The agenda on my fifth day in China called for an early morning flight from Beijing to Xi’an, a city of over 8 million people in Central China. A couple of months earlier, I was talking with someone at an American Chamber of Commerce dinner about my plans to visit China, and he had two pieces of advice for me. First, when I visited Beijing I needed to eat a whole Peking Duck including tongue, liver, feet, etc. and I should find a restaurant that would give me a certificate for having done so; I passed on this advice. His second recommendation was that I needed to make a day trip to Xi’an to see the Terra-Cotta Army. Another friend from the states seconded this suggestion, so I rerouted my itinerary to have a day trip to Xi’an on the way back to Bangkok.
The day began with a 4 a.m. wake-up call so that I could be in a taxi by 4:45 for the ride out to the airport. My flight was scheduled to depart at 7:35, but I was told that I should be at the airport at least two hours ahead of time. However, by 5:30, I had my boarding pass, I was through security, but I was unable to find a cup of coffee since the restaurants and food stands did not open until 6 a.m.! No question, I could have slept for at least one more hour.
The Air China flight was a bit late taking off, so I did not arrive in Xi’an until nearly 10 a.m. My guide and driver were patiently waiting, and we drove for about an hour from the airport (point A on map below) to the museum and pits that contain the Terra-Cotta Army (B).
Construction of this ancient mausoleum began in 246 BCE, when 13 year-old Zhao Zheng was made King of the state of Qín. The building continued for 38 years with as many as 720,000 people working on it during the last phase. When the emperor was buried in 210 BCE, thousands of officials were killed and thousands of craftsmen were buried alive to keep the tomb secret. So far, over 600 satellite pits and tombs have been found within a few miles of the emperor’s burial mound. Over 40 mass graves, believed to house the remains of construction workers, have also been unearthed.
In 221 BCE, Zheng defeated the last of the Warring States (Han, Wei, Chu, Yan, Zhao, and Qi) and unified China under his rule. He proclaimed himself the First Emperor of China, or Qín Shǐ Huáng, and he ruled until his death at age 49. Qín Shǐ Huáng established a centralized state and abolished the feudal system. He was also responsible for building the original Great Wall of China since he had the defensive walls of the states that he had conquered connected in order to protect his newly formed empire.
The Terra-Cotta Warriors were discovered in 1974 by peasants who were drilling a well for water. The drillers found shards of pottery and pieces of bronze weapons, so they alerted the government authorities. Within months, a team of archaeologists began excavating and within five years the Terra-Cotta Museum was open to the public.
This clay army of over 8,000 troops, several hundred horses, and more than 100 chariots was buried in three pits to protect Emperor Qín Shǐ Huáng in the afterlife. Pit One has the bulk of the troops with over 6,000 soldiers in 11 corridors. Pit Two contains a military guard made up of cavalry, infantrymen, and war chariots. Pit Three is the command center complete with high-ranking officers. A fourth nearby pit is empty, perhaps because it was unfinished at the time of the emperor’s death in 210 BC. In addition to the military figures, a miniature replica of Qin’s palace — several offices, halls, and stables — and non-military figures — musicians, acrobats, and public officials — have also been unearthed.
The Terra-Cotta Warriors were created in an assembly line manner with the torso, arms, legs, and head made separately and then joined together for the complete statue. Clay was used to add facial features and expressions so that each face would be different from the rest. While the figures were painted and fired, almost all of the lacquer finish has peeled off with exposure to the air or faded over time.
The life-size figures were placed in battle formation, typically four abreast, in long corridors divided by earthen walls and paved with bricks. The walls supported rafters that were covered by fiber mats; dirt was placed on top to conceal the army 15 to 25 feet below ground level. All of the soldiers were armed with bows, spears, swords, or crossbows.
The Qín Empire lasted just five years after Qín Shǐ Huáng’s death as the peasants revolted against Hu Hai, his son but weak successor. In 206 BCE, rebels looted the weapons from the underground army and then set the structures on fire. When the fire-weakened roof and earth collapsed onto the statues they were broken into pieces. For nearly 40 years now, archaeologists have painstakingly toiled to rebuild the figures by identifying the fragments that go together and then reconnecting them with an epoxy resin. Once a figure has been reconstructed, the archaeologists place it back in the original position in which its pieces had been found. So far, 2,000 Terra-Cotta warriors and horses and 20 wooden chariots have been found and reconstructed in Pit 1; the estimate is that 6,000 figures and 50 chariots were buried in this nearly four-acre area.
In order to better preserve the colors on the recovered terra-cotta statues, Pit 2 and the museum attached to it are noticeably darker than Pit 1. Several reconstructed statues of soldiers, officers, and archers are displayed in the museum to provide visitors with a close-up look at the Terra-Cotta Army.
The museum also has two carriages that were made as one-half scale replicas of those used by the emperor for his inspection tours. Each carriage has two wheels on a single axle and is pulled by four horses. These models were buried in a large wooden coffin in a pit about 70 feet from the emperor’s tomb. Over time, the wood rotted and the earth above collapsed onto the clay horses and bronze chariots. The chariots were discovered in 1980 and it took eight years to restore them.
Da Ci’en Temple
After my visit to the museum, my guide and driver took me to the Westin Hotel in downtown Xi’an (point C on map above). The Da Ci’en Temple, home to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, is located right down the street from the hotel, so I strolled over there before dinner.
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda dates back to 652 (Tang Dynasty) when it was originally built as a five-story structure to hold Buddhist treasures brought back to China from India by Xuan Zang, a Buddhist monk, traveler, and translator. In 704, the pagoda was rebuilt with an additional five stories. In 1556 (Ming Dynasty), an earthquake damaged the pagoda and the current seven story brick structure was constructed.
Two lions guard the temple complex. Immediately upon entering the complex are the Bell and Drum Towers, mirror images of each other; the 15 ton bell in the Bell Tower was cast in 1548 during the Ming Dynasty. As you proceed straight ahead, you come next to the Hall of Mahavira where there is a statue of Buddha flanked by statues of Jiaye and A’nan, two of his key disciples. Behind the Hall of Mahavira is the Sermon Hall followed by the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Finally, there is the Hall of Xuan Zang, where the inner walls are covered with murals carved in marble that tell his story.
Dinner and Dance
For dinner, my guide suggested that I go to the Tang Palace Dance Show. This restaurant featured a Dumpling Banquet that consisted of twenty-some varieties of dumplings stuffed with vegetables, meats, and seafood. After the dinner was over, dancers accompanied by an orchestra performed about 10 dance routines that dated back, not surprisingly, to the Tang Dynasty. The musicians and performers were elaborately costumed and the dances were splendidly choreographed. In many of the dances, the dancers’ costumes had sleeves that extended several feet beyond their fingertips. These sleeves flowed beautifully as the dancers moved around the stage.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.