China’s Terracotta Warriors


Xi'an-Heads-of-Terra-Cotta-I could not believe my eyes when I first set sight on the Terracotta Warriors, ranking with the Great Wall as one of China’s most important historic sites. Stunning and eye-boggling, the more than 2,200-year-old Terracotta Warriors with their chariots, horses and weapons are, without doubt, one of the world’s great wonders, reflecting the pomp and glory of the times.

Meant to accompany their Emperor after death, the more than 7,000 life-size clay soldiers stand marshaled in combat formation, facing east and ready for battle.

I was standing inside the gigantic museum built to cover the site where these clay warriors had laid buried for centuries on the outskirts of Xi’an, one of China’s most important historic cities.

Situated strategically at the crossroads of the routes crossing China and Central Asia, the city grew into one of the most sophisticated and wealthiest urban centers in the world during the Classical period and the Middle Ages. At the height of its splendor, it vied with Rome, and later with Constantinople and Cordova, as the greatest city on the globe.

Today, Xi’an is a city of some six million, the capital of Shaanxi province, and is a commercial and industrial urban center noted for its cotton, wool and, above all, its silk products. With 56 universities and colleges, it is also a place of refinement and learning. A number of its universities are considered to be the best in China and, hence, the city has a large student population which contributes much to the cultural life of the city. However, the most important drawing card for visitors to the city is its famous Terracotta army.

This great archeological treasure, one of the most sensational finds of all times in China’s long and illustrious history, is the handiwork of one of its most renowned emperors, Qin Shi Huang. Ascending the throne at the tender age of 13, in 246 B.C., he set about making the six warring Chinese states into one nation. He conquered the six Chinese kingdoms in existence at that time and united China for the first time in its history, setting himself up as the first emperor of the Dynasty of Qin — the name from which China is derived.

One of the most important of China’s emperors, Qin Shi Huang’s rule became a landmark in Chinese history. He is credited with standardizing the Chinese script, establishing a unified weight system, replacing hereditary rulers with a centrally appointed administrative system, instituting agricultural reform, and uniting the country by building more than 6,000 miles (9,660 km) of roads and 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of canals.

He also joined previously built defense ramparts to form the first Great Wall of China — to some historians, the 7th Wonder of the World. However, one of his greatest accomplishments, and that which enshrined his name forever, was the creation of his Terracotta army, which his admirers fondly call the 8th Wonder of the World.

Yet, even though Qin Shi Huang made tremendous contributions to the creation of a unified China, he is considered by most historians to have been a cruel tyrant who sacrificed some 700,000 forced laborers to build his enormous tomb. He began to build it as soon as he ascended the throne and it took 41 years to complete.

It is believed that he ordered the architects and tomb workers to be buried alive in order to protect its secret. Of the 72 emperors buried east on the edge of the city of Xi’an, only Qin Shi Huang’s tomb has not been robbed due, as folklore has it, to either mercury floating around his tomb and emitting poisonous fumes or to the Terracotta army guarding his grave. Today, visitors can only view a gigantic mound of earth, which still hides his tomb.

After lying in slumber underground for centuries, the Terracotta army was discovered by chance in 1974 by some farmers. When digging a new well, they unearthed a pottery head, completely unaware as to the magnitude of their discovery. The find immediately caught the attention of archeologists and they have been working on the site ever since. In the last three decades, three pits have been uncovered on the outskirts of Xi’an and they are carefully and slowly being excavated.

The army was not found whole. Almost all of the soldiers were found in pieces and had to be reconstructed, a process which continues today. After the Emperor Qin died, due to his cruelty, a rebellion broke out and the rebels burned a part of the site. The remaining statues were shattered to pieces when the wooden roof covered by earth rotted and collapsed, crushing the army. After their restoration, the warriors were placed in the same location where they once stood. As yet, only a portion of the soldiers found in each pit have been completely restored.

The Terracotta Warriors Museum built to cover the site on the outskirts of Xi’an is divided into three sections: pits Numbers One, Two and Three. The largest, Number One, houses 6,000 soldiers with their horses and battle gear while pit Number Two contains 1,000 warriors and 60 chariots. Two of the chariots have been completely rebuilt and are on display in a separate chamber.

