A decade on from kick-starting 2008 as European Capital of Culture, Liverpool finally – finally! – hosts an exhibition worthy of the title. Many of those who attended the showcasing of artwork by Viennese Secessionist Gustav Klimt will be quick to point out that the (three-month-long) exhibition at Tate Liverpool broke attendance records (almost 200,000 visitors passed through its doors at Albert Dock). Fans of Ben Johnson might also weigh in and remind the author how novel it was (for 45,000) to see the completion of Liverpool Cityscape by an artist in public residence (during a six-week period) at the Walker Art Gallery. And they would be right to given both events were not without merit meaning curator and artist should feel aggrieved that their respective efforts are not as fondly remembered as, say, Ringo Starr performing atop of St. George’s Hall or a 50ft mechanical spider crawling through the city – two costly, ghastly sights. Yet the current, long-awaited exhibition at World Museum – a must see – is on a different level. Allow me to explain why.
Not since 2007, when a squad (to use the correct military terminology) of 2,200-year-old Chinese warriors were loaned to the British Museum, have they been on these shores. The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army proved to be its second-most popular show (after Treasures of Tutankhamun in 1972 which, it is worth noting, was free and ran for nine months) with the eight-month-long exhibition attracting over 850,000 visitors to the Great Russell Street venue. The Liverpool exhibition is more extensive than its predecessor, with approximately 180 artefacts displayed (compared with 120) from 13 archaeological institutes and museums in Shaanxi Province though, like London, only a small number of terracotta warriors (nine as opposed to ‘around a dozen’, according to a BM press release) are shown alongside intricately detailed, ten-foot-long bronze replica chariots (which are too fragile to be transported outside of China). What it lacks in numbers is more than compensated by the majesty of individual pieces, however, hence the reason why it is estimated – after having already sold 200,000 tickets – a staggering 450,000 alone will visit the exhibition in a museum on William Brown Street (arguably the jewel in the crown that is National Museums Liverpool) that attracted 671,000 through its doors in 2016.
Covering more than 1,000 years of history, the exhibition begins and ends with the turbulent years of the Warring States and golden days of the Han Dynasty respectively. Organisers, evidently aware that such a large time-frame could possibly overwhelm, ease half-hourly parties in with an introductory video. Lasting only three minutes, visitors soon exit through the opposite doors to which they entered (on the second floor) before being greeted by a terracotta warrior and cavalry horse. The staff deserve praise for transforming a hitherto bright and airy 1,200 square-foot gallery into a dark and dramatic space with atmospheric Chinese-themed sets that quench the thirst not only of budding Sinologists. Specially-commissioned audio-visual elements, together with static artefacts, instrumental music and floor-to-ceiling banners, help bring the exhibition to life although it is what lies at the centre that transports visitors back to ancient China: seven terracotta warriors (armoured officers, infantrymen as well as standing and kneeling archers) stood in battle formation. Peering into the hauntingly vivid eyes of these menacing-looking warriors – relics unearthed in 1974 and described as “the eighth wonder of the world” – is sure to leave the most hard-to-please of the army of visitors open-mouthed.
These mass-produced, hand-finished figures are not homogenous replicas but individualised to the extent that they contain varying facial features as well as hairstyles and are demonstrably more/less rotund than others. They were created for, and at the command of, the First Emperor. Ying Zheng, born in 259 BC, became the king of Qin (pronounced Chin) at 13. Seven competing states had been engaged in warfare for the previous two centuries before Qin Shi Huang (meaning First Emperor) unified them into one nation: today’s modern China. But why did this megalomaniac desire – demand even – 8,000 life-size clay guardians for his tomb? The answer lies in his ill-fated search for immortality and wish to maintain his legacy, ruling the underworld much like he did the real: with an iron fist. This, say most historians, explains why the imperial guards stand facing east, towards those vengeful states he subjugated. An astounding 700,000 built the 56km2 necropolis over 30 years, facts the exhibition wonderfully illuminates, together with how forced labourers and craftsmen constructed the (on average) two-metre, 200-kilogram statues. Yet visitors will learn little about Qin’s book-burning, scholar-slaughtering ways and nothing about the possible (and admittedly controversial) Hellenistic influence on such figures. This is regretful for without understanding potential pre-Silk Road influences and the brutality of Qin, visitors cannot truly appreciate the wonder of the Terracotta Warriors – or this wonderful exhibition.
China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors exhibition is at World Museum and runs until 28 October 2018.
Tickets are £14.50 for adults and £5.50 for those aged between 5-17. Some concessions are available.