In March of 1974, some farmers were drilling a well near Xi’an, in the Shanxi Province of China, when they unearthed several large stone statues. Archaeologists descended upon the place, finally uncovering what we now know as the Terracotta Warrior Army (bingma yong in Chinese), sometimes called the 8th world wonder.
The army is basically a huge tomb, built by China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, to guard his passing and help him rule in the afterlife. Qin Shi Huang ruled the country between 247 – 221 B.C. and was the first leader to unite all of China under one form of government. But the emperor also had a sinister side. He was fanatical and despotic and used his power for grandiose schemes that often left thousands dead (like the building of the Great Wall). He was also obsessed with his own mortality, which led him to construct the warrior army.
In 246 B.C. (just after Qin gained power), work began on his mausoleum. 700,000 workers were employed to build the necropolis, which was more than just a tomb. Aside from the 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots and 670 horses that comprise the army, the complex also houses offices, halls, entrance gates and other structures. Much more than a tomb, this mausoleum was actually a palace.
The figures were made from a type of ceramic called terracotta, which means, “baked earth” in Italian. They were manufactured out of local clay in government workshops by thousands of craftsmen using a variety of different molds. Later, more clay was added and shaped so that each soldier and horse has its own unique facial expression. They vary in height, but all are life-size or larger – between 6’-6’5”.
The three pits where the army has been and is being excavated were eventually turned into a visitor’s center and museum. Structures and buildings were placed over and around the pits so that tourists could get as close as possible to the statues without harming them in a move. The largest of the three pits, where the majority of soldiers have been uncovered, is a sight to behold. They stand in perfect rows along dirt paths, the exact spots where they were first placed thousands of years ago for Qin Shi Huang himself. The massive airplane hangar-sized room only enhances the view, displaying just how many statues there are.
Anyone can visit the Terracotta Warrior Army. It is a short 30-minute drive from Xi’an to the museum. Inexpensive day tours can be booked from Xi’an, which provide an English-speaking guide who gives commentary on each pit. Conversely, the trip can be done by private car or public bus from one of the bus stations in Xi’an.