An ambitious first emperor

If you think the leaders of the modern world could do with an ego reduction, compared with the emperors of Imperial China, Trump, Putin and co. are humbler than a honeymoon in Hereford. The founder of the Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang, is a prime example. Although his reign over unified China would only last a decade (220BC – 210BC) he still managed to conquer the entire country, connect the Great Wall, and create a mausoleum for himself that was the size of a small city.

What Qin Shi Huang placed within his expansive tomb would go on to form one of the world's most recognisable ancient feats and, more than two millennia later, the Qin emperor's terracotta army continues to shines a light on the might of China.

The discovery of a time capsule

Lying undiscovered for over 2,000 years, Shi Huang's necropolis was eventually unearthed in the mid-1970s by farm labourers who inadvertently stumbled upon bronze arrowheads and fragments of clay pottery whilst working the land in Shaanxi province. Over the course of the next four decades, excavations would reveal not only the skill and ingenuity of the craftsmen of 2,000 years previous, but also the tyrannical use of human labour that would have been required to dig out the massive pits which extended to an area larger than 55 sq km.

An army of 8,000 life-sized warriors would be released from the freshly tilled soil, charcoaled lumber and rotted matter at the base of Mount Lishan and, in so doing, would place the Chinese city of Xi'an firmly on the map for historians and tourists alike.

Unveiling ancient China

Standing at varying heights above two metres, no two members of the old model army were alike, leading some to believe that the figures were replicas of real-life individuals. Although it's safer to suggest they were built to represent regional features and, in so doing, symbolised the unification of China. Tunics, facial expressions and hairstyles had all been created in clay to relate to a soldier's rank, duties and importance within the army. Each and every figure would have been painted and coated in a coloured finish down to the last knotted whirl of a statue's inner ear.
A culmination of 6,000 crouching archers, charioteers, standing soldiers and mounted cavalry were all discovered within two huge pits as excavations began towards the end of the 1970s. But it wouldn't be until two decades later, in 1994, that the finds would be revealed to the public. Archaeologists would also discover the nerve centre of Qin Shi Huang's military operations within a third pit where 68 senior commanders, flanked by a four-horse-drawn battle chariot, were found waiting to lead, or call, the rest of the terracotta troops to war.
Although a fourth pit was also unearthed, it was found to be empty, which could well mean that the emperor died before it was due to be populated.

An insight into the court of Qin

Not only does this find provide us with incredible insight into the power of the Qin dynasty but, thanks to the elaborate designs and intricate attention to detail, historians now have first-hand evidence as to what life in China, 2000 years ago, would have looked like. Alongside the rows of military personnel, other clay sculptures were uncovered including bronze birds, acrobatic troupes and bands of musicians. All provided historians with further glimpses into those in attendance at the court of Qin.

Ancient attitudes to the afterlife were also explained, as particularly those of the egocentric leader Qin Shi Huang. His belief was that he could cheat mortality by preparing for life after death surrounded by life-sized clay statues designed to strike fear into all who dwelt in Diyu, the subterranean labyrinth of the dead.

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Entering the time machine

Although archaeological excavations have revealed hundreds of other pits, vaults and chambers, the three main pits that are open to the public continue to offer the most exciting experience. Surrounding the pits is a raised walkway, rather like in a museum, where you can observe the soldiers in their entirety from a superior vantage point. Huge domes hang overhead to keep the rain off and keep temperatures at an optimum level to continue the preservation of the terracotta. Alongside the pits you'll find exhibition rooms dedicated to retelling the story of the discovery, along with the recovered artifacts and images that have helped to bind together the 2,000-year-old threads of Chinese history and enlighten modern travellers from around the world.
Domestic flights or overnight sleeper trains whisk you from China's capital, Beijing, to Xi'an. Experience two ancient capital cities in one tour, with the chance to continue a tour onwards to the pandas of Chengdu or the legendary kung fu temples of Shaolin. Getting to the terracotta warriors will take you 20km east of downtown Xi'an and within two km of Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum. Attracting more than two million visitors a year, the site of the terracotta warriors can get busy, especially in the peak months from April to October, although there's usually plenty of balcony space to go round without feeling the need to keep moving.

An organised tour allows you to combine a visit to the terracotta warriors and sightseeing in Xi'an, with the Wild Goose Pagoda and the Drum & Bell tower flicking through more chapters of China's lengthy history book.

It can be tempting to merely observe the terracotta warriors like museum exhibits. However, it's much better to visit with a knowledgeable guide who will be able to bring the statues to life and get you in and out of Xi'an at the best time for avoiding the crowds. The unearthing of the terracotta warriors lets us into the workings of ancient China and the way common folk would have been used as cheap labour, so try to visit with an open mind, without the ego, and you'll discover why this site represents much more than just another tick on the tourist trail.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Nick Turner] [An ambitious first emperor: christels] [The discovery of a time capsule: denis pan] [Unveiling ancient China: Gerd Eichmann] [Entering the time machine: Aaron Greenwood]