Xi'an and the Terra-Cotta Soldiers


Upon arriving at the Xi’an airport, I thought perhaps it was immediately adjacent to the downtown area as we saw very large buildings, but how could this be? Well in fact, the high-rise buildings greeting us were actually residential units, downtown was about one hour away.

Some of the area between the Xi’an airport and its downtown area were burial grounds for centuries of national and local leaders. The burial sites were varying heights of dirt mounds—some as large and as high as hills and others a “bump” along the ground.

Over 2,000 years ago, Xi'an was one of the original cities along the Silk Road and became very prosperous. In 2008 driving into the city, it was clear to me that Xi’an was not one of China’s selected cities for economic growth and development. It does not have the modernization, development, or huge growth of Shanghai or Beijing. Perhaps we could now see how most of China really lives.

Our Xi’an hotel was very nice but not in an interesting neighborhood. Never mind, our focus here was to see the buried terracotta army. The excavation site was about 45 minutes from the hotel requiring us to travel through some rural, hilly areas. We knew we were approaching the site because more and more roadside souvenir stores and stalls lined the streets.

In 221 B.C., Ying Zheng became the First Emperor of Qin. He had begun work on his tomb shortly after becoming king of Qin at the age of 13. The tomb area covers about 56 square kilometers. The work took 39 years and took about 700,000 workers to complete, with thousands of workers buried within the tomb. The tomb did have pearls embedded in the ceiling to represent the stars and rivers and lakes were modeled using liquid mercury.

Approximately 8,000 soldiers, horses, and chariots have been excavated. The soldiers are all life-sized, in army position, differing heights, each having unique facial features, and each originally painted. The head, arms, and legs were attached inside of the torso of the clay figure. It is important to note that what we tourists see today is the tedious years of work by scientists, archeologists, and artisans to catalogue and reassemble each figure. The buried sites and figures over the years saw much destruction from earthquakes, looting, and fires. Therefore when discovered and unearthed, each were in dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces.

We were awed at the size of the burial mounds and the extravagance of the concept of creating such a monument, but also with the delicacy in the details of each soldier’s face and in capturing the movement of their body in motion.

Our understanding is that the Chinese have decided not to unearth other sections at this time. A major problem is the brightly painted surfaces quickly deteriorate when exposed to air. Until a method is found to stop this from happening, they will allow them to remain buried.

As part of the tour, we went to a modern terra cotta factory, which still creates figures in the old-fashioned manner. We knew this would be a tourist stop and it was. However, we were happy to find they also made excellent reproduction furniture. We witnessed young apprentices applying lacquer, inserting inlay and positioning mother of pearl.

Out next stop was centuries-old palace and spa. This lovely site is the setting for one of China’s favorite love stories, a legend about the most beautiful woman in China.

The center of Xi'an is attractive, with its bell tower and portions of ancient city wall. We did find a nice shopping section for antiques, everyday goods, and souvenirs in this area; as well as a great dumpling restaurant. The dumpling house had a special samples meal that you could order. We ordered this and each received perhaps a dozen types of dumplings, in addition to salad, soup, rice, and deserts. Yum.

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