prepared to rule the universe in death from his tomb. The exhibition will also explore the myths and mysteries associated with this important historical figure. Not the least of which is the fact that whilst we have a great deal of information from the surrounding excavations, the tomb mound of the First Emperor himself is still sealed and could contain even greater treasures.

Further background on the First Emperor:

The First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, (r.221-210BC) is a crucial figure in China’s long history. In 221 BC he unified the country to create what we now know as China, the oldest surviving political entity in the world. The initial construction of the Great Wall began under his reign and he presided over the standardisation of currency and script, representing a huge step towards the development of China as a nation.

Preparations for the construction of the First Emperor’s tomb complex began shortly after he became King of the state of Qin (pronounced ‘chin’) and were left uncompleted when he died. Though the tomb mound had long been visible above ground, the terracotta figures came as a surprise to all when they were discovered, as they are not mentioned in any written record.

The terracotta army was constructed to guard the Emperor in the afterlife and to oversee military matters. But recent finds have proved that the First Emperor was as concerned with his civilian administration after death. In 1999, eleven terracotta acrobats and strong men were found near to the tomb mound, these were designed to entertain the Emperor in the afterlife. Terracotta civil officials and scribes were found in October 2000, and a year later a bronze bird pit was discovered featuring life-size bronze geese, swans and cranes.

The new finds have contributed to a deeper understanding of the First Emperor and his many achievements. He was one of the greatest military leaders of all time. Building on his state’s martial prowess and his organisational and strategic skills, he succeeded in unifying of all of the ‘Warring States’ into the Qin empire. It is thought that the western name for China probably derived from Qin, the First Emperor’s home state, which became the name of the entire country during his rule.

Civilian and cultural achievements followed his military success, including the establishment of a unified law code, coinage, script and system of weights and measures. The First Emperor also developed a centralised bureaucracy to administer the new state. He travelled around the country he had conquered, setting up inscriptions on stelae proclaiming his achievements, building gigantic palaces and initiating architectural projects on a grand scale. After a series of assassination attempts, he became obsessed with his own immortality and tried many different potions made for him by alchemists at court. These may have included phosphorous and balls of mercury which he thought would secure eternal life. They failed and the First Emperor died suddenly in 210 BC.

The First Emperor has been seen in both positive and negative lights throughout history and his legacy is still the subject of much debate. It is precisely because of the limitations of the historical sources for the First Emperor that the archaeological evidence from his tomb is so important. These artefacts are tangible evidence of the First Emperor’s existence, his great achievements and his vision.  In fact, they have indeed ensured that he lives forever, although perhaps not quite as he had originally planned.

Notes to Editors:

  • Tickets can be booked online at www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/firstemperor or by calling the Box Office on +44 (0) 20 7323 8181
  • An accompanying catalogue will be published by British Museum Press. ‘The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army’ edited by Jane Portal costs £40 (hardback) and £25 (paperback) and will be available from August 2007
  • Morgan Stanley is a leading global financial services firm providing a wide range of investment banking, securities, investment management, wealth management and credit services.  The Firm's employees serve clients worldwide including corporations, governments, institutions and individuals from more than 600 offices in 30 countries. Morgan Stanley supports an extensive programme of cultural and educational projects, believing firmly in the benefits these bring to the communities in which the Firm operates.  For further information about Morgan Stanley, please visit www.morganstanley.com.
  • An accompanying education programme for UK schools has been developed in partnership with Morgan Stanley. More information is available from the press office
    A full public programme will accompany the exhibition. More information is available from the press office.
    The alterations in the Reading Room will be completely reversible and the library currently housed in the Reading Room will be accessible in a temporary space beyond the Enlightenment Gallery.
    This exhibition is part of a series of collaborations between the British Museum and museums in China. The British Museum has recently sent a number of successful touring exhibitions to venues in China and memoranda of understanding signed with key Chinese partner museums will ensure curatorial exchange, skill sharing and collaboration between institutions.
  • Metaphor are architects, masterplanners and exhibition designers for museum and cultural projects - www.mphor.co.uk
  • After the run at the British Museum, the exhibition will travel to the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia between 15 November 2008 and 26 April 2009. For more information about the High, please visit www.high.org