“Treat death as life” –  Chinese proverb

“Death is a prolongation of life. There is life after death – the afterlife” –  Chinese Belief

One of the most startling  archaeological discoveries of the 20th century happened on 29 March 1974 when farmers digging wells in Xi’an, China, found the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China. It has become one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world.


Emperor Qin Shi Huang

Chinese believed in life after death – the afterlife.  So a ruler’s mausoleum was his afterlife palace; and  rulers from the Shang (c.1600-1046 BCE) and Zhou (1046-256 BCE) dynasties had their soldiers, servants, artisans, wives, concubines,  pets  – all alive or slayed – buried  with them to make their afterlife as cosy as their regal life was.

But Qin Shi Huang changed this tradition.  On his death in 210 BCE, he, in “quest for immortality and eternal glory and power,”  had himself buried with an army of life-sized and life-like terracotta warriors, officials, servants, acrobats, strongmen, musicians, horses and chariots – rather than the alive or slayed ones. More than 8,800 sculptures have been found at the site but many more remain buried, especially in the emperor’s mausoleum. More than 42 years after its discovery, less than 1 percent of Emperor’s tomb has been excavated because of fear of damage to the artifacts,  and risk to the diggers from the mercury in the tomb.


Terracotta Army Soldiers

About 700,000 craftsmen and slaves worked for 36 years to sculpt the figures, and build the complex which was a microcosm of the emperor’s imperial palace and compound. They and many others were killed to keep the mausoleum a secret! Huang died before the complex was completed. Still, the incomplete complex, spread over about 56 km-square, is one of the largest necropolis in the world.


Soldier with Chariot, Bronze sculpture

Terracotta soldiers were armed with bronze weapons – battle axes, crossbows, arrowheads and spears – to increase the realism. About 40,000 such weapons were found. They were well preserved, despite remaining buried for more than 2,000 years, because of a protective chrome plating,  a technique first used in modern times in Germany in 1937 and in the US in 1950. A testimony to the sophistication of ancient Chinese metallurgy.

The terracotta figures are life-sized and detailed. Each of the 8000 soldiers has a distinct facial feature, different from every other soldier’s. And different clothing, hair style and height depending on his rank:  the more senior the officer, the taller. They were painted in vivid colored clothing. But the paint flaked off within minute of being exposed to Xi’an’s arid air.


terracota-army-1recreated_colored_terracotta_warriorsterracotta army soldiers 1.jpg

Terracotta soldiers, and Recreated figures of an archer and an officer, showing how they would have looked when painted

Xiang Yu (232 -202 BCE), a warlord,  defeated the Qin in 209 BCE and looted the site which was subsequently burned  that caused the roof to collapse and crush the army figures underneath. The terracotta figures currently on display have been restored from the fragments.


Xiang Yu (232 -202 BCE), a warlord

Qin Shi Huang is often remembered not only as the builder of  the terracotta warriors, but also as a book burner: “I have collected all the writings of the Empire and burnt those which were of no use,” he famously said.

His necropolis,  constructed over 2,200 years ago, is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987, one of the candidates for the “eighth wonder of the world,” and a major tourist site of the world. More than 5 million tourists visited it in 2015.

A must see for every wanderer.


The author (on right) with her young guide (on left) , Tilla, at Xi’an


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