Armoured infantryman, terracotta, Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). Museum of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shihuang, Lintong, Shaanxi Province, China. Photography British Museum.

The Still-Standing Army of Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor of China

Kneeling archer, terracotta, Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). Museum of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shihuang, Lintong, Shaanxi Province, China. Photography British Museum.

Civil official, terracotta with pigment, Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). Shaanxi Provincial Archaeological Institute, Xi’an, China. Photography British Museum.

Tableau of terracotta warriors, protectors of the First Emperor, from Museum of the Terracotta Army and the Cultural Relics Bureau of Shaanxi Province in Xi’an, China.


The British Museum
Great Russell Street
+ 44 (0)20 7323 8000

Reading Room
The First Emperor,
China's Terracotta Army

September 13, 2007-
April 6, 2008

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.

The exhibition features 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.

Most of the 120 objects loaned come from the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, an unparalleled tomb complex in terms of iextent and magnificence. One of the most famous archaeological sites in the world, it was discovered by chance by villagers in 1974. Excavation has been ongoing at the site since that date.

The exhibition features 12 complete terracotta warrior figures of different ranks. An extraordinary feat of mass-production, each figure was given an individual personality although not intended to be portraits. Alongside these iconic figures are examples of significant recent finds, rarely seen outside China. Since 1998 figures of terracotta acrobats, bureaucrats, musicians and bronze birds have been found on site; designed to minister to or entertain the Emperor in his afterlife they are crucially important to understand his attempts to control the world even in death.

The exhibition shows the historical and archaeological context of these objects, and detais the recent research and excavation. It also reassesses 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 provides an unrivalled opportunity to see these iconic examples of Chinese culture. A face to face encounter with these objects give the visitor a chance to understand China’s past, its present, and possible futures.

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.

Bronze crane, Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). Museum of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shihuang, Lintong, Shaanxi Province, China. Photography British Museum.