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Adventures in Terracotta

by Joe O'Neill   - Oct 15, 2017

In 1974, a group of farmers digging a well struck not water, but history; they dug directly onto the site of the terracotta warriors. Qin Shi Huang, the emperor behind this ancient army, wanted the site to be kept secret. It was a wish that held true for more than two millennia.

The belief at the time was that death was a passport to another world, where your life would continue. To be comfortable, in that world as in this one, you needed material goods. This was why rulers of the time were often buried along with servants, soldiers, wives and concubines, to take them with them to the next realm.

On my visit to the terracotta warriors, my guide, Peter Wang, told me he saw the terracotta warriors as a step forward in history. Previously, he said, soldiers had been killed to be buried alongside their leaders. Viewed from this gory perspective, the warriors are an act of mercy; by taking the time to make soldiers out of terracotta, Qin let his living army fight another day.

China’s first emperor took the Qin throne in 246 BC, at the age of 13. Shortly after his rule started, work on the terracotta warriors had also begun. In 221 BC, he had successfully unified China’s various states, and gave himself the title Qin Shi Huang, meaning the first emperor of Qin. He kept this title until he died in 210 BC.

More than 2,000 years after he left this world, opinion remains mixed about Qin Shi Huang. On the one hand, he burned books. On the other, he standardized China’s writing system. His rule is often portrayed as despotic, but he united China, and, though it lay undiscovered until 1974, he built a terracotta city underground.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang

Wang summed up Qin’s legacy with a neat percentage: 60 percent good, 40 percent bad. Before we entered one of the three terracotta warrior pits open to the public, Wang used another percentage to put what we were about to see into perspective.

The portion of the site open to the public is just 0.003 percent of the total grounds, which span 56 square kilometers. Even the term terracotta warriors may be a misnomer. It’s likely that the rest of the site contains not only terracotta warriors, but bronze waterfowl, terracotta musicians, terracotta officials and even acrobats. Duan Qingbo, from the Shaanxi Provincial Research Institute for Archeology, told the Smithsonian that Qin Shi Huang “took a whole political system with him.”
Crowds gather by the entrance to Pit One

6,000 soldiers were buried in Pit One. As you read this, almost as many people are likely standing around the pit, wielding cameras, phones and selfie sticks.

The crowds are most dense at the entrance to the pit. Walk to your left from the main entrance, and just around the corner, you’ll see a sign pointing to the place where the terracotta warriors were discovered by farmers hoping to find water.

Of all the warriors in Pit One, not one was in good condition when the pit was first excavated. The rear of the pit shows terracotta warriors in various states of disrepair. Wang told me that putting the pieces of each warrior back together is a complex puzzle, and it takes six months to a year to complete each one.

At first glance, Pit Two appears less well excavated than Pit One. A little digging, though, reveals some intriguing stories. Wang pointed to a kneeling archer protected in a glass case by the side of the pit. The archer, he said, was originally holding a crossbow. He told us this was the only soldier that was found in complete condition.

What happened to the archer’s crossbow? Had it been made of wood, like many of the weapons, then it would have decayed by now. There is, though, another possibility.

The Kneeling Archer

Qin Shi Huang not only wanted the tombs to be secret, but wanted his dynasty to rule forever. Four years after his death in 2010 BC, China was in chaos. Liu Bang of Han and Xiang Yu of Chu fought for control of China until 202 BC.

In 206 BC, Xiang Yu’s army burst onto the site of the terracotta warriors. A reconstructed video shows them smashing their way in with flaming torches and stealing weapons. By one entrance to Pit Two, there are black marks, which my guide said were scorched marks from that ancient raid. 200 meters away, in a glass cage, the kneeling archer looks on calmly, his crossbow missing from his hands.

There are more mysteries in Pit Three. This was a meeting room, which is why the soldiers are standing facing each other, as if they are talking. Many of the soldiers in this room have been reconstructed entirely with the exception of their heads. This is because the original soldiers were made with hollow bodies, which are easier to reassemble, while the heads were solid, and tougher to put back together.

One part of this pit is believed to be intended for worship, as turtle shells and deer horns were found there; these are thought to have been used as sacrificial tools at the time.

Today, the scene at the terracotta warrior site is like that at many Chinese tourist attractions. Tour groups in identical colored hats are led around tree-lined grounds by a guide with a flag and a loudspeaker, or simply a loud voice. Girls smile in front of selfie sticks. Groups of middle-aged tourists discuss what to do for lunch.

I asked Wang what he thought Qin Shi Huang, who hoped to keep the terracotta warriors secret, would make of the scene today.

“He thought his descendants would rule forever, but that’s not possible,” Wang said.

“So you don’t think he would be angry?’

“No, because this is unavoidable.”

This ancient site, built to secretly protect an emperor, has ended up being one of the most visited attractions in all China. But in the process, not only is the ancient tomb being protected, but so is the legacy of China’s past. And as the pits continue to be excavated, and soldiers re-assembled, an ancient emperor’s army, once fallen and broken underground, is standing up to the present once again.

Getting there:

Take bus 914, 915 or 306 from the bus park outside the Xi’an train station. As you exit the train station, the bus park is to your left. The buses have the destination, terracotta warriors, clearly marked on the sides.

Tickets: 150 RMB (prices may be reduced in off peak season)

Guides: Chinese speaking guides are 90 RMB for a group of 1-5 people. English speaking guides are available, but typically charge more.

English audio guide: 40 RMB for English audio, 20 RMB for Chinese audio.

About Writer

Joe O'Neill grew up in Salisbury, England (often confused with Salisbury, Maryland, USA). He lived in Taipei and Seoul before moving to Shanghai, where he worked as a web editor for two years. When he's not writing, he can be found running, swimming, or downloading ebooks in the hope of getting a chance to read them. He holds a BA in Creative and Professional Writing from the University of Glamorgan (now called the University of South Wales).





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