Pit Number Three holds 68 warriors with their bronze weapons, and is thought to be the headquarters of the Terracotta army.

The Terracotta army, depicted in battle dress according to rank and unit, consists of vivid life-size figures of warriors nearly six feet (1.8 m) high, clad in armor or short gowns belted at the waist, with leggings and tightly lashed boots — their craftsmanship and size are extraordinary. None of the soldiers look alike — each has a distinctive individual expression and hairstyle, believed to resemble the people with whom the potters were acquainted.

Well-proportioned and exquisitely shaped, some are biting their lips, a number are gazing or glaring about, while others show troubled looks, or, with bowed heads, they appear to be meditating. A good number have crossbows under their arms and arrow quivers slung over their shoulders, while generals, with a hand at the tip of their swords, hold a dignified bearing. As a whole, the superb workmanship and grandeur of the army is breathtaking.

However, these pottery soldiers, hand-manufactured to protect the emperor’s grave for all of eternity, are not all this archeological site has to offer. Under a manmade mountain of dirt, trial digs are being made to locate the Emperor’s crypt and speculations as to the rich content of the tomb abound.

The Terracotta army, which is one of China ’s most important historic monuments, has been declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site. An historical monument, the soldiers with their battle gear and chariots are the epitome of the 5,000-year-old history of China. Absolutely incredible to first-time visitors, they have made Xi’an a favorite stopping place for an ever-increasing number of tourists.

In the words of Joan, our Chinese guide, “I hate the emperor of the Terracotta soldiers for being so very cruel to his subjects, but I also love him since he continues to draw here tourists like yourselves and, because of this, I have my job.” She smiled, “His army is always on parade, waiting for visitors.”

If You Go

Foreigners traveling to China must apply to a local Chinese embassy or consulate for tourist visas. Xi’an is an important hub of communication in northwest China. It has excellent air, highway and railway connections with the remainder of the country.

The currency of China, the RMB or Yuan, is currently valued at about 8.2 to the U.S. dollar; and 6.5 to the Canadian dollar. Conversion of foreign currency can be done in banks or hotels. China is one of the few countries in the world where hotels give the same rates as the banks. The exchange rate for travelers’ checks is more favorable than that for cash. Most credit cards are also accepted.

A Word to the Wise

If you want to buy Terracotta souvenirs, do not buy them from street vendors. These are usually fake and do not last. Buy them from retail outlets. Xi’an is also famous for ceramics, Qin embroidery, jade, imitation bronze ware, lacquered furniture and peasant paintings.

Other Attractions

While you are in the area try to get a glimpse of these other amazing sites in and around Xi’an:

* Xi’an’s City Walls are the best preserved old city walls in China

* Pan Po Neolithic Village dates back to 4500 B.C.

* Daqinzhan Si (Great Mosque) is a superb example of Sino-Arab architecture, built in 742 A.D.

* Shaanxi Museum houses a fine collection of historic items

* Big and Little Goose Pagodas are beautiful examples of Chinese architecture

* Forest of Steles Museum is devoted to the history of the Silk Road

* Huaqing Pool (Imperial Hot Springs) was once the winter playground of emperors

* Qianling Mausoleum, the tomb of the Tang Emperor and his Empress Wu Zetian

* Maoling Mausoleum, tomb of the Emperor Wu Di of the Han dynasty

* Famen Temple, famous for housing the Buddhist relics of Sakyamuni, the sage of the Sakyas and a Buddhist-Lamaist (Tibet) god who is the Tibetan historical Buddha

Food, Drink and Entertainment

The city has a long history of specializing in the dishes of northwest China and those of the Chinese Muslims. Food is inexpensive and each dish has a story about why and how it was created. Visitors usually leave with a deep impression of the city’s cuisine. For tourists, typical Xi’an dishes such as Jiaozi (dumpling) and Yangrou Paomo (bread and mutton soup), can be found at the Xi’an, Tongshengxiang and Defachang Restaurants.

Anyone visiting Xi’an should not miss attending a dinner and show at the Great Opera Theatre. The food is superb and the Chang’an songs and dances — a type of entertainment, popular during the Tang Dynasty— has to be the best in China.

Only some tap water in China is potable. However, bottled mineral water is on sale everywhere.