Sunday, July 8

The Terracotta Warriors

The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, was a bit of a megalomaniac.  I guess you have to be if you want to take on the challenge of uniting seven states at war for almost 250 years.  The same self belief probably makes you bold enough to commission construction of a massive defensive wall along the nation’s northern boundary (a wall that future generations would call “The Great Wall of China”).  Even with the approach of death you’d still have the audacity to order the creation of an army of terracotta warriors to protect you in the afterlife.

Without doubt Qin Shi Huang is one of the most pivotal figures in China’s long history.  In 230 BC he set about conquering his warring neighbours.  Over a nine year period he led a series of successful battles, culminating in the conquest of Qi, China’s last independent state.  In 221 BC he declared himself Emperor of united China, marking the start of nearly two millennia of continuous imperial rule.


He died in 210 BC at the age of 49.  His tomb was erected in the Lintong District, about 40km north of Xian.  It was largely ignored until 1974 when local farmers digging a well stumbled across a vast army of terracotta sculptures.  In the years since, archaeological excavations have uncovered thousands of life-like objects including battle-dressed warriors, chariots and horses.  Three pits currently open to the public are believed to hold more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 670 horses, and other assorted non-military figures such as officials, acrobats and musicians.  Archaeologists believe there are thousands more similar objects yet to be found.

Publicly accessible areas of the site are impressive display.  The first, and largest of the excavated pits, is 230 metres long and 62 metres wide.  The entire site is contained in an enclosed hall as large as a football stadium.  Visitors passing through the main entrance are immediately greeted by an elevated view across 11 corridors in which the terracotta sculptures were once aligned.  The sight is breath-taking.  Row upon row of meticulously reassembled figure stretch across the site, representing only a small portion of the 6,000 figures it contains.

The second and third pits are much smaller, but still contain some impressive items.  Pit Two holds a military guard of cavalry and infantry units accompanied by chariots and horses.  Glass case exhibits to side of its covered atrium display some of the best preserved examples of its terracotta warriors.  Pit Three is a command post filled with high-ranking officers and at least one war chariot.  Nearby is a museum that houses some of the site’s rarer artifacts.


Without doubt, my parents loved the entire experience.  Like many visitors they were astonished by the site’s size and scale.  It’s almost a religious experience standing in the presence of such an imposing sight, constructed on such a grand scale.  Equally, like Garry and I were on our first visit, they were left in awe of each warrior’s intricate detail.  Every warrior is custom price.  Each has a unique expression on its face.  No strand of hair is quite the same as its neighbour.  Incredibly, each was once painted in bright, bold colours rather than the drab brown and grey shell on display today. The terracotta warriors really are an unforgettable sight.


On the day we visited, our guide also took us to a nearby factory where modern reproductions are manufactured.  Naturally, there's a kitsch tourist element to much of the venue.  However, it does offer a chance to learn how the original warriors were build.  Clay was man-handled into life-size moulds and left to dry before artisans skillfully sculpted each warriors unique attributes.  I was fascinated by the fact that once the mould is removed, the damp clay form cannot support its own weight without deforming.  The sculpters solve this challenge by carefully propping them up until the clay has finished drying.

We also watched several women replicate this technique on small scale models found in every tourist stall in China.  Mum and Dad bought their own set of warriors in an adjacent showroom.  The sight of thousands of warriors in all manner of sizes was it own impressive sight.

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