Nobody could have guessed, when the first terracotta warrior was unearthed by a farmer back in 1974, that an entire empire lay waiting to be discovered. But China’s unstoppable First Emperor had boundless energy and ambitions. Not content with conquering other states and proclaiming himself Supreme Ruler of China and the Universe, he decided to defy mortality itself. As well as swallowing pills, potions and magic herbs, he combated his fear of death by building a burial complex with an area of 56 square kilometres. More than three decades were spent creating this alternative world in clay, wood and bronze. More than 700,000 labourers, many of whom were worked to death or even buried alive with the emperor, constructed this underground palace for the afterlife. His own tomb mound remains intact today, an undisturbed testament to the man who in effect founded and named China as a nation in 221 BC. Yet an astounding total of about 7,000 soldiers have so far been uncovered, all silently standing guard over their emperor, as well as bureaucrats, musicians, acrobats, carriage drivers and others. And now, for a momentous exhibition at the British Museum, some of them have left the pits where they were buried for so long.

It will, inevitably, be nicknamed the “terracotta warriors show” by eager visitors. But the organisers widened this lucid survey so that it encompasses the life and accomplishments of an individual who was born Ying Zheng in 259 BC. He became King of Qin at the dauntingly early age of 13, and could well have been overwhelmed by the belligerent states that were all striving to invade and overcome each other in the region. The young king must, however, have been formidably tough, determined and ruthless. He managed to conquer all the rival states by unleashing armies that had been trained with devastating efficiency.

This exhibition, the first to be staged in the soaring vaults of the Reading Room, contains some exceptional weapons. Quality control was deemed crucial, and we soon come across a frighteningly sharp-pointed lance made by a worker called Mu who was supervised by Master Bang. Both their names are inscribed on the blade, indicating a high level of professional pride. Immense skill is still more evident in a heavy percussion instrument, a consummately executed bronze that would have been used in battle to order the army to regroup or retreat. Although it must have witnessed some gruesome scenes, the handle is wittily shaped like a mischievous dragon who appears to be engrossed in licking himself.

Countless lives must have been lost during Qin’s relentless campaign for supremacy. That, surely, is why such virtuosity was lavished on an incense burner used for ceremonial communication between the living and the dead. This exquisite object is surmounted by a phoenix holding a ring in its beak. And similar creatures, made with gold or gilt-bronze, were devised as ornaments on the belts of trousers – a revolutionary yet highly practical type of clothing invented for soldiers.

By the time Qin had completed all his conquests, and renamed himself Qin Shihuangdi to announce that he was now the First August Divine Emperor, law-enforcement had become his top priority. No one could claim immunity from punishment, and the death penalty included being torn apart by chariots. But he was not just a stern military leader who policed the empire with a harshness stemming from his belief that human beings were by nature evil. He had a passion for architecture as well, building more than 270 palaces in the capital city Xianyang, as well as a network of roads and canals. Walking round this superb exhibition, where everything leads inexorably towards the final arena containing the tomb figures, I became convinced that he also had a limitless appetite for compelling visual images.

The coins displayed here are shaped like ants, knives or spades, often with rings dangling playfully on the ends of the handles. The emperor’s newly devised universal script has a powerful impact too, especially as seen in an eloquent inscription on stone declaring that “his might shook the four extremities”. It was placed high on Mount Yi, for the emperor liked visiting sacred mountains to prove that he did indeed hold sway over the universe. But he struggled to believe in his own immortality, especially after enduring the terror of at least three assassination attempts. And I suspect that sculpture became the central, most favoured means of convincing himself that death could be vanquished. Hence, surely, the mass production of warriors, horses, chariots and all the other occupants of Qin’s capacious tomb.

The first soldier is encountered at the show’s entrance, not standing but kneeling. He turns out to be an archer, frowning and staring straight ahead as if in a state of acute readiness. His empty hands, suspended strangely in space, would once have gripped a crossbow. And on his head, viewed from behind, every strand of hair is visible within a complex pattern of plaits. He looks magnetic enough today, and must, when interred, have possessed an uncanny aura of realism. Splashes of red can also be detected on his back, suggestive of a wound. But they prove that all these figures were once painted in brilliant colours, doubtless enhancing their lifelike allure.

Even so, nothing can prepare us for the spectacle of the terracotta warriors en masse. Because the bronze weapons they once clasped were all stolen during the turmoil after the emperor’s death, these upright figures look oddly gentle. Smiling benevolently, and taller than their real-life equivalents in the empire’s army, these six-foot fighters seem miraculously intact. We would never guess that they were found scattered in bewildering confusion, each broken in as many as 80 fragments. Their air of calm is supreme. Far from appearing traumatised by the damage inflicted on their bodies, they share an arresting spirit of expectancy.

We feel awed by their presence, and the foot-soldiers are just as impressive as the high-ranking officers identifiable by their special hats which seem to sprout double bird-tails. Moustaches, beards and other finely executed details were added by hand, lending them individual identities. They do not merge into an anonymous mass. Instead, against the odds, they assert singularity. And as we gaze at them, transfixed by their stillness, they generate a sense of awe. Perhaps they are inviting us to share their feeling of wonder at having survived for so long.

Then, in the middle of this poised assembly, one figure breaks free. Quite unexpectedly, I find myself confronting a slender archer who appears to be holding his bow with a highly focused grip. Swathed in a long, loose robe rather than buttressed by tight armour, he would have relied on his speed and agility in battle. But here, far away from all that murderous din and upheaval, he looks graceful – like a dancer tensing himself to commence his performance. He becomes my favourite exhibit, along with an even more balletic acrobat who is bare-chested and wears a short skirt. Originally painted a startling purple, he seems to be balancing and spinning an unidentifiable object on the very tip of his index finger.

A delightful surprise, though, is provided by the birds and musicians. They are the most recent finds in this tomb of imperial pleasures, and the swan goose, perhaps from outer Mongolia, once sat, drank or maybe stood in the flowing water of an artificial stream. Nearby, a musician kneels in concentration as he possibly clasps a mallet and prepares to strike a bell or drum. Perhaps he performed in concert with the seated musician, who plucks the strings of a zither-like instrument. Such things were often played in ceremonies to invoke the goodwill of ancestor spirits. But down in the emperor’s palatial repository, both musicians and birds were expected to beguile this omnipotent ruler as he defied extinction and insisted on relishing his subterranean fantasy-land.

‘The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army’ is at the British Museum until April 6, tel: +44 (0)20 7323 8000

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