Sometimes, it’s not the most beautiful things that are the most interesting. Deep in the heart of China’s mainland, sits the city of Xi’An, one of China’s Four Great Ancient Capitals. Though it’s not much to look at, it holds one of the most fascinating scenes in the world.

Xi’an, with over 3,000 years of history, took its place as China’s capital city during several different ruling dynasties for a total of more than 400 years. Its significance is far-reaching as it marks the start of the Silk Road, one of the most important trade routes in history, interconnecting Africa, Europe and Asia. But since we’re not trading anything, my husband Griffin and I came to Xi’an to see something different.

During the days of Qinshihuang, the first emperor of unified China, one thing became abundantly clear: this guy was paranoid about death. Though the man is credited with many of China’s historical feats, including beginning the construction of the Great Wall, he is perhaps best-known for one thing: the 8,000 life-size clay soldiers that guard his tomb.

First discovered by a group of farmers in 1974, archaeologists unearthed the now-famous Terracotta Army, still standing at attention and in perfect formation for their job as the attendants of the emperor’s soul. Every soldier is unique, with their differing facial features most likely being attributed to the unpaid labourers who constructed each one. The soldiers also have different ranks and stand ready for their individual jobs as messengers, horsemen (complete with horses), officers, and even those tasked with accompany the carriage believed to house Qinshihuang’s soul.

There are four known pits where the soldiers are buried, located about 1.5km away from the emperor’s burial mound. Each of the soldiers was once painted from head to toe, but the oxygen that reaches them upon excavation instantly fades the colours and the true clay colour emerges within minutes. The scene at the enormous warehouses, where the army members are still being systematically excavated and restored, is truly mind-blowing: the armour is intricately detailed and the statues’ eyes seem to be searching out enemies.

We toured the grounds with a guide who filled us in on the history, as well as telling us the rank and job of each of the soldiers. What struck me was just how life-like the army actually is; not only are the soldiers life-size, they are also positioned according to their role. There are clay guards at the meeting room doors of clay officers, there are clay horses at the ready for messages that may need to reach the clay ears of an officer at another camp, and some soldiers stand at attention and some kneel in reverence, to an emperor who was afraid of being vulnerable in life and in death. By the time we left, we were talking about the Terracotta Warriors like they were real men, suspended in animation.

This experience was one that I will truly never forget.  Looking out at this sea of soldiers made me feel small and and yet safe; I can’t recommend this destination highly enough. If you’re making your way to China, it’s good to remember that Qinshihuang built more than just a wall.  His creations are still standing ready to greet you.

Your thoughts on "China’s Terracotta Army: Suspended in time"

  • Valerie Thank you very much for refreshing my memory of this magnificent site. In 1997 I had the great fortune of working with the Chinese government helping them understanding the difference between tourists and travelers. One of my designated destinations was Xi'an. Tourist not Traveler was my initial thought. How wrong I was, any seasoned traveler needs to see the scale and scope of the beauty of this site. However, even more importantly on the very day of my visits I noticed a large number of Chinese crowded around one man sitting on a stool. My guide took me over to introduce me to the older gentleman. I learned he was the farmer that was digging the original well that uncovered the first site. I immediately bought a collections book from the store and had him sign it for me. That is a travelers experience. Thank you Ray

    on October 25, 2011 at 1:24 pm Reply
  • Ray, What an amazing opportunity to meet the man who discovered such a treasure! Thanks for the influences you made during your time there so others could follow behind you! We really enjoyed every moment of seeing this magnificent place and cannot recommend it highly enough. Valerie

    on October 25, 2011 at 8:31 pm Reply
  • My GF has always wanted to go here for the longest time. This post makes me want to visit the TC warriors now too though. I always picture the Mummy 3 Emperor's Tomb movie whenever I see these statues.

    on October 25, 2011 at 10:06 pm Reply

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