China’s Terracotta Army

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by Jonathan TanThe brief seemed simple enough: travel to London to view the British Museum’s Terracotta Army exhibition and see whether it lived up to the hype.  Actually I had been oblivious to any hype.  How popular could it be?  Surely the principal reason the army is so impressive is the sheer scale of the work:  over eight thousand soldiers filling vast underground caverns.  Yet, in the case of the British Museum, there are fewer than twenty.  Still, it turns out these few statues are enough to turn the museum into something akin to a rock concert, and the British public into screaming, knicker-throwing teenage girls.  And I realise the cost of being part of this baffling phenomenon when my alarm clock sounds at 5am on a Saturday, and I’m forced to obey it.

The exhibition runs from September to April, but advance tickets are already sold out until January and are likely to sell out entirely within a month. Fortunately, five hundred are released every day for purchase at the museum. It is all for one of these precious tickets that I find myself in line at eight in the morning, a full hour before the gates even open. This, it seems, is just enough commitment to warrant sixtieth place in the queue. I ask the frontrunner what time he arrived. He shrugs. “About 6.30.” Nodding sleepily, I take my place in the line, which, within minutes, extends behind me, out of sight.

9am arrives and I’ve never been so glad to see it.  I trudge inside to take up position in a new queue. The £10 tickets are issued in timeslots to avoid overcrowding and the earliest times sell out first. Finding myself with an hour to wait, I foolishly decide to ascertain the length of the queue. Part accountant, part harbinger-of-doom, I shuffle down the entire line, informing those that ask of their predicament. There are over eight hundred people queuing for five hundred tickets, and it’s only 9.20 am.

I queue again (briefly) to actually enter the exhibition. By this point, the anticipation has me expecting the archaeological equivalent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Instead, I find myself in the Reading Room, a reasonably large, circular area with a high, ornate ceiling. The exhibition itself is modern, with temporary stages erected, but I can see rows of old bookshelves just behind the makeshift walls. 

The atmosphere is a welcome relief from the chaos outside. Thanks to the timeslots, the exhibition is uncrowded, even peaceful, and there is ample time and space with which to savour the presentations. The magnificence of the history is unquestionable, but I want to view the displays for what they are, without feeling as if I’m obligated to bow in reverent awe, so I’m less than pleased by the opening chunks of information. The First Emperor ‘was unique in both life and death’ claims the British Museum which makes me wonder if it was them who started all the hype. Thankfully, most of the placards let the facts speak for themselves. 

This is not simply a display of ceramic figures, but an intriguing immersion into the Qin Empire. As I follow the layout, I am schooled in culture, history and architecture, before learning about the archaeological site itself. The Emperor, who viewed himself as an eternal, universal ruler, was driven to create an entire world for his afterlife out of a terrible fear of death.

“He wanted to live forever!” exclaims one lady behind me.

“So do we all,” replies her elderly friend dryly.

It’s interesting, but it’s all foreplay.  Everyone’s looking for the main exhibit.

There are about twenty complete terracotta warriors and horses displayed together (the largest ever collection outside of China), and numerous security guards watching over them, presumably on edge ever since an environmental protestor managed to sneak face masks on them.  Indeed, when one observer leans in too close, the tranquillity is shattered by alarms.  A guard surreptitiously whispers to me that one of the ‘objects’ in the display is worth £1.5 billion (approximately the GDP of a small country such as Suriname), but refuses to say which one.  I retain a healthy scepticism about his claim.
The figures themselves are slightly more than life-sized, uniquely detailed, staring impassively through two thousand years of history, betraying nothing of the pain that went into their creation.  It is certainly a privilege to be able to stand so close to such essential historical artefacts and I even find myself shivering- although it later transpires I’m standing on an air vent.

If the exhibits answer copious questions, they also raise some more.  Why may archaeologists never excavate the Emperor’s tomb itself?  What mysteries lie inside?  And still the question persists: why exactly is this relatively small exhibition so popular?  It is fascinating and well-designed, yet the hordes of people clamouring for tickets must expect something more.  Perhaps for some it is the chance of a lifetime, their only opportunity to confront such mythical heritage.  If not the statues themselves, perhaps it is the idea that compels.  The sheer audacity and grandeur and madness of one man.  Yet as I leave the museum, I see the last remnants of the queue and, gazing at their forlorn expressions, I wonder where the madness really lies.

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