The Terracotta Army of Xian, China is the most impressive collection of terracotta sculptures in the world.
A Brief History of the Terracotta Army
The Terracotta Army is located in the outskirts of the city of Xian, China and is part of the larger Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum. It contains thousands of terracotta warriors, horses, tradesmen, archers, chariots and other artifacts.
It was built as funeral art over 2,000 years ago. Its main purpose was to protect the first emperor of China (Qin Shi Huang) after his death, and it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Terracotta Army remained secret until 1974, when a farmer discovered it and has since become the most impressive collection of terracotta warriors in the world!
One thing that most people don’t expect when they visit the Terracotta Army for the first time is how much larger it is in real life than what you see in pictures.
The thousands of terracotta warriors that are on display at the museum are housed in a huge covered hangar in various stages of repair.
And even though they are impressive, they only represent a fraction of what is yet to be discovered on the grounds of the museum, which is still mostly untouched.
The most interesting part of the museum compound that is yet to be excavated is the actual tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Besides the stories that claim that there are precious treasures hidden in the tomb, there are also cautionary tales of mechanical and biological traps that would kill anyone who tries to open the tomb. Some of these stories may actually be true based on soil samples and radar imaging.
Intrigued? So was I!
Who was Qin Shi Huang?
To understand why an emperor would have such funeral art built for his life after death, you have to understand the life of Qin Shi Huang.
In 246 BC, at the age of 13, Qin Shi Huang became the king of the Qin state. Over the next 36 years, he had many conquests and accomplishments. He conquered and united the 7 kingdoms, becoming the first emperor of China.
During his reign, China had a standardized writing language and a universal method for measurement and weight. In addition to these historical accomplishments, Qin Shi Huang was also responsible for the construction of a defense wall that is now known as the Great Wall of China!
Back in the day, Chinese believed that after death, the deceased lived and ruled the area in which they were buried, literally underground. Because of that, they were buried with everything they might need in the afterlife, including food, treasures, horses, carriages and so forth.
It’s easy to understand why Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, would need an underground kingdom just as big as he ruled in real life, hence why the Terracotta Army and his mausoleum were built.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum
The Terracotta Army is a collection found in the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum. The museum is a large complex of archeological sites and buildings.
The terracotta army contains soldiers, archers, chariots, horses, and weapons set up in a military formation. Most are made of clay, but the weapons and one chariot were made of metal.
The army is believed to be representative of the real warriors the emperor had. Each warrior has different facial features depicting real peopled even unique ears. Their weapons, stature, clothes and proximity to the emperor’s tomb also explain their place in the military hierarchy.
There are several thousand warriors on display in the museum and several thousand still buried on the grounds. In recent years, some of the warriors have also been sent to several museums around the world for display.
The collection is displayed in 3 Pits in the museum, Pit 1 being the largest. In this Pit you can see the different phases of restoration of the warriors. Some are in pieces and still being put together.
Pits 2 and 3 are smaller, but more intimate. You can see the details on the warriors much easier and the crowds thin out.
In these pits, there are also warriors on individual displays, so that you can appreciate the craftsmanship used in each statue. Some even replicate the colors that were used on each warrior before they were buried. Unfortunately the colors faded over time or decay when exposed to air. Personally, I think that the uniform grey gives the terracotta warriors a more ghostly feel.
There are other areas of the museum that remain untouched also, including the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.
It is believed that the tomb contains precious treasures that could deteriorate once exposed to air and that the tomb is protected by mechanical and chemical traps. Therefore, no attempt to excavate the tomb has been made to date.
What we do know through radar imaging and soil samples, is that the tomb is shaped as a low lying pyramid structure and is covered by dirt and vegetation and the soil around contains high levels of mercury, which is highly toxic.
In some of the written history of the tomb, it is said that the emperor’s body is protected by “rivers of mercury” and former attempts to rob the tomb have resulted in immediate and horrible death.
The mausoleum site contains a lot more than the emperor’s tomb. Buried on the grounds too were his wives, who had no sons, and the craftsmen and workers that built the masoleum. This was done to prevent the secrets of the tomb from being divulged after the emperor’s funeral.
There were also human remains found around the burial site in various conditions of mutilation which point to sacrifices and punishment. The latter is believed to be the remains of convicts and people who committed crimes against the emperor. Qin Shi Huang was believed to be a ruthless ruler.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum and the Terracotta Army are surely an attraction you should not miss if you are traveling to China.
The history of the place and the engineering and craftsmanship displayed in this site are mind blowing. Especially since it was made in 200 BC!
Since we still don’t know how the pyramids were created, it makes me think we have devolved somehow, you know?
How to Get to the Terracotta Army Museum
The Museum is located about one hour by car outside of the city of Xian. It is open from 8:30am-6pm Mar-Nov and 8:30am to 5:30pm Dec-Feb. Tickets cost 120 -150 yuan per person.
There are a few ways to get to the museum from Xian.
- Take a free shuttle from Xian North Railway Station.
- Book a tour at the front desk of your accommodation.
- Take tourist bus 5, 914 or 915 from Xian Train Station which costs around 7-8 yuan per person.
There are some scams running at Xian Railway Station in which unlicensed buses disguise as the tourist bus to charge more of the tourists. So if you choose this option, please be cautious!
My recommendation is that you book a tour. Besides the convenience of the pick up and drop off at your accommodation, you will have a guide that speaks English and it includes lunch and the tickets to the museum.
If you are traveling solo, this is a great way to get to know other travelers.
Tips for Booking a Tour to The Terracotta Warriors
As soon as you arrive at your accommodation, you should book your tour to visit the Terracotta Army Museum either at the front desk of your hotel/hostel or at the tourism office in the center of Xian.
If you are staying in a nice hotel, but want to save some money, you can book the tour through a hostel nearby. You will be taking the same tour, but paying much less if you do it this way.
The tours take most of the day and it’s important that you ask what it includes and what stops you will be making along the way.
The tour I took included a stop at a factory that produced and sold clay replicas of the Terracotta Warriors.
These replicas were as small as a souvenir and as large as life-sized replicas. The factory claimed these were made from molds taken from the originals seen at the museum. I am not sure that is true, but they are interesting nonetheless.
The stop was not very long and the factory was actually quite interesting, but some of people on my tour were upset that we had stopped there, so make sure you know what the itinerary is before you buy it.
My tour also included lunch, which was family style and super delicious! Another great opportunity to get to know other travelers.
If you have any allergies, it is also best to ask if there are any options available for your situation at the time of booking.
What is the most amazing place you visited that made you question just how advanced prior civilizations were?
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You might also be interested in my post about what to do in Xian, China.
To learn more about the Terracotta Army, visit the museum’s website.
Updated Oct 2019.