Not many archeological finds stunned the world as much as the chance discovery of the Terracotta Army by three farmers who were drilling a water well to the East of Mount Lishan in Chinese Shaanxi Province in March 1974. Excavations were immediately begun and soon it became evident that this area would become a prime archeological attraction not only in China but for the whole world.
Immediately after his ascent at Qin’s throne at the age of 13 years in the year 245 BC the later first Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuangdi ordered to commence the work on his burial place. Qin’s vision was to structure a mausoleum to be protected eternally by a completely weaponed army. Geomances choose a favorable site East of ancient Qin’s capital Xianyang which was close to today’s Xi’an. According to records more than 700,000 workers were involved to erect the physical structure and it took 35 years to complete. A lot of prisoners and forced labourers participated to realize Qin’s gigantic vision.
Emperor Qin who also ordered the construction of the nearly infinite Wall of China likely ordered the burning of all the books before him. As Jorge Luis Borges writes burning books and building fortications is common task to emperors, the only thing singular about Shihuangdi is the scale which he operated. Borges text “The Wall and the Books” was published 1961 when there was no knowledge about the First Emperor’s colossal mausoleum. Qin proclaimed the “Empire of Thousand Generations” which should last only 16 years and broke up five years after his death but it was the beginning of the unification of the Chinese territory by a centralized state by an absolute monarch.
It was in Zagreb in former Yugoslavia in the 1980s when I saw some of the terracotta warriors for the first time when they were main attractions of a touring exhibition through Europe. At that time it was not easy for foreigners to visit China and the knowledge of Chinese history and culture was not very frequent.
On my first trip to Xi’an in 2001 I was to visit the army and was overwhelmed by the huge number of warriors and visitors as well.
In the last 25 years China has undergone massive change and nowadays there is an inflational number of documentary reports about China.
I came back in September 2008 when I took part in the conference of the International Ceramic Academy after participating a show at the Shanghai Arts & Crafts Museum and spending one week in the pleasant town of ZhuJiaJiao.
Travelling in China in September can be rather hard because of humidity and temperature and so it was also in Xi’an. The city had changed a lot in seven years and with a population of 8 millions the number of residents doubled. It was obvious that tourism played a prominent role in economics in this area.
The world famous Museum of the Terracotta Soldiers and Horses is one of the main attractions the Chinese call the eighth world wonder although the Shaangxi Povince has a lot more to offer. Most remarkable the Shaanxi History Museum where next to numerous ancient potteries also a lot of terracotta warriors are exhibited. The exemplary fine display makes it much easier to study all the details than at the warriors in the original location.
The museum site is a main scenic spot of Shaanxi Province near the small town of Lintong in one hour’s driving distance to Xi’an. It is situated one and a half kilometer East to the burial mound and was opened in 1979. Nowadays it is visited by more than three millions mostly Chinese visitors every year. It stands on a very large property surrounded by pine groves and gardens kept immaculate by a number of janitors and groundskeepers.
Today a quarter of the whole area is opened, the main attraction has still to be discovered – the tomb itself remains unopened. Given the rate of change in China it will be interesting to see if this policy is sustained. The idea that there is maybe the world’s most significant archeological site may prove harder to resist in future.
After passing numerous hawkers which is as bugging as always in China one arrives at the museum area with the information center where one of the farmer who unearthened the warriors is still signing books. Next is an audio visual center which shows a 360° video about the Emperor’s period and how the terracotta army was discovered.
There are four main buildings to visit: three halls to protect the discovered pits from the elements which were constructed on their original sites and the museum building.
Pit one is a huge hall with more than 6,000 soldiers and horses of which only a part is unearthened while pit two hosts about 1,400 figures and pit three consists of about seventy figures.
Entering the hangar-like hall with pit one I was surprised about its dimensions, more than 230 meters in length, and 62 meters wide. Of course you cannot expect to be alone but I was annoyed of having such a crowd of visitors inside. Unfortunately visitors are only allowed to use pathways around the pit in some higher level which was diappointing to me because of the viewer’s distance to the terracotta figures. The halls are air conditioned and have discreet lighting so it is not easy to take pictures. In this hall only a smaller part of the army is unearthed, standing on brick floors they are arranged in corridors with pillars and beams that once supported a roof. This roofs consisted of layers of fiber and was then covered by earth to conceal the army’s location. Emperor Qin obviously wished to have a complete army to protect him afterlife in his tomb. Although because of the distance and diffuse light viewing is more complicate it is very impressive to view the variety of clothing, facial features and expressions, they differ also in size and volume and each face is individually molded. There are grimaces of concentration, looks of arrogance, and perhaps some smile.
There also differences in their military rank, there are archers, charioteers, infantry, even the rear guard standing at full attention to be called upon. Originally they wore real weapons. A lot of warriors miss their heads which were mounted afterwards to the body. Later I read that the names of the craftsmen creating each figure were inscribed on the soldier’s robe, leg or armor.
I can well imagine the high skills of the craftmen 2200 years ago molding these figures and firing the soldiers and especially the life-size horses in their large kilns. Vast amount of wood had to be acquired to fire the kilns to the temperature of around 1000°.
There are remnants of colour which can be regarded as well. There is evidence that all the warriors were laquer painted in red blue and green and I read about when the figures were unearthened the colour very soon disappeared. Not until 2004 German research lead to successful techniques in preserving the colours.
Some soldiers are badly damaged but most of them are remarkable well preserved. This is the more astonishing as five years after the death of Emperor Qin after the looting of the tomb the wooden structures were set on fire and a blaze started lasting over three months. Despite this fire much of the remains of the army still survive in various stages of preservation, surrounded by remnants of the burned wooden structions.
The halls of pit two and pit three are of much smaller size and apparently contain the high command and charioteers and also some kneeing archers. They are mostly in more damaged condition and a lot of work is waiting to restore them to their original form.
I read about the problems that the warriors were suffering from “nine kinds of mold” caused by raised temperatures and humidity and the breath of visitors. Figures have become oxidised grey from being exposed to air, which may cause destroyed details and falling arms, and there are some pollution problems evident as well introduced from coal burning plants responsible for the decaying of the clay statues. So there might be a tribute due to the huge number of people visting the site that the details of the extremely well crafted figures are vaguely perceptible except some examples exhibited in the exhibition spaces next pit two in the second hall.
Today all around the area and in Xi’an city there are numerous manufactures producing and shops selling replicas of the warriors in all sizes and it seems that today’s craftsmen want to demonstrate that they still have the same skills as in Emperor Qin’s time more than 2200 years ago.
Velden, November 2008