John Wilson in the New Statesman
Somewhere deep beneath my feet, in a vast subterranean palace, lies the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi. According to legend, he is interred in a gold casket sitting in a lake of liquid mercury. Snaking out across the 80-metre-long floor are streams of mercury that map the routes of those great waterways, the Yangtze and the Yellow River. The 15-metre-high ceiling is encrusted with pearls depicting the starry constellations. Antechambers reportedly contain the bodies of wives, concubines and advisers (not that their deaths coincided naturally; when it was Qin Shi Huangdi’s time to go, friends and family were forced to follow him into the earth).
Standing next to me on the hilltop is Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, who is here in the name of cultural diplomacy. His mission is to secure the biggest ever loan of treasures from the tomb of the First Emperor, including members of the fabled, 7,000-strong Terracotta Army, guardians of the imperial afterlife.
“The First Emperor was able to dream on a scale that no one else has ever dreamt,” he says with a boyish breathlessness. “No one else in history has tried to create a life-sized parallel universe in which he will rule for ever. So much of what modern China is can be seen as a direct consequence of what that man did. There are very few historical figures who changed the world in such a way that we are still living with the consequences.”