Traveling 5,000 miles from Shaanxi Province in northwest China, 10 life-size Terracotta Warriors have left their emperor’s kingdom in order to be exhibited in England, in “China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors,” an exhibition at the World Museum in Liverpool until Oct. 28.

The ancient Chinese Terracotta Warriors stand tall in front of a young Liverpool local. (Gareth Jones)

The famous burial chamber figures are displayed along with artifacts spanning China’s pre-unification years, the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C–206 B.C.), and the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), giving us insight into almost 1,000 years of China’s history. Some of the artifacts are on display in the UK for the first time.

The show focuses on the impact that the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, had in China and reveals not only the traditional beliefs of the ancient Chinese and how they lived their everyday lives, but also how they prepared for the afterlife.

A terracotta kneeling attendant, one of 400 thought to be in the burial pits, each with a horse skeleton or a kneeling stable boy or both. (Ziyu Qiu)
Wearing protective armor over short pleated robes allowed Qin Shi Huang’s infantrymen to move freely in battle. (Ziyu Qiu)

Although China’s shortest reign, the Qin Dynasty was responsible for the unification of China. The Qin won the war of the seven nation states, during a time known as the Warring States period (circa 475–221 B.C.). The powerful Qin were then able to expand the empire and install governmental rule, leaving behind the 1,000-year-old feudal state system.

The Qin government also introduced a countrywide currency and standardized the written word and measuring units. The legacy of this dynasty includes the colossal constructions of the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors.

It was on March 29, 1974, that Chinese farmers, digging for water in Lintong on land where only persimmon trees grew, discovered what some now call the eighth wonder of the world: the underground kingdom of China’s first emperor, including the Terracotta Warriors. The burial complex of Qin Shi Huang is now known to cover a staggering 35 square miles.

A Zest for Immortality

Historian Sima Qian (circa 145 to 95 B.C.) wrote that the emperor employed workers from every province in the empire to construct the burial complex. The work began in 246 B.C. and ended in 206 B.C., several years after Qin Shi Huang’s death.

Qin Shi Huang had a zest for immortality. He was said to be seeking the elixir of life and enlisted many alchemists to concoct the remedy. This may have led to his demise, as alchemical mercury poisoning was thought to have ended his life.

The magnitude of his quest can be seen in the complex itself. The mausoleum where Qi Shi Huang rests remains unexplored, but over the past 40 years, archaeologists have unearthed horses (both terracotta and skeletons), chariots, and 2,000 terracotta figures, each with their own individual characteristics, clothing, and hair, all poised in battle preparation or in formation ready to attack. Although all the figures have yet to be uncovered, the total army is thought to be 8,000 strong.

The hand gestures of seven Terracotta Warriors hint of the weapons they would have held. (Gareth Jones)
One of Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta kneeling attendants. Each terracotta statue shows individual facial features, hair, and even clothing. (Ziyu Qiu)
An armored infantryman, one of the thousands of Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Warriors. (Ziyu Qiu)

In addition to the Terracotta Warriors, sets of stone armor and their helmets, now shattered, imitate the iron armor used by warriors during the Warring States period. These were excavated in 1999 and were believed to provide protection for the spirits of the fallen warriors who died during the pre-unification period.

More than 600 pieces of limestone from the first emperor’s burial complex are linked with copper wire to reconstruct the armor that was to protect the spirits of fallen soldiers. (Ziyu Qiu)
A stone helmet reconstructed from the fragments found in the Qin emperor’s burial complex. The design imitates the iron armor that warriors of the Warring States period once wore. (Ziyu Qiu)

Qi Shi Huang’s burial complex doesn’t contain only warriors; it’s an inventory of everything that an emperor could ever want—in this life and the next.  An imperial garden was found in one pit near the emperor’s mausoleum. The garden is all set to entertain, complete with musicians and their instruments, along with swans, cranes, and geese. The artifacts from the garden include a bronze goose and some musician’s bronze bells, inlaid with gold and silver designs.

One of the bronze geese found near the emperor’s mausoleum in a pit of 15 musicians and 46 birds comprising cranes, swans, and geese. (Ziyu Qiu)

A full-sized cavalry horse along with a horse breeder welcome visitors into the World Museum exhibition. And inside, visitors can see a modern bronze replica of a chariot, with four horses to take the emperor across his vast empire in the afterlife. For the ancient Chinese, the horse symbolized wealth, power, and prosperity. These are qualities Qin Shi Huang aspired to maintain in his afterlife.

The more than 180 artifacts on display indicate Chinese fine craftsmanship, how the everyday and the elite looked and, to a certain extent, lived. Emperor Qin Shi Huang may have wanted to immortalize himself, but he ended up preserving for us an insight into his people.

“China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors” at the World Museum in Liverpool, England, runs until Oct. 28, 2018.