Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, never did anything by halves. Not content with building the Great Wall, he spent his last years roaming the fringes of his empire, seeking a key to immortality. When (with inevitable irony) he died on his quest, his entourage returned to the capital near modern-day Xi’an and buried his corpse in a subterranean, city-sized mausoleum whose ceiling was studded with precious stones and where lakes and rivers were represented by mercury.
Or so wrote the historian Sima Qian a century after a popular uprising had overthrown Qin Shi Huang’s grandson and established the Han dynasty in 206 BC. Nobody knows for sure how true the account is – the tomb remains unexcavated – but in 1974 peasants digging a well nearby found Qin Shi Huang’s guardians in the afterlife: an army of over ten thousand life-sized terracotta troops arranged in battle formation, filling three huge rectangular vaults.
Make no mistake, the Terracotta Army is not like some giant schoolboy’s collection of clay soldiers lined up in ranks under a protective modern hangar. The figures, twenty of which were displayed at London’s British Museum in 2007 and 2008, are shockingly human; every one is different, from their facial features to their hands, hairstyles, postures and clothing. They are so individual that you can’t help feel that these are real people, tragically fossilized by some natural disaster – more so in places where excavations are incomplete, leaving their half-buried busts gripped by the earth. Even their horses, tethered to the remains of wooden chariots, are so faithfully sculpted that the very breed has been established.
At the end, there’s just one burning question: will they find a statue of Qin Shi Huang leading them all? A realistic statue over two thousand years old of China’s first emperor – now that surely would be immortality.
The Terracotta Army (daily 8am–6pm) is 28km east of Xi’an and can be reached in 1hr on bus #306 from Xi’an’s train station.