The Terracotta Army (兵马俑; bīngmă yŏng) – probably the highlight of a trip to Xi’an – and the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang, which it guards, are 28km east of Xi’an, just beyond Huaqing Pool. No records exist of the army , which was set to guard Qin Shi Huang’s tomb over two thousand years ago, and was only discovered by peasants sinking a well in 1974. Three rectangular vaults were found, constructed of earth with brick floors and timber supports. Today, hangars have been built over the excavated site so that the ranks of soldiers – designed never to be seen, but now one of the most popular tourist attractions in China – can be viewed in situ.
Vault 1 is the largest, and about a fifth of the area has been excavated, revealing more than a thousand figures (out of an estimated eight thousand) ranked in battle formation and assembled in a grid of 6m-deep corridors. Facing you as you enter the hangar, this is one of the most memorable sights in China; you can inspect the static soldiers at closer range via raised walkways running around their perimeter. Averaging 1.8m in height, the figures are hollow from the thighs up; head and hands were modelled separately and attached to the mass-produced bodies. Each soldier has different features and expressions and wears marks of rank; some believe that each is a portrait of a real member of the ancient Imperial Guard. Their hair is tied in buns and they are wearing knee-length battle tunics; the figures on the outside originally wore leather armour, now decayed. Traces of pigment show that their dress was once bright yellow, purple and green, though it’s grey now. Originally, the troops carried real bows, swords, spears and crossbows, more than ten thousand of which have been found. The metal weapons, made of sophisticated alloys, were still sharp when discovered, and the arrowheads contained lead to make them poisonous.
A central group of terracotta horses is all that remains of a set of chariots. These wore harnesses with brass fittings and have been identified as depicting a breed from Gansu and Xinjiang. Each has six teeth, an indication that they are in their prime.
Vaults 2 and 3
Vault 2 is a smaller, L-shaped area, still under excavation; it’s thought to hold more warriors than vault 1. The four groups here – crossbowmen, charioteers, cavalry and infantry – display more variety of posture and uniform than the figures in the main vault, though a large number of smashed and broken figures make the scene look more like the aftermath of a battle than the preparation for one. Four exceptional figures found here are exhibited at the side: a kneeling archer, a cavalryman leading a horse, an officer with a stylish goatee and the magnificent figure of a general, 2m tall, wearing engraved armour and a cap with two tails. Also on show are some of the weapons discovered at the site, including a huge bronze battle-axe.
The much smaller vault 3, where 68 figures and a chariot have been found, seems to have been battle headquarters. Armed with ceremonial shu, a short bronze mace with a triangular head, the figures are not in battle formation but form a guard of honour. Animal bones found here provide evidence of ritual sacrifices, which a real army would have performed before going into battle. A photo exhibition of plaster replicas gives some idea of how the figures would have been painted. At times, you’ll find a half-blind peasant signing postcards in the shop at vault 2; this is Yang Zhifa, the man who discovered it all in 1974.
The rest of the site
At the side of vault 2 is a small museum where two magnificent bronze chariots, found in 1982 near Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, are displayed in glass cases. They’re about half actual size. The front one, depicting the Imperial Fleet leader’s chariot, has four horses and a driver, and is decorated with dragon, phoenix and cloud designs, with a curved canopy and a gold-and-silver harness. Behind the driver is a large compartment featuring a silver door-latch and windows that open and close. The chariot at the back was the emperor’s and has seats and beds in the rear. Both chariots were made with astonishing attention to detail; even the driver’s knuckles, nails and fingerprints are shown. Another museum holds small artefacts found around the area, including a skull with an arrowhead still embedded in it, and a few kneeling pottery attendants, the only female figures depicted.
The Tomb of Qin Shi Huang
The Tomb of Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇陵, qínshĭhuáng líng) is now no more than an artificial hill, nearly 2km west of the Terracotta Army; there’s no transport so you’ll have to walk. The burial mound was originally at the southern end of an inner sanctuary with walls 2.5km long, itself the centre of an outer city stretching for 6km, none of which remains. There’s not much to see here; hassled at every step by souvenir sellers, you can walk up stone steps to the top of the hill, where you have a view of fields scraped bare for agriculture. According to accounts by Sima Qian in his Historical Records, written a century after the entombment, 700,000 labourers took 36 years to create an imperial city below ground, a complex full of wonders: the heavens were depicted on the ceiling of the central chamber with pearls, and the geographical divisions of the earth were delineated on a floor of bronze, with the seas and rivers represented by pools of mercury and made to flow with machinery. Automatic crossbows were set to protect the many gold and silver relics. Abnormally high quantities of mercury have recently been found in the surrounding soil, suggesting that at least parts of the account can be trusted. Secrecy was maintained, as usual, by killing most of the workmen. The tomb has yet to be excavated; digs in the surrounding area have revealed the inner and outer walls, ten gates and four watchtowers.