While everyone’s heard of Xian’s most famous attraction – the Terracotta Warriors – fewer have heard of the nearby Tomb of Jingdi, now an excellent museum also known as Han Yang Ling Museum. It’s a little further from Xian and less accessible by public transport, but well worth the visit. I’d say it’s an absolute essential if you’re visiting Xian. We’d read of it in the Lonely Planet guide, and the hostel we were staying at ran tours if enough people were interested, including transport and the entrance fee, for 160 RMB.
It took about forty-five minutes to get to the site by minivan, and we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. Entering the site we were led by the driver, who spoke no English, to the museum where we were instructed to put on little blue fabric socks over our shoes. To me this was a sign that something was going to be pretty interesting – we’d be either walking on glass, or there was some kind of precious amazing floor or something.
The museum is entirely underground, and it was lovely to escape the heat into the cool, dark museum. We were led down a ramp, at which point the purpose of the little shoe-covers became evident. The museum was built over a number of the burial pits, and the floor was of glass to enable the visitor to see what was below. It was dimly lit inside, with warm lights below to enable us to see clearly into the pits.
Emperor Jingdi [Liu Qi] was the fourth emperor of the Western Han Dynasty [206 BCE - 24 CE] of China and was buried at the absolute centre [dead centre?] of the complex, in accordance with his rank. In a striking contrast to the martial nature of the Terracotta Warriors, the Tomb of Jingdi had dozens of burial pits filled with objects and figurines of a more domestic and everyday kind, illuminating the lives not only of the royal family but of everyday people. Apparently, the layout of the pits was designed strictly in line with imperial hierarchy, and the pit locations and many of the items found were representative of the government divisions, with 18-inch high ceramic human figures that once had been dressed in accordance with their occupation and rank. Others were filled with domestic animals, while others held figurines of women in various dress. And of the thousands of human figurines, which are now lacking arms – when made, they had movable wooden arms – there was a mixture of men, women and eunuchs. More than two thousand years after their burial [construction was completed in 126 BCE], the wooden arms have long since rotted away, along with their clothes. Fortunately the heat of the countryside preserved fragments of these, enabling archaeologists to reconstruct what it may have looked like when created.
I looked online to see if there was any information or theories as to the small size of the figurines. I’m sure there are plenty of logical reasons, but one Chinese travel website claims it was because the emperors were from south-eastern China and the people there like small and delicate goods. I’m not sure if this is based on reliable evidence, but I’m hazarding a guess that it’s probably not the real reason. Still, it made me smile.
Interestingly, the burial pits were not filled in at the time. Instead, they had wooden ceilings held up with wooden beams. Again, the passage of time eventually caused the wood to rot away and the earth to collapse in around them. They had also recreated a replica of what one pit may have looked like back in the day.
We visited the Han Yang Ling Museum before seeing the Terracotta Warriors, and we both felt far more excited by the Tomb of Jingdi than the more-famous Warriors. I’m not sure whether this is due to the intimate nature of visiting the complex, where you can see not only beautifully excavated and restored figurines in the museum but partially excavated as well as restored-and-replaced figures inside the original pits, or whether it was the more domestic scenes including women and eunuchs and animals. It may also have been that while the Warriors were crowded and felt very commercialised [not that this was unexpected - they're possibly the second most famous sight in China after the Great Wall!], there were far fewer visitors at the museum and thus the quieter atmosphere may have allowed a more personal, reflective experience.
Inside the museum they also have a holographic show. We didn’t know what it was when our driver handed us all little tiny boxes with headphones and ushered us into a tiny theatre. We waited a few minutes for the theatre to fill up, and were all very pleasantly surprised when the curtains opened and small holographic images appeared. Given the size of the stage I’d actually been expecting some kind of puppet show. This was better. In fact, I found it incredibly impressive. Unfortunately the little headphones with the English translation of the show had a maximum volume of about two, and after pressing them into my ears for the first five minutes trying desperately and unsuccessfully to hear what they were saying over the incredibly loud Chinese narration, I gave up and decided to just enjoy the show. And it was brilliant. The holographic images had the most beautiful costumes, and they looked so real and so three-dimensional. The set would darken briefly and open up onto another scene so rapidly I figured that the small set must revolve vertically. Watching the holograms move around the solid sets was quite exciting.
We had a brief look in their attached souvenir shop, which apparently sells genuine antiques as a rather nice pendant we asked about turned out to cost about $3000. Apparently it was almost 200 years old. Needless to say the pendant was still there when we left!
I really can’t stress it enough. If you’re going to Xian, go to the Tomb of Jingdi/Han Yang Ling Museum. Just go. It’s better than the Terracotta Warriors. I’m not saying skip those – of course you can’t – but this is just as essential. If you’re really short on time and only have one day, cough up the cash for a taxi and do both.