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8000 warriors defend their emperor E-mail
City Life - Report
Written by Harry Shattuck
It must have seemed a routine day for the seven farmers digging a water well on the plains of north central China. But suddenly, a clunk. A life-size pottery sculpture of a human head appeared. Another heave of the shovel. And more of the torso. Imagine the shock: According to published reports, one farmer said they thought it was a temple statue — perhaps a Buddha — and feared the Buddha would punish them.

Their 1974 discovery precipitated arguably the most significant archaeological excavation of the past century — the unearthing, which continues today, of about 8,000 clay warriors, more than 750 clay horses, almost 150 wood chariots, thousands of weapons and other objects designed more than two millennia ago to protect notorious Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang in his afterlife.

In Xi’an, a large city 18 miles to the west, the initially unimpressed cultural relics bureau reportedly paid the farmers 30 yuan (about $4.30 today) when they presented their findings. But word soon spread within China and beyond. Now, a fascinating display of “Qin’s Army” encompasses more than 170,000 square feet and attracts 4 million visitors every year.

More than 100 of these objects will be on view beginning Friday at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor is the largest display of terra-cotta figures and tomb artifacts ever brought to the United States.

For full impact, however, it’s essential to arrange a trip to Xi’an (pronounced Shee-an), the heart of ancient China and headquarters for 13 dynasties beginning in the third century B.C.

Prepare for a stunning experience. For real-life mystery. For ongoing change. As our guide said, “This area is a dreamland for archaeologists. Every month we find or learn something new.”

My first impression of the Museum of the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shi Huang was its authenticity — a contradiction perhaps considering the only reason for its existence is fake warriors.

None of the clay warriors was found intact — some were shattered into as many as 300 pieces, others as few as 20. The figures of hard brown-red, unglazed earthenware were repaired and reassembled shard-by-shard and remain essentially where they were uncovered less than a mile from Qin’s still-untouched tomb. Most warriors are about 6 feet in height, with high-ranking officers as tall as 6-foot-5. They are dressed appropriate to their military ranking and stand ready to fight.

Look closely, and you’ll notice that every warrior takes on a different shape, with individual facial expressions. Some are more rotund than others: “You call it beer belly; we know it as general belly,” our guide informed. “These were the generals; you can’t be a general in China without a general belly.”

About 1,500 solders — gray in appearance because of their recent exposure to open air — are intact again in three covered pits that serve as exhibition halls with steel framework. Other figures are in various states of repair. Some terra-cotta civilians also were found — historically significant because prior to Qin, real slaves and guards were buried with their master so they could continue to serve.
A rich legacy

The story behind these sculptures is as compelling as their appearance.

Qin (pronounced Chin), who ascended to the throne at age 13 in 246 B.C., was a brilliant but controversial man whose accomplishments included unifying seven warring states — thus, his self-designation as first emperor of all China — along with creating a common language and currency and linking the Great Wall.

But he angered the elite with a ruthless reign, upset peasants with high taxation and was notable for maniacal acts of cruelness, which resulted in many enemies. He also was obsessed with death and a quest for immortality — ironically, historians believe, the cause of an early earthly demise.

Qin commissioned construction of a mausoleum almost immediately after becoming ruler, and some Chinese historians estimate that as many as 700,000 laborers spent the next 36 years building an underground city where their emperor would rest amid replicated palaces, towers and thousands more priceless treasures.

Legend holds that Qin died at age 50 when his doctors gave him what they believed was an elixir that would enable him to live forever. Instead, so the story continues, the pills contained so much mercury that he was poisoned. Accident or conspiracy? It’s all part of the mystery.


Xi’an is about 760 miles southwest of Beijing and 930 miles west of Shanghai.

Tours: Most large hotels in Xi’an organize — or can recommend — tours. I visited Xi’an as part of a Viking River Cruises excursion that included Beijing, Shanghai and a voyage on the Yangtze River;

Where to stay: Xi’an has a Hyatt Regency and Sheraton. The ANA Grand Castle Hotel has striking architecture. The 416-room Shangri-La Golden Flower, where I stayed, was high-quality with heated pool, fitness center and disco.


Our valuable Editor Harry Shattuck has been with us since Sunday, 04 April 2010.

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