“Archaeology is the only discipline that seeks to study human behaviour and thought without having any direct contact with either.” – Bruce G. Trigger (Archaeologist, Anthropologist & Ethnohistorian)
Xi’an, China is often referred to as the cradle of Chinese civilization and The Terracotta Warriors is without question the biggest draw for the city; for good reason. With tourist attractions that are regarded as “must see”, I always brace for the possibility that the masses may be wrong. Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors impressed like a 5 year old’s first visit into Toys ’R’ Us. It’s hard not to be mesmerized, excited and curious simultaneously when first seeing this legion of man-made figurines that were meant to accompany and protect the first emperor of a unified China, Qin Shi Huang in his afterlife.
The young emperor’s obsession with immortality ordered this mammoth undertaking to construct an army to not only protect him but to also rule in the afterlife. Being China’s first emperor, he couldn’t show up in the afterlife expecting to rule with three body guards and a pony. The Terracotta Army consisted of approximately 8000 soldiers and 800 assorted horses and chariots.
The Terracotta Army, discovered on March 29, 1974 by seven farmers digging a water well in the Yang village of Lintong district in Shanxi province (40 km east of Xi’an) is considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of modern times. The 2200 year old Terracotta Army along with structures such as China’s Great Wall and Forbidden City is a testament to man’s immense industrious capacity. Built during a time that lacked our modern technology, the engine to build such monumental undertakings was simply will.
Restoration of the Terracotta Army
Approximately 1,000 of the estimated 8,000 terracotta soldiers have been restored. Only the famous “Kneeling Archer” found in Pit #2 was discovered completely intact. After being buried for over 2000 years, the terracotta pieces have to be specially cleaned and treated to prevent further erosion in the future. Markings on some of the fragments also indicate that there was a fire at some point in the vaults housing the figures.
The Thousands of fragmented pieces also need to be analyzed, recorded and archived for archaeological and historical purposes. Each piece is tagged and recorded into a complex database.
This whole meticulous and painstaking task of re-assembling the figures like a 3D puzzle allows for only about 30 soldiers to be restored every year.
Interesting and fun facts
- Emperor Qin Shi Huang ascended the throne at age 13 and died at age 50.
- It’s estimated that 700,000 labourers were involved in building the project which took 36 years to build.
- The soldiers vary in height according to their rank, with the tallest being generals.
- The figures are all life sized and the facial expressions of each soldier are uniquely different.
- All the soldiers including the horses were sculpted with singled edged eye lids to mirror the emperor.
- Many of the soldiers remain unearthed as the original paint oxidizes and disappears within minutes of interacting with the air.
- Human sacrifices were common for funeral burials in ancient China. The change to substituting figurines is surprising since the emperor was reputed to be a cruel and ruthless leader.
- The farmers that made the initial discovery received 30 RMB for their first findings.
Interesting but sad facts
- Only 4 of the 7 farmers that made the discovery are still alive today. One farmer hung himself while the other two died penniless and jobless with no way to afford medical care.
- Virtually all of the money that was offered as compensation for discovering the Terracotta Warriors has been syphoned off by local officials over the years.
- The 2000 year old Yang farming village has all but disappeared today.
The Terracotta Warriors Museum
The museum is essentially split into 3 pits for viewing. Allocate most of your time for Pit #1 as it is the largest and most impressive of the three.
Exiting the back of Pit #1 leads you into Pit #3.
Pit #3 is the smallest of three pits and considered by historians to be the command centre for the other two pits. Many of the soldiers here lack heads; speculation is that they were destroyed by vandals. Since this pit didn’t incur any fire damage as the other two pits did, the contents unearthed here are in much better condition.
Pit #2 is a large cavernous L-shaped pit with an “Indiana Jones” like feel. The pit offers differing views of military formations of the Terracotta Army. Much of the site has been left unexcavated. Experts speculate that there are approximately 1500 soldiers, horses and chariots yet to be unearthed here.
Details And Tips Before You Go
150 RMB ($30 CAD) (Mar – Nov)
120 RMB ($24 CAD) (Dec – Feb)
8:30 am to 5:30 pm
At the site there were guides offering their services for 150 RMB ($30 CAD). I declined the use of a guide as my friend who’s a Chinese national actually studied the Terracotta Army while in school and was able to provide me with a lot of interesting information. I also prefer to just wander at will when visiting a tourist attraction if possible.
