I’ve always been interested in history and works of art so from a young age I had learned about the Qin Emperor’s Terracotta Army from watching documentaries on National Geographic and the History Channel (before they went a little crazy with reality shows and talk of aliens). I was fascinated by the meticulous detail of the figures each with unique identifying facial and armor features. Only a few weeks into my study abroad experience in China, some of my friends decided to go to Xi’an with one of our main objectives being to visit the tomb of Qin Shihuanghdi (Emperor Qin, the first emperor of China).
First a little backstory, China prior to its unification was ruled by different entities with early empires such as the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties ruling the region for different periods between 2050 and 770 BC. Following the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty during the so-called Spring and Autumn period , an era of conflict known as the Warring States Period began. Seven states emerged from the violence of the area but eventually King Zheng (as Qin Shi Huang was called at the time) overtook his adversaries, conquering the fertile Yangtze valley and expanding southward for the rest of his reign. As ruler of a new unified state, he adopted the title of emperor as he had surpassed the kingdoms of old such as the Zhou.
In 1974 a Chinese farmer digging a well in the countryside near Xi’an made the startling discovery of finding a massive collection of terracotta figures. For centuries it was reported that terracotta tiles and pieces of figures were abundant in the area but it wasn’t until this discovery and the ensuing archeological investigation that discovered thousands of terracotta warriors. For its time, built around 246 BC these two thousand year old figures are in remarkably good condition though the vast majority of the terracotta army remains buried and slowly are being uncovered by archeological teams that are constantly attempting to preserve them. The massive building projected employed 700,000 workers during the course of the construction.
Since China is so big, my friends and I decided to take an airplane; it took about 2.5 hours to arrive in Xi’an from Beijing, a total of more than 1000 kilometers, in effect almost the length of the state of California. Yet China’s well-developed network of bullet trains are also a viable option, with the trip taking about 6 hours if you want to see some scenery.
As you walk along the path towards the three different pits where the statues are located, you are greeted by an array of greenery and flowers. We opted to visit the smallest of the three pits first as we wanted to save the best for last. Pit 3 houses the generals and chariots of the terracotta army with these warriors being notably taller than others. The second pit is far larger though much of the figures here remain buried due to the collapse of the tomb, a possible effect of looting.
The real treat though is the immensity of pit 1 which houses the majority of the terracotta warriors. As one enters the massive airplane hangar-sized building that shelters the UNESCO recognized treasure, it is difficult not to be impressed by row after row of soldiers meticulously carved with everything from rank to unit type and even small details on the armor being accounted for. Originally the sight must have been even more impressive, with workers using natural dyes to paint the army in bright reds, blues and greens to produce an authentic depiction of the armies of the time. Yet even so the usage of actual metals like bronze coated in chromium dioxide to forge rust-free weapons for these soldiers is a detail that can be seen in the necropolis museum’s vast collection of uncovered artifacts.
In the years since the uncovering of the Qin Emperor’s tomb, they have become part of temporary exhibitions across the world, bringing to the world a window into the past for a brief time. Yet while these warriors have traveled the world, eventually they always come back to China; even still they keep a watchful eye on the first emperor’s tomb just like the thousands of visitors both foreign and domestic that come to marvel at their creation.