I spent a total of three days in Xi’an, China’s ancient capital city. The 1974 discovery of the Terracotta Army a few miles away turned Xi’an into one of the most popular tourist destinations in China. As I wandered around the ancient city center trying to find my way to the various historic sites, it seemed to me that Xi’an was attracting a much higher percentage of foreign visitors than Beijing or Shanghai. Europeans were the most visible and the most audible, especially British, Germans, and Italians. Still, by far the greatest numbers of tourists were Chinese nationals. Again the major cultural and historic attractions were so crowded that tourists taking pictures mostly ended up taking pictures of each other. There were probably hundreds of Chinese tourists who returned home from their vacations, looked at their trip photos, and asked each other: “Who is that American with the curly brown hair, and why is she walking the wrong way through so many of our pictures?”
I had expected the highlight of my time in the Xi’an region to be my visit to the Terracotta Army site. It was indeed a highlight, but not in the way that I had imagined. I had expected to be awed by the scale and artistry of the army, but I hadn’t expected visiting it to be such a dark experience, both literally – heavy rain poured down from the dark sky the entire day, and figuratively – leaving me in a darkened, pensive emotional state for days to follow.
I visited two archaeological sites that day, the Xi’an Banpo Museum and the Terracotta Army historic site, both of which are nestled in the beautiful Qin Mountains. The Xi’an Banpo Museum is built on the site of the Neolithic settlement of Banpo, home to a community of Neolithic people from about 6,700 BC to about 5,600 BC. Several ancient foundations have been unearthed and are exposed and viewable inside the museum. The excavated pits indicate that houses in the settlement were either round or square and made of mud and wood.
A number of communal burial pits have also been excavated, as have remnants of a protective moat dug around the ancient town. Extant ceramic shards indicate that the ancient residents were skilled potters who used pottery for creating daily life implements and for funerary purposes as well.
The museum was interesting, but small. It doesn’t tend to attract many visitors, unlike the Terracotta Army site, which attracts more than a million tourists each year. The day I visited the Terracotta Army site it was relatively empty; the driving rain kept all but the most intrepid tourists away.
The Terracotta Army was originally created as a massive subterranean installation for the mausoleum of the first emperor of China. In 1974 farmers digging a well on their land unearthed some ancient pottery pieces that turned out to be parts of the Terracotta Army and one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century. When I remarked to my Chinese tour guide about the historical importance of the find, he put an interesting spin on the story. He reminded me that the find came only about six years before China moved from a strict communist economy to one more open to capitalism and private industry. Had the farmer found the treasures just a few years later, my guide said, he could have sold his land for a large amount of money and never had to work another day in his life. Instead, he reported the find to the communist government and got little in return for his land, although he later did receive a small income from royalties from a book relating the story of the find.
And what an amazing find it was. The Terracotta Army was created between 246 BC and 209 BC by command of Emperor Qin, the first emperor of China and the first person to unite the country as one. No one knows for sure why he ordered the creation of the clay army. Perhaps he believed that it would go with him into the afterlife and would enable him to fight new battles and rule into eternity. Or perhaps he wanted it to scare away potential grave robbers and provide protection for the treasures he planned to have buried with him in his tomb – statuary and other objects of precious metals, glowing jewels, and fine porcelain. Most of these priceless artifacts are still buried with him about a mile from the Terracotta Army site in the main tomb. Regardless, an estimated 700,000 workers, including local and distant craftsmen and more than half a million prisoners of war from the six kingdoms Qin had conquered to unite China, worked on the project during its thirty-seven year construction period until Qin’s death and burial.
Hidden and buried underground as soon as it was finished, the Terracotta Army included more than 8,000 life-size sculpted soldiers, plus a large collection of additional sculptures representing chariots, horses, and government officials. Over the centuries the statues were crushed or burned, possibly by warring parties or vandals and possibly by the accumulating weight from above ground. Art historians, archaeologists, and other experts from around the world have spent the past 40 years reconstructing many of the original sculptures. Reconstructive work and research continues at the site today.
Emperor Qin was more than just a visionary who saw the powerful potential of a united China. He was also a brilliant and violent military leader who led a series of wars to defeat the six neighboring national governments that stood in the way of his realizing his vision of a united China. Qin also started work on the Great Wall of China to keep would-be invaders from entering the newly united nation and threatening his despotic rule. The historical importance of his rule in terms of Chinese history cannot be overstated. The administrative union he created has lasted for over 2,000 years; thus, he can be credited with the very existence of China as we know it.
But there is a darker side to the story, one of almost unthinkable violence. It was not just Emperor Qin’s war ambitions that resulted in death for many ancient Chinese people but also the building of the Terracotta Army itself. After the project was completed surviving Terracotta Army workers were killed to keep them from revealing its secret location. No one knows how many craftsmen and prisoners of war were murdered, but the mass murder of thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of workers did keep the location of the great army secret. For centuries local legend had suggested that priceless treasures and a mighty clay army had been buried with Qin, but it wasn’t until 1974 that the core of the legend was proven to be true.
Today the site is both a museum and an active archaeological location. There are three large excavation pits, each encased in a high-ceilinged museum building with elevated walkways leading visitors around the edges of the pits. My guide and I entered the largest of the three pits first. I walked along the perimeter, gazing down at the life-sized clay army. The first pit contains more than 6,000 soldiers, but only a portion have been excavated and reconstructed.
Each human figure has unique facial features, making each one look like a real person, beautifully crafted and lifelike. Art historians believe that Terracotta Army workers probably modeled for the artists who sculpted the more than 8,000 unique human figures, meaning that the faces we see today are the faces of some of those who toiled on the project and later died there for their labor.
I snapped a picture with my phone and sent it to my texting buddy (my daughter). She texted me back just one word: “Haunting.” It was the perfect word to describe not just the visual scene but the feeling inside the enormous building. Tourists who visit the pits are not alone as they wander around the ancient site. The ghosts of the thousands of workers who spent years toiling on the project and then died for having been involved walk along with the tourists. Looking into the faces of those long-dead men, the scene struck me as the bittersweet collision of art and violence. I felt quiet, sad, and respectful for those countless forgotten men. History typically venerates the wealthy and the powerful, erasing the poor and the powerless. But here the poor and the powerless live on in the faces of the terracotta soldiers, day after day, month after month, decade after decade, watching the tourists watch them.
Although it was intended to immortalize China’s first emperor, a man of utmost wealth, power, and privilege, I saw the Terracotta Warrior site as the immortalization of the thousands of less fortunate people who toiled and died there, each of whom deserves every bit as much as the emperor to be remembered and honored. I also saw it as a cautionary tale warning future generations about the violence and horror that absolute power can feed and instantiate, a warning that we must never, ever forget.
Click here to read more about the craftsmen and workers who built the Terracotta Army.
Click here to read about how I spent the remainder of my time exploring the ancient city of Xi’an.