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The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army To Open at The High
Crane, bronze with colored pigment. Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) H. 75 cm, L. 115 cm. On loan from the Museum of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Qui Shihuang, Shaanxi Province, China. Photography © The Trustees of The British Museum.

ATLANTA, GA.- The High Museum of Art will present “The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army,” an exhibition inspired by one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. Featuring 120 works, including approximately a dozen complete terracotta warrior figures, the exhibition represents the largest group of important works relating to the First Emperor ever to be loaned to the U.S. by the Museum of the Terracotta Army and the Cultural Relics Bureau of Shaanxi Province in Xi’an, China. The exhibition will provide insight into the legacy of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, who reigned from 221–210 B.C. “The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army” is supported by Delta Air Lines and UPS. This exhibition is presented in association with the British Museum made possible by Morgan Stanley.

“The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army” will open at the British Museum on September 13, 2007, and run through April 6, 2008. It will subsequently travel to the High Museum, where it will be on view from November 15, 2008, to April 26, 2009. The objects featured in the exhibition will also travel to the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, Calif., and the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas, where they will be presented within a different curatorial framework.

“This is a fascinating look into the history of one of the world’s oldest and richest cultures, as well as one of the world’s greatest discoveries—the First Emperor’s terracotta army,” said Michael E. Shapiro, the High’s Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr. Director. “We are proud to continue our tradition of partnering with museums across the globe to bring the world’s greatest art to Atlanta. Our visitors will have the opportunity to see these warriors up close and appreciate their magnificence within the context of their creation, as well as in the history of China.”

The exhibition will display the iconic terracotta figures alongside recent significant finds that have rarely been seen outside China. Since 1998 figures of terracotta acrobats, bureaucrats, musicians and bronze birds have been discovered during excavations outside of Xi’an. Designed to administer to or entertain the Emperor in his afterlife, these objects underscore the Emperor’s attempts to control the world even after his death. “The First Emperor” will present the objects within their historical and archaeological contexts and will discuss recent research and excavation.

Historical Background - In 1974 a small group of farmers digging a well in a village outside of Xi’an made a startling discovery of a terracotta head that subsequently led to excavations that have recovered close to 1,000 life-sized figures representing all aspects of the Emperor’s army, including cavalry with horses, archers, infantry, generals, civilian officials and chariots. It is estimated that a total of 7,000 figures ultimately may be unearthed.

The First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, is a crucial figure in Chinese history. It was through his efforts that what we now know as China was unified in 221 B.C. As the King of Qin (pronounced ‘chin’), one of the era’s “Warring States,” he conquered rival territory and created the first unified empire in the region. Under his expanded reign, the initial construction of the Great Wall began, as well as the standardization of currency and script.

Preparations for the construction of the First Emperor’s tomb began early, shortly after he became King of the state of Qin, and were left uncompleted when he died. Though the tomb mound had long been visible aboveground, the terracotta figures were a surprise when discovered because they had not been mentioned in any written record.

The terracotta army was constructed to guard the Emperor in his afterlife and to oversee military matters. Recent finds have proved that the First Emperor was also concerned with his civilian administration after his death. In 1999 eleven terracotta acrobats and strongmen were found near the tomb mound, designed to entertain the Emperor in his 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 organizational and strategic skills to establish the Qin Empire. It is believed that the western name for China is most likely 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 centralized bureaucracy to administer the new state. He traveled around the country he had conquered, setting up inscriptions on commemorative pillars to proclaim his achievements, building gigantic palaces and initiating architectural projects on a grand scale. After surviving 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 B.C.

The First Emperor has been seen in both positive and negative lights throughout history, and his legacy is still the subject of much debate. The archaeological evidence from his tomb has proved very important to understanding the Emperor’s life, given the limited historical resources. The artifacts from his tomb are tangible evidence for the First Emperor’s existence, his great achievements and his vision.

Exhibition Organization and Catalogue - “The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army” is supported by Delta Air Lines and UPS. This exhibition is presented in association with the British Museum made possible by Morgan Stanley.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by the British Museum Press in London and Harvard University Press in the United States. “The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army” is edited by Jane Portal, Curator in the Department of Asia at the British Museum and curator of the exhibition.

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