SYLVIA VETTA talks to the Chinese artist Qu lei lei about The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Warriors at the British Museum.

This show was breaking records before it opened with 140,000 tickets sold. It remains at the British Museum until April so you can still join them to see the largest display of the famed warriors outside of China.

Only discovered in 1974 in Xian, less than one per cent of the 7,000-strong terracotta army – larger than a football pitch – has been excavated. The First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, wanted to live for ever. He directed 700,000 men to build a tomb and necropolis. It covers 22 square miles and took more than 30 years.

Now 12 of these guards to the emperor are on display here. You can have eye contact with the life-size warriors from the tomb site and with recently excavated models of acrobats, musicians and bureaucrats. There is a pair of generals, two archers and infantrymen followed by a cavalryman and his horse. A wooden chariot manned by a terracotta charioteer and pulled by four terracotta horses is at the rear. Visually, a stunning show.

But the exhibition is not just important for the opportunity to see these astonishing artefacts. They reveal the importance of Qin Shi Huangdi in Chinese and world history.

China is probably named after Qin Shi Huangdi (Qin is pronounced chin’), who created it out of warring states in the third century BC. His legacy has similarities with another great military empire of that time, Rome, and not just with its army.

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.

Qin Shi Huangdi also defined China’s borders and built the Great Wall. Sima Qian, 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. He had 460 scholars buried alive. The last ‘Great Emperor’, Mao Zedong, admired him 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 organised a surveillance culture in which neighbours were expected to spy on each other.

The artist Qu lei lei, whose acclaimed one-man show visited the Ashmolean Museum in 2005, lectures on Chinese art at the British Museum.

Lei lei was a teenager when the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution were unleashed. He was one of the five founding members of the avant-garde Stars Art movement. I recalled seeing a painting he made in 1980, in the early days of the movement, based on the terracotta warriors (see right).

My first impression was that these figures had been modelled on particular soldiers. But Lei lei painted himself among them. He spent more than three years in the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution and understands what it means to be a soldier in China.

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.

So how did he view the First Emperor?

“My hero is Jing ke, who fought this cruel emperor in an attempt to preserve the humanitarian thoughts of Con Fuxi (Confucius) 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 metre, possibly five million lives, for what? To keep out the barbarian? That attitude held for 2,000 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.

“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.” The exhibition is in the Great Reading Room. There is a wonderful irony as 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. Within ten years of the revolution China was being ruled from the centre by one man.

The First Emperor exhibition is at the British Museum in Great Russell Street until April 6, 2008. To book call 020 7323 8181 or visit the first emperor website.