Alternatively you can use the audio guide for 40 RMB (plus $200 RMB deposit). I find these to be a waste of money as they’re not very informative and distracting.
Fake Farmer Signing Books
Consider this a public service announcement as I hate scams and have had my share.
Some of the original farmers that were part of the discovery appear on site to sign autographs. I actually didn’t notice any book signings happening that day, but was told by other tourists later that there is allegedly a man who sets up shop in the museum with a banner and a photo of himself with former President Bill Clinton claiming to be the farmer that made the initial discovery. Upon further digging, I found photos of a man going by the name Yang Xian (How convenient that his name is Xian). Local villagers have apparently identified him as an imposter. Regardless, be leery if you’re getting an autograph from a man that seems too young to be a farmer in 1974.
How To Get There: Public Transit
I generally like using public transit on my travels whenever possible as commuting like a local is substantially cheaper and rather fun. I’ll lay out an easy way to get to and from the Terracotta Warriors Museum and the pitfalls to look out for:
1.Get to Xian’s main train station (Not the north railway station)
The main station will be the one downtown by the city’s large wall. Ask your hotel or hostel which bus to take to get there. The fare for all public buses in Xi’an is 2 RMB; bring exact change. Alternatively you can get your hotel to write “main train station” in Chinese on a piece of paper and take a taxi. Make sure the taxi uses the meter for your fare.
2. While facing the train station, to the right is a large open space where all the buses are parked. Look for the “China Post” building; the buses will be in front.
3. Find bus No. 5 (306). This bus will take you to the Terracotta Warriors Museum. The museum will be the last stop so there is no need to figure out which stop to get off. The ride is about 1 hour.
4. There should be a queue of people waiting to get on. You won’t pay the fare until you get on board; once the bus is moving, a ticket lady will come for your payment. The fare is 7 RMB ($1.20 CAD).
5. From the same drop off point, take the 914 bus to return to the city. The bus will drop you off at the same parking lot by the train station when you started the day. The fare is 10 RMB ($2 CAD).
If you took the bus to get to the train station, take the same number bus in the reverse route to get back to your hotel.
Bus 914 will take you back into Xian.
BEWARE!!! The area surrounding the bus departure is filled with “fake” No 5.(306) buses. Touts will aggressively tell you to buy a ticket for their “306” bus that will supposedly take you to the Terracotta Warriors. The buses will make numerous stops along the way to various sites and shops to sell you overpriced goods; possibly not take you there at all. The “fake bus” is a common scam at many of China’s major tourist attractions such as the Great Wall.
Remember that all public transit is paid only when you get on; they don’t care if you ride the bus or not as it is a communal public bus.
General Travel Tip: You should be wary of anyone or place that aggressively solicits for your money. Most “official” tourist sites and public transportation won’t “pitch” for your money. If there’s a pitch, there’s an angle. Be alert.
Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum
Upon leaving the Terracotta Warriors Museum, there are free shuttle buses to take you to the Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum about 1.5 km away. Just show your entrance ticket to ride the shuttle. The emperor’s tomb has yet to be opened mainly due to the lack of modern techniques to properly preserve the relics found within the tomb. For the most part, the surface of the mausoleum is an expansive park where you can rent bikes to explore further. After spending close to 5 hours exploring the museum, I was rather spent and only took a little stroll through the park of the mausoleum.
I normally look upon ancient artifacts as simply that: ancient. Often an old spear or bowl does little to ignite my sense of imagination: sticks and stones. However, here’s a case where size matters. The magnitude of the Terracotta Army garnered my attention. I looked upon the figures not merely as clay but a time piece recording a slice of history. It was the legacy of an emperor that yearned to rule in the afterlife; the legacy of a man that was obsessed with immortality.
Construction of this Terracotta Army began soon after emperor Qin Shi Huang claimed the throne at age 13. The discovery of the Terracotta Army in 1974 would fulfill the emperor’s wish of immortality but in a much different way than he anticipated.
I can relate to his quest for immortality through my own preoccupation with death as a young boy. I am not an emperor or a king, but what is my legacy to be?
“Archaeology is not what you find, it’s what you find out.” – David Hurst Thomas (Archaeologist)
Have you ever visited the Terracotta Warriors Museum in Xi’an, China? What was your thoughts and experience like? I’d love to hear!