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Chin-chin

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We went to the British Museum today to see The First Emperor exhibition. It wasn’t too crowded, but everyone was so busy looking at the exhibits that I started whining to try and get some attention.

– Mum, who’s the First Emperor?

Mum explained – He was born Ying Zheng in 259BC and became King of Qin when he was 13. Qin was a small region in China. He developed sophisticated weaponry and military strategy, and conquered the other main Chinese states. He declared himself the Emperor of China and of the Universe.

What mum really liked was all the additional exhibits which added depth to the exhibition. It wasn’t just the terracotta warriors being shown, as she had thought. We learned how the First Emperor ordered a single currency to be used. The coinage was round with a square hole because this signified earth under heaven, as the circular shape represents Heaven, the square hole, Earth.

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The First Emperor also commanded that a single script be used. Mum could understand some of the script but she said it’s changed so much. It’s an ancient style of Chinese calligraphy called unified small seal script. It reminded her of cave drawings that she’s seen. In museums, not in real life, silly.

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He built more than 270 palaces in his capital city of Xianyang, which housed the rulers of the states he conquered. Each palace was furnished with the war goods from that region. Walls were joined between states to create the First Great Wall. The belt holders and jewellery were to die for – such amazing craftsmanship.

The most fascinating part of the collection was what had been discovered underneath the ground. The First Emperor wanted to live forever, and built a tomb with an underworld complex reminiscent of the Egyptians. His tomb took more than 30 years to build. Film clips in the exhibition show the extent of the underground complex – it was huge. Seven thousand terracotta soldiers have been found buried outside the tomb, and there are likely to be many more, made to guard the First Emperor in the afterlife. Only a few had been brought to the exhibition.

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They were individual, with different expressions, hairstyles, and clothing. They were a little larger than a real life soldier at 6′ – 6′ 5″ and were absolutely stunning, even though the colourful paints had worn off with exposure to sunlight.

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The First Emperor died when he was 49, one year after the tomb was completed. Over 700,000 workers had been used to build the tomb and the terracotta army, many of them had been worked to death, and thousands were buried with the First Emperor, so no-one would know the location of the tomb. Spooky! The Emperor’s 3,000 harem was buried alive with him as well – these women were told they would get eternal life with him, so they died quite happily. The farmer who discovered the terracotta warriors in 1974 lost his farmland and was paid 30 yuan (worth £2.14 today) in recompense, but he is now quite happily making money out of his notoriety, posing for photos with tourists.

Amazingly, the tomb has still not been excavated, as geological tests have shown high mercury readings under the tomb. The man-made mountain is larger than the Giza pyramids, protected by hair-trigger crossbows and is rumoured to contain a scale model of his empire with rivers of mercury. The underground complex is littered with bronze birds and chariots, pottery musicians, entertainers, and horses – all of which had an example shown in the exhibition. Every pottery item was individual. The terracotta soldiers had held real weapons (many stolen by the Hans) and wore armour made specially for them in jade and stone.

This exhibition totally wowed us over.

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