Putting Together the Pieces of the Terracotta Army

It’s 2010, and I’m entering the site of the famous Terracotta Army in Xi’an, China. I’ve heard of the warriors accidentally unearthed in the 1970s, but don’t know much about the story. History classes in school had always been scant on Asian happenings, and so I have little idea going in as to why a clay army was buried in the middle of a field.

The story begins in 246 BC, when a 13-year-old boy named Zheng inherited his father’s throne over the ancient Chinese state of Qin. At the time, China was divided into many warring kingdoms that fought one another for control. Zheng wasn’t content ruling just his slice of the pie, and as soon as he came of age he began to seize control of neighboring territories. By 221 BC, he had conquered and unified all of the warring states. He renamed himself Qin Shi Huang—the first emperor of China.

Like the Egyptian pharaohs, Qin was obsessed with immortality. He demanded the construction of a giant tomb complete with its own army to protect him in the afterlife. Upwards of 700,000 builders helped create Qin’s final resting place. His underground mausoleum would contain an entire cityscape, complete with a palace, parks, and replicas of the rivers and features of the land above it. Ancient records speak of the complex containing bronze mountains and streams made of flowing mercury (and, indeed, the land around the buried army has been found to have an unusually high concentration of mercury).

Despite its opulence—or perhaps, because of it—Qin’s tomb and its guardians quickly fell into disrepair. For millennia, the story of Qin’s great tomb was nothing more than a cautionary tale. It wasn’t until 1974 when the digging of a well happened to unearth a buried terracotta warrior that Qin’s tomb became solid fact. Eventually, thousands of life-sized figures were excavated, including chariots, horses, and soldiers. More yet are still waiting to be found, as is Qin’s actual tomb, which is presumed to be located somewhere nearby.

It is extremely crowded the day I visit (though likely no more than usual). The other tourists swell around me as I enter the first pit—the largest of three archeological digs on site. The pit appears to be covered in a giant airplane hangar, and the surging crowd crawls to a stop right at its entrance.

Picture of the first pit housing the Terracotta Army in Xian China

View of the terracotta warriors from pit #1 entrance

Ahead of me are rows and rows and rows of life-size terracotta men in marching formation. Sprinkled throughout the sprawling mass of men are terracotta horses, slightly smaller than life-size but no less impressive. Not all the men have been reassembled after their 2000 years underground, and I can see further back broken clay pieces. (This pile of shards is an apt metaphor of my knowledge of Chinese history.)

It really is staggering to see the figures in person. It is said that no two faces are the same, and as I focus my lens on the statues, my camera’s face-detection system is lighting up. Little blue boxes appear over every terracotta head on my camera screen. It’s a little unnerving.

Picture of the terracotta warriors in Xian, China

The soldiers – notice how the one in the middle is staring right at the camera

The scope of the army is difficult to comprehend, and I don’t stick around the first pit for very long. As I walk to the back of the building, I watch the eyes of the statues. Some have heads tilted to stare right back at me. Also unnerving.

But the most unnerving surprise comes when I have finished seeing the giant horses, chariots, and thousands of soldiers. At the end of the tour, in a sort of regrouping area, there is a giant warrior marionette puppet holding the hand of a girl puppet. The warrior is giving the little girl serious side eye.

Picture of a huge, puppet terracotta warrior holding the hand of a little girl puppet

Pictured: something deeply discomforting

This creepy scene was inexplicably brought to me by Johnson & Johnson. To this day I have no idea why.

All in all, it is wonderful to see the army in person, and now my understanding of ancient Chinese history is a tad more complete. That said, the scale of the site rapidly overwhelms me, and I don’t feel very connected to the place. Some warriors are often loaned out to museums throughout the world; I think it might be more impactful to see just one warrior, really take the time to inspect it up close and marvel at the detail, rather than have your eyes glaze over as you try to take in the sight of thousands.

This year, the only US museum that will get to host a showing of the warriors is in Indianapolis – if you’re in the Midwest, I recommend stopping by!

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