The Ageless Battalion: Visiting the Terracotta Army in Xian, China

An army of some 9,000 warriors protects the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. (Source: iStock / MediaProduction)

The story of the Terracotta Army begins, as many do, with conflict: In the ancient Chinese world of 220 BCE, lands were perpetually riven with internecine warfare, tribal skirmishes, and volleys of power. Competing states expanded and contracted, depending on their momentary strengths and weaknesses, creating a constantly unstable environment for the Chinese people. Until, that is, the rise of Emperor Qin Shi Huang and his campaign for a unified China — memorialized in his world-famous tomb.

First, a history of the first emperor of China

As an heir to the throne of the State of Qin — an enormous swath of territory in western China that accounted for almost half of modern China — Emperor Qin Shi Huang (born with the name Zhao Zheng) was destined to be a leader. His early days were tumultuous, however; his father died when he was only 13, leaving a regent named Lao Ai in charge of the kingdom.

What unfolded shortly after his father’s death was nothing short of soap opera-esque: Lao Ai was uncovered in a plot to unseat Zhao Zheng by cozying up to his mother and scheming to put his own son on the throne. Predictably, Zhao Zheng unleashed the full force of his armies on Lao Ai, chasing him and his men to the far reaches of Qin. On several occasions, the wily once-regent escaped the young king’s grasp — but his elusion would not continue. With several of his family members soon executed or imprisoned for Lao Ai’s treachery, the exhausted traitor committed suicide. Finally, Zhao Zheng was the uncontested King of Qin.

An artistic rendering of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
An artistic rendering of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Freed from serious attempts on his life and throne, Zhao Zheng was able to successfully launch campaigns against the largest of the warring Chinese states, felling Han, Zhao, Yan, Wei, and Chu by 223 BCE. The last of the states to elude his grasp was Qi, which ultimately caved to an assault in 221 BCE. For the first time in history, all Chinese states were united under one ruler: the King of Qin, who adopted the new name and title Emperor Qin Shi Huang (loosely translated as “The First Emperor who hails from Qin”).

During his reign, the emperor modernized and unified China in various ways. He standardized weights, measures, and currency; built an extensive network of roads and canals for easier transportation; and unified the Chinese script for improved communication. Forever a military man, Emperor Qin Shi Huang also began building the now-famed Great Wall in an effort to protect Chinese lands from the invading Xiongu people to the north. His work on the wall would continue under future emperors, ultimately expanding the bulwark to over 13,000 miles.

Despite his monumental achievements, the emperor lived only another 10 years. He died in 210 BCE, purportedly due to the ingestion of mercury pills which court physicians believed would give him immortal life. Oops.

The Terracotta Army

Life-sized infantrymen, archers, and cavalry make up the thousands in Xian's necropolis. (Source: iStock / dndavis)
Life-sized infantrymen, archers, and cavalry make up the thousands in Xian’s necropolis. (Source: iStock / dndavis)

Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s burial site (a full city of the dead, really) and vast terracotta army was completed in about 209 BCE. A vast tomb of infantry, charioteers, horses, and elite warriors — numbering almost 9,000 in total — was buried with the emperor to protect him as he rode into the afterlife.

Interestingly, the project began during Zhao Zheng’s life in around 246 BCE, spanning some three decades and the work of more than 700,000 laborers. What many do not know is that the Terracotta Army is only one feature of a sprawling necropolis of almost 40 square miles. The expansive site includes replicas of palaces and towers, precious artifacts, and simulacra of flowing rivers, filled with mercury.

So far, four pits have been discovered, excavated to about 23 feet deep. Pit 1 is where most of the terracotta army resides — some 6,000 strong — as well as hallways, separate burial chambers for nobles, and a vast wooden “ceiling” with overlaid clay for waterproofing.

Perhaps the most impressive element of the entire necropolis is the sheer size of the figures within it. Warriors in the terracotta army are life-sized and feature different facial and body types for different military classes. Among them, visitors can see kneeling archers, cavalrymen with pillbox hats, standing infantry, and high-ranking generals. To provide the finish to these deeply realistic figures, laborers painted them with azurite, iron oxide, fired bone, and other natural elements.

Historians theorize that the building of these warriors was completed in assembly-line fashion. Heads, arms, legs, and torsos were created separately and then assembled and painted before being placed in the emperor’s tomb. Even more realistic, the warriors were fitted with real weapons (many of which were snatched up by looters over the centuries, unfortunately).

Visiting Xian, China and the Terracotta Army

As you can imagine, there’s plenty to see in and around the necropolis in Xian. To avoid wasting time at sites that don’t have much to offer, we recommend the following:

  • Avoid the mausoleum, as there isn’t much to see.
  • Get your tickets in person (about $22). You can order them online, but the museum website is entirely in Chinese and is a bit hard to navigate. Just be sure you get to the necropolis early to avoid crowds — and bring your passport.
  • If you’re not interested in a lot of detailed information about third century BCE China, then tour the museum and site yourself. Otherwise, reserve a private tour in advance of your trip. We recommend the highly-vetted Terracotta Warriors Tour.
  • Spend most of your time at Pit 1 — that’s where you’ll see most of the warriors.
  • Be conscious of scams; you can easily be taken in by hawkers trying to sell tours or merchandise, only to find yourself out several hundred dollars.

For more information on the necropolis, the Terracotta Army, and Xian, visit this in-depth site from China Highlights.