The First Emperor

This show was breaking records before it opened with 140,000 pre-booked tickets. It remains at the British Museum until April 2008 so you can still join them.

China is probably named after, Qin Shi Huangdi, who created it out of warring states and abolished feudalism. (Qin is pronounced ‘chin’.) His legacy has similarities with another great military empire emerging at that time, Rome. It united Europe and the near east, and not just with its army but also with its law and language.

The First Emperor unified the currency, weights and measures and introduced laws to apply throughout. Above all he standardised the script so it could be understood everywhere in his vast kingdom of many tongues. Latin was to play a similar role in Europe for centuries. He also defined China’s borders and built the first Great Wall which is said to be the only man–made edifice visible from space. Everything about this Emperor is huge. Qin Shi Huangdi was buried in Xian, in 210 BC, with a life size terracotta army some of whom have invaded the British Museum. Less than one percent of the site has been excavated, so we can only guess at the size of that army. That one percent is larger than a football pitch. You can have eye contact with life size terracotta warriors from the tomb site and with recently excavated models of acrobats, musicians and bureaucrats. The exhibition uses these famous objects to reveal the importance of this emperor in Chinese and world history.

Sima Qian (145-90 BC ) the great historian of early China saw the benefits of unification but also recorded the gross abuse of the people and the destruction of freedom of speech. The First Emperor was not keen on intellectuals, of Sima’s ilk. In my opinion, the last Great Emperor of China was Mao Zedong, who admired Qin Shi Huangdi and shared his dislike of scholars saying, ‘He buried 460 scholars alive: we have buried 46,000 scholars alive.’ Both of them burnt books, outlawed Confucianism, and organized a surveillance culture in which neighbours were expected to spy on each other.

The artist Qu Lei lei, whose one man show at the Ashmolean, in 2005, touched many hearts, was a teenager when the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution were unleashed on an unsuspecting populace. Lei lei was one of the five founding members of the avant- guard Stars Art Movement. I recalled seeing a painting he made in 1980, in the early days of the movement, based on the Terracotta Warriors (only discovered in 1974) of which there are twelve in this exhibition. My first impression was that these figures have individuality and may have been modelled on particular soldiers. Interestingly, Qu Lei lei did not react in the same way. He spent three and a half years in the Peoples Liberation Army during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and understands what it means to be a soldier in China. He also lectures on Chinese Art at the British Museum so I asked for his opinion on the First Emperor.

‘My hero is Jing ke who fought this cruel Emperor in an attempt to preserve the humanitarian thoughts of Con Fuxi (Confusius) and Lao Tzu (Daoism), Mencius and Hsun Tzu. They produced our most splendid philosophies and outlined a peaceful and harmonious way of life that did not depend upon supernatural belief. All of our greatest thought was produced before Qin Shi Huangdi. The Great Wall is a symbol of power but also of sadness and sorrow. One man died for every meter, possibly five million lives for what… to keep out the barbarian? That attitude held for two thousand years. What is outside is the ‘enemy’ and only now is that changing. If you believe in our common humanity that inward looking perspective is disastrous.’

Lei lei told the story of a folk heroine from that time is Meng Jiang Nu. ‘Her husband was among those conscripted to build the wall in the mountain wilderness. When she had no news of him she walked across China carrying his warm clothes and boots. When eventually she found men who had worked beside him, they told her he had died of exhaustion and like all the dead was buried beneath the wall. She sat where her husband was entombed and wept. The story goes that her grief was so great; her tears became a river that collapsed the section of wall where he was buried and delivered forth her husband’s body. Rule from the centre has continued ever since the First Emperor. The system he created stays the same, just the dynasty changes. Individual human life does not count for much.’

Lei lei painted a Lei lei among the warriors. As a soldier he felt like a cog in the machine of state; his image is intended to contrast with an attempt to corral individuals. To him, the features that differentiate the warriors are the idea of artists and craftsmen who made them and not a reflection of the attitude of their Emperor.

The exhibition is in the Great Reading Room. There is a wonderful irony, we walk on a floor erected over the desk where Karl Marx wrote ‘Das Capital’. He expected revolution would come in industrialised Britain and not in China. When it happened within ten years China was being ruled from the centre by one man! Visually this is a stunning show.