Posted by: Anna | October 26, 2011

Terracotta Warriors

We have seen a lot of the “stuff left over” from meglomaniacs, like the Pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal, and now – the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian, China. These warriors, along with terra cotta horses, and originally, chariots, were crafted to make Qin Shi Huang (first emperor of China) a powerful emperor in the afterlife as well. I cannot speak to how effective that strategy was; however, the insane lengths he went to on earth during the construction period blow my mind.

Over 700,000 workers labored to build the pits and warriors. Eighty thousand were killed and placed in mass graves, so that they could never complete such a task again. Emperor Qin Shi Huang was also buried with 3,000 concubines. The warriors have been found in four pits, so far, and archaeologists believe more pits still remain.

We started our tour in the least restored pit, looking out over the collapsed roof and fragments of warriors and horses waiting for attention from archeologists. Our guide, the hilarious Chinese Jie Jie, explained to us what we were seeing. We then had several minutes to wander on our own. We had figured out that another couple on our tour were from Nacogdoches, Texas, so we had the slightly disconcerting sensation of looking at the Terra Cotta warriors while hearing that East Texas twang in conversation. It’s a small world.

View of the first pit, overlooking the collapsed roof before the warriors are unearthed and restored.

During our time to walk around, we saw the only warrior that was found intact, a kneeling archer. He still has a small bit of red paint on his back, making him the only one whose color lasted. All warriors were originally incredibly brightly colored, including one who had a blue face (one, out of thousands) – for reasons unknown. Other warriors, after unearthed, show faded and chipped color, but it fades within thirty minutes of being exposed to air due to oxidation. This warrior, whom Jie Jie called “magic”, was found intact and has (a little) lasting color.

Back view of the magical kneeling archer - you can just see the traces of red on his lower back.

In the second pit, the command center, we saw the generals and guards for the generals. It was much smaller and yet still much more restored than the first. Some of the guards remain headless because they were unfinished when the emperor died, and so they were just closed into the pit sans head. It makes a somewhat amusing image to imagine this afterworld army defending the leaders, although without heads.

Too bad about the heads.

The final pit is the largest, filled with thousands of infantry warriors, still in various states of disrepair. One area has around one hundred that the archeologists are currently working to restore, while the pits are filled with the ones already completed. Each warrior has a different face, build, and uniform (only slightly, with details to reveal his ranking). Small details, like the design of his shoes, reveal whether he is married and his rank.

Notice the upturned toes on some of the shoes - those guys were high ranking, for a clay soldier.

Standing over the final pit, gazing out over hundreds of warrior standing at attention, gives me the sense of power and of conceit undertaking a project like this requires. Even today, with years of restoration completed, at least another fifty years at the same rate remain to restore all the warriors found in the first pit. I’m reminded that all the dedicated effort to leave a monument to greatness fade away and are forgotten in time – the pyramids have been raided, the Taj is filled with irreverent tourists snapping photos…and the warriors were crushed and robbed by the ravages of time.

I'm pretty sure the emperor never imagined us taking our picture like cheesy tourists in front of his army.

Not long after the emperor’s death, another militia broke into the pits, stole most of the weapons, and burned the wooden rafters. After the rafters collapsed, the roof caved in, crushing almost all the warriors. The warriors were forgotten for hundreds of years; a farmer digging a well rediscovered them in 1976. When they were found, the farmers were afraid to unearth them because they feared it was pieces from a Buddhist shrine and might bring bad luck to disturb. We met this farmer; he now signs his book at the bookstore for about $4 per day. The Chinese government paid him very little for his discovery.

The Terracotta Army is definitely one of the most impressive sights in China, with thousands of individually crafted statues waiting to protect the first emperor of China. Like many impressive historical sights, it was created by a madman – the emperor intentionally took mercury every day, knowing it was a poison. He believed that constant exposure to it would protect him from poisoning; unfortunately, he died of mercury poisoning built up in his system, going slowly crazy before his death. It takes a crazy man to build the Terracotta Army.



  1. That is something I have always wanted to see — since I doubt I will return to China I am glad you have shown it to me.

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