Jewels of Xi’an: The Terracotta Warriors

This is the last installment (for now at least) of my series about the highlights of my temporary home town- Xi’an, China. I saved the city’s biggest attraction for last…

China’s underground army.

I actually visited the Terracotta Warriors during my first trip to Xi’an back in October, but I never really wrote about them. I meant to, as an archeology buff I was really excited to see them, had even been to the exhibition in London, but in person I felt kind of underwhelmed. Unlike the Great Wall of China, where I literally couldn’t find the words, for the Warriors I just didn’t have much to say.

That doesn’t, however, mean that they aren’t worth seeing.

I think ultimately the story of the Terracotta Warriors is the most exciting part of the experience. The Emperor Qin Shi Huang was 13 years old when he ordered this elaborate tomb for himself to be constructed. It looks pretty much like what most 13 year old boys might wish for: there were originally 8000 soldiers, 670 horses and 150 chariots. It was a vast clay army for the ruler to lead into the underworld. That’s not all: there were literal rivers of mercury, palaces, riches and 100 live concubines buried with the Emperor.

So what happened after the emperors people spent 36 years building this amazingly opulent tomb? They completely and utterly forgot about it. For 2000 years nobody had any idea it was there, lying underground. Then one day in 1974 a group of farmers digging a well happened upon the site and well… the rest is history. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the major tourist attractions in China. It is the first, and to most people probably the only, thing that Xi’an is known for outside of China.

So if you come to my city in China you will go to see the Terracotta Warriors, no doubt about it. And there’s no denying that the very first moment is amazing, when you walking into Dig Site #1 an see an area the size of a football field housing a literal army of life size warriors. There are hundreds of them and each one is slightly different (and originally they were all painted as well- can you imagine the man hours that went into this?). There are foot soldiers, archers, generals and more- huge battalions of clay people at the ready. You kind of have to wonder who this Emperor thought he was going to be fighting post-mortem.

And it was pretty cool to see the Chinese archeologists working to restore the soldiers. As you can imagine, being buried underground for 2000 years resulted in a lot of crushed men that now need to be carefully piece back together.

In the end though, there are only so many giant stone soldiers you can look at. As a whole the setup is amazingly elaborate, but the truth is there’s not a whole lot to see just now. Most of the huge burial site, including the Emperors actual tomb has not yet been excavated. The Chinese simply don’t have the technology to explore the site without totally wrecking it, so they are keeping it safely underground for now. What we see today is really just the outskirts, who knows what lies inside the main tomb.

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15 thoughts on “Jewels of Xi’an: The Terracotta Warriors”

  1. I thought the terra cotta warriors were incredible — but that’s also probably because a long, long time ago, I saw a documentary on them, and it stuck in my imagination. So it made seeing them in real life extra special.

  2. Oooh I’d love to see what’s inside the main tomb! Although the 100-live-concubines that were buried with Qin Shi Huang may be a bit gruesome by now…

  3. I was planning on heading to Xian and seeing them last year but changed my travel route and ended up climbing a mountain instead and didn’t really think twice about it again. Don’t get me wrong I do want to see them…eventually but I figured they were just that, a bunch of terracotta dudes in an airplane hanger and they weren’t gonna change anytime soon! Heaps of friends I know have seen them and said the same thing, they were underwhelming. Maybe if they put a giant movie screen in the background playing some epic movie about their history then It might feel a little less underwhelming. 🙂

  4. The Warriors actually look pretty cool from your pictures and I would love to see them myself at some point.

    But I also understand what you mean about being underwhelmed – I wonder if that has to do with how we “build up” famous monuments/sites in our minds, imagining how cool they will be, but when we finally get there, it’s just not quite what we expected and we end up feeling underwhelmed. So that feeling is not so much a factor of the site lacking in any way itself, but our own expectations being too high?

    1. That’s possible. I did have high expectations, especially after seeing the exhibition in London.

      I also had high hopes for the Great Wall of China though, and that TOTALLY lived up to it’s reputation, so it’s hard to say.

  5. This looks incredible! It’s crazy to think that after all the work that went into creating these thousands of warriors, they were completely forgotten about! How does that happen?!

  6. I can see that without the kind of museum-like set up, it can be a little “meh” to see them. I missed the travelling exhibit that took them to the High in Atlanta, and it would be amazing to see them in person. I think though, in this case, the travelling exhibit might give more context and history than the actual site.

  7. Agree with both comments above-I saw them in 2006 and was underwhelmed, then when I am sure the site was even less enhanced than it is now. It is a very cool story, and it’s cool to tell my students I have been there, but when there in person, I was just kind of saying to myself “is there something else?” I bet if I went back now or in a year or two, I might appreciate it more.

  8. I can understand why it might be underwhelming to see them in the place they are housed, surrounded by lots of other visitors. I agree that you have to imagine the history behind them while you’re there to give extra effect. Still can’t wait to see these, hopefully at some point next year!

  9. Sometimes I think the story behind some sites are the most amazing part, it’s a pretty awesome story, but I can see where it could be a little underwhelming once you get there. I had no idea that it was actually in some sort of football field sized hangar. Takes a bit away from the magic maybe.

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