An Army of Clay: Xian’s Terracotta Warriors


Rave reviews from other travellers at our hostel encouraged us to join the hostel’s guided tour of the Terracotta Warriors, however as it turned out there were no spaces available. And so it was back to our original plan of taking the bus there.

Regular buses leave from just outside the South Gate of Xian, and the best way to find the bus is to look for the queue. We were visiting on a Wednesday, and so hadn’t anticipated such a crazy line for the bus! It stretched a good fifty metres in the hot sun, a snaking line of umbrellas, fathers holding places for entire families and other people desperate to push in. We had to wait for about 45 minutes to get on a bus. Fortunately they only allow enough passengers on to fill the seats, although the fuss some people make over where they sit is ridiculous. Still, eventually we were moving and the conductor came around to sell the tickets.

It wasn’t a terribly long bus trip to the Warriors, although it has a few stops along the way. At one almost everyone got off and we were a little concerned that maybe we’d missed it. Fortunately we had not, and soon the bus swung into a giant parking lot lined with stalls. The stalls were a good sign we were in the right place! It was a bit of a walk to the ticket office, through a market of course, being constantly approached by English speaking guides offering their services. It was a little pricey for us – I can’t remember what they wanted but it was a little too much for just the two of us. However, if you were in a group of four or five or more, it would probably be worthwhile. We bought our tickets, and then it was another hike to get into the complex itself.

The Terracotta Warriors are without doubt one of the most famous sights in all of China, for all that they were only discovered decades ago. It’s definitely a must-see when in China, along with the Great Wall [and maybe pandas], and as a result it attracts hordes. I think we were lucky, visiting on a Wednesday – even though it was still summer holidays and the domestic tourists were travelling en masse. There were crowds, but it was nowhere near as bad as I’d anticipated. We were still able to thoroughly enjoy ourselves and get as close as anyone can to the warriors themselves.


The museum consists of three separate ‘pits’, housed in three buildings. Pit 1 houses the most impressive collection, and so we decided to visit this last to ward of disappointment when visiting the smaller pits. I’m glad we did this, as it meant our excitement grew rather than diminished. We started at Pit 2, which didn’t have a whole lot of actual warriors or entire terracotta figures. However, it was interesting to see a number of the excavated pits, and they had a number of specimens in glass boxes – surrounded by groups of Chinese tourists all scrambling to have their photos taken with them, flashes bouncing off the glass while others pushed and shoved to get to the front. Some of the excavated pits had piles of pottery sherds at the bottom, while others seemed combed. And what was probably the single most disappointing thing we saw there was a few empty plastic bottles, lying in there amongst ancient pottery fragments. It actually made me really angry that people care so little for their own cultural heritage, and have so little respect for a fascinating ancient site.


I really enjoyed Pit 3, the smallest pit but one with a number of arranged complete statues of warriors, bureaucrats and horses. The small size made it feel more intimate, and there were fewer people in there at the time which enabled me to pull out my zoom lens and claim a little slice of barrier on which to balance my camera. The figures all stand proud, and while I’d read that each statue has a unique face, I hadn’t really credited it until now. Thousands of warriors were made, and the idea that each one would have a different face seemed a little unrealistic – the thought and detail required would have drastically increased production time. I’ve read that it is generally thought that up to eight different moulds were used for the faces, and individual features were then added. I guess it’s good to be King [or Emperor in this instance] and have legions of skilled craftsmen at your disposal!


Last of all was Pit 1 – the one everyone sees pictures of, where hundreds of terracotta warriors are lined up in barrows under a giant aircraft hangar. Seeing them all lined up really brought back to me the militaristic nature of the warriors, and it was in many ways a little frightening. Once upon a time, every warrior was individually painted and brightly coloured – this would have underscored the martial warning and they truly would have looked formidable.


We entered at the back of the pit, and could see some of the areas still being excavated and others being used to pecs back together the broken warriors. One, almost complete, was for some reason wrapped in plastic wrap. It made me think of airports and those people who get their luggage tightly wrapped by the glad-wrap [saran wrap] machines. Many others were arranged in military formation above ground.


Walking along the side in a clockwise direction we came to the barrows, where hundreds of warriors waited. While they’re not that far away, it would have been nice to have binoculars to really see the details in their faces. Fortunately my camera helped me with this!

The terracotta army was commissioned by Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, in around 246 BCE, and it was buried with him in around 210 – 209 BCE. The belief at the time was that anything the Emperor might need in the afterlife needed to be taken with him. I suppose building an army to defend him out of clay was better than slaughtering an actual army. Apparently in earlier times, the Emperor’s wives or concubines, as well as servants and so forth, would be killed and buried with the Emperor or just buried alive, to ensure they were there to continue serving him in the afterlife. It’s a common enough idea, taking things with you, and is reflected in different cultures around the world. The terracotta warriors made me think of Egyptian ushabti, clay figures representing people who were created to serve the deceased [and do all his work for him] in the afterlife. These too were entombed with the dead – although they tended to be a lot smaller than the Terracotta Warriors. I found myself wondering whether the size of the terracotta army built reflected the Emperor’s ego, that he would conquer new lands in the afterlife, or whether he feared retribution in the afterlife and wished for the protection an army would give him.


As it is, while a number of the pits have been excavated, to date the tomb of Qin Shi Huang himself remains unopened – at least by modern archaeologists. Legends tell how the emperor’s tomb had hundreds of rivers of mercury, and testing apparently indicates that mercury levels are significantly higher than usual. This is just one reason the tomb hasn’t been excavated yet – apparently we lack the technology to excavate while mitigating risk of damage at this time. It’s not certain whether the tomb is intact, or if it was looted in ancient times. So many things still to discover! I can only hope it happens in my lifetime.

It’s hard to describe the thrill of standing before an army of clay men, figures that lay buried for more than two millennia. Looking at a whole army unearthed, the remains of an empire long ago, was pretty exciting. I do get a bit excited about ancient things, especially when they’re as impressive as this.


5 responses to “An Army of Clay: Xian’s Terracotta Warriors

  1. Pingback: Walking the Great Wall of China – Jinshanling | curiouscatontherun·

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