The Terracotta Army of Xi’an

In the early 1970s, a peasant farmer in communist China was digging a well in a village outside Xi’an and unearthed a few pottery fragments. He thanked his luck as the local government gave him 10 yen for the find (at the time the average worker got 50 yen a month), but that was just the beginning. In the most classic case of a life not turning out the way expected I’ve ever heard, the farmer became an international celebrity because he’d unwittingly stumbled across the terracotta army-


(You can still meet the farmer by the way. When not meeting foreign dignitaries he sits around autographing books for tourists.)

Now let me say this: I have seen a decent number of things on this planet of ours by now, but the terracotta army was definitely one of the most impressive of them. Imagine if you will a pottery carving of a warrior 2,200 years ago that is an exact likeness of him- right down to the treads of his shoes indicating he was married, the wrinkles in his forehead to account for age, and even the pointedness of his shoes showing his status- which would certainly be impressive on its own. But now imagine thousands of them, 8,000 or so, and a few hundred cavalry, and you begin to get an idea of the sheer scale involved here-They were, of course, all buried here as part of the elaborate tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. He believed that he’d live a life after death underground so naturally he needed his military to go along with him (in two main pits and a command headquarters behind them) and recent excavations have yielded terracottta acrobats, bronze animals for hunting, and several thousand (actually human, non-facsimile) concubines. They also found the pits holding the bones of several thousand workers: in order to keep the secret of the tomb, they were all killed once construction was finished…

Me standing next to my favorite of the terracotta warriors, though I suppose it’s not as much him that I found interesting so much as his horse. The horses were fired with a hole in their side to ensure the clay didn’t crack during firing whereas the soldiers themselves were fired headless, hence getting around the problem.

Another favorite is the kneeling archer- he used to have a crossbow in his hand, but of course everything wooden rotted away long ago. Those people behind him all have those looks of excitement on their faces because he’s one of the very few soldiers who still has original paint on him in the form of a few red stripes- all the soldiers were elaborately painted originally, but the paint oxidizes after a half hour of exposure to the air when they’re excavated. Luckily a recent development from a German team has resulted in a compound which allows the color to remain, so hopefully we’ll have many painted warriors to admire in a few years!

Speaking of which, one of the things that impressed me the most about the terracotta army is how it still really is a work in progress- only a fraction of the warriors have been excavated because it takes so long to put together the jumbled fragments again, and they’re estimating it will take a hundred years to finish the job. (Which led me to conclude the Chinese are a patient lot- can you imagine Americans agreeing to wait so long to ensure the job is done correctly?) They’re still 20-30 years off from opening the Emperor’s tomb itself because they’re unwilling to open it until they’re certain they have the technology to preserve it, which means now I’m determined to come back. Can you imagine what the tomb itself must be like if this is just the introduction?

3 responses to “The Terracotta Army of Xi’an

  1. Great post and great pictures Yvette! I was lucky enough to have been in Xi’an 6 years ago and keep meaning to do a blog post – yours is awesome enough to have saved me the trouble 🙂

    Did you buy yourself one of the little replicas to ship home?

    • Thanks Clare! Xi’an was definitely one of my favorite places in China. 😀

      Never got one of the replicas because I’m not exactly certain where “home” is going to be so it seemed a little silly. I totally would’ve if I had a garden though!

  2. Pingback: 2011: A Year in Review | Where is Yvette?

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