Thursday, 31 January 2019

Terracotta Army - Xi'an, China - A Wonder of the World

 We were all pretty excited to be heading off this morning to see the extraordinary Terracotta Army, a major highlight of our trip to China. The Terracotta Army is an astonishing example of funerary art created  between  246-209 BC  by order of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, who was just 13 at that time.  More than 700,000 workers worked on the army designed to protect the Emperor in the after life.

Ornate Chinese furniture
Of course, there was the obligatory commercial stop before reaching our destination but  the demonstration at the factory, which produces good quality replicas of the army, was interesting none the less.  We spent more time than we wanted to in the adjoining shop and were all itching to get going to view the actual army but I was rather pleased with the model of a general I bought and admit I was fascinated by the extremely ornate furniture for sale in the furniture gallery.

At last we were off, a short bus ride and then about a 15 minute walk from the parking area to the actual pits to view the army. I enjoyed the walk on this clear sunny day, a row of misty mountains forming a romantic backdrop to the site. Being part of a tour group has both advantages and disadvantages.  You are obliged to visit commercial enterprises that don't really interest you but you also have immediate and preferential access to places of interest. We were through the gates in no time accompanied by a local guide who gave us an interesting talk about  the history, origins and discovery of the army, prior to us entering Pit 1

The vast Pit 1. Restored warriors in front, shattered warriors behind.  
It is hard to put into words what an incredible sight Pit 1 is.  To put it into some sort of perspective it is 230 metres (750ft) long by 62 metres (203ft) wide and contains more than 6000 life sized figures in 11 brick paved corridors.  The ceiling, which  would have been beam and post with a woven reed matting over the top, eventually rotted and collapsed  shattering the warriors.  There they lay buried for around 2000 years until some local farmers decided to build a well in 1974 and discovered fragments which led to a massive, and ongoing, archaeological dig.  No one knew how immense the site would be and in fact ground radar and core sampling suggest that there may be as many as 100 more, as yet uncovered, pits in the surrounding 98 square kilometers (38 square miles) of countryside.

Fragments laid out ready for assembly ....
....and completed warriors.  

All the complete warriors have been painstakingly restored. It is estimated that this site contained 8000 warriors, 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses.  Most would have been carrying weapons although it appears many weapons were  looted at or soon after their creation. Even so around 40,000 bronze items of weaponry, such as swords, daggers, spears and arrow heads have been discovered in and around the pits.
How the pits appeared when uncovered. A jumble of parts caused by the collapsing roof.
The army was originally painted with
vibrant lacquer like this.  It must
have been an amazing sight

(Photo by Mary Harrsch)
The figures were modeled in parts and then assembled.  Hands, arms and heads were made in molds with the final details hand carved later. There are distinctly different faces on the soldiers who wear uniforms and hairstyles particular to their rank with generals being larger in size. Originally painted in bright lacquer it was found that the lacquer dissolved quickly with exposure to air leading archaeologists to believe the pits may have been hermetically sealed.

Pit 1 is  a vast and extraordinary sight but the other much smaller pits, 2 and 3, are no less interesting.  Pit 2 is considered to be the most complete discovered so far as it contains infantries, cavalries, charioteers and archers.  It covers 6000 square metres (7176 sq yards) with only approx one sixth of it excavated so far. The building housing Pit 2 also contains an exhibition hall where you can view  some of the  warriors and two spectacular bronze chariots close up.
Newly restored and partly restored warriors  and horses in Pit 1
Pit 3 is the smallest of the three pits at 17.6 metres long (19.2 yards) and 21.4 metres (23.4 yards) wide.  Because of the positions of the warriors it is believed to be the command centre for the army. Gold and bronze decorations and a distinctive chariot and four horses were also discovered in this pit.

I was absolutely thrilled to view the Terracotta Army. It is, to my mind, one of the wonders of the ancient world.  Although it has UNESCO protection it amazes me that it does not feature on lists of wonders of the world.  I have always believed that we should not try to put our 21st century brain into the head of a person from earlier times to try and second guess their thinking.  Was the creation of the army unbelievable narcissism, or was it something else?  I guess we will never know.  It did get me thinking, though, that if this was discovered as recently as 1974, quite by chance, what else is there as yet undiscovered in the world.  Who knows? 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I have loved every bit of this well-constructed, insightful blog on China. Many things I can relate to but unfortunately I never got to witness the terra cotta warriors. Bravo Miriam, well done.