The Emperor’s Army

Xian 068 Other than one attraction, there’s little reason to stop in Xian, a city of seven million in the center of China.  It has the same non-descript architecture that characterizes most of China and, sure, there are some interesting pagodas (see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda on the right) and mosques, but not worth going way out of your way for.  For much of China’s history, though, Xian was its capital, and home of its emperors.  One of its emperors, Qin, orchestrated the creation of the incomprehensible terra-cotta soldiers.  Seeing these soldiers, sometimes called (with justification)  the Eighth Wonder of the World, makes the trek to Xian worthwhile, and then some!

Xian 045 In the years 220 to 209 B.C., China was ruled by the Emperor Qin.  Not a popular emperor (few were), the Emperor took  extraordinary preparatory steps prior to his death.  He had the potters in his empire produce a set of life-size terra-cotta soldiers, which were then buried in his tomb to protect him in the afterlife. 

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Each soldier has a unique face presumably matching that of one of the soldiers in Qin’s army.  The faces are incredibly expressive.  There are also horses and the remains of chariots.  Again, all are life-size.   One extraordinary aspect of this is the difficulty of producing such a piece.  Each has to be baked at a kiln at 900 degrees Centigrade, and any significant deviation will result in a failed work.

Xian 007 The other staggering aspect is the sheer number of soldiers prepared for the tomb — estimated to be some 6,000.  And there are foot soldiers, archers, chariot drivers, and officers.  All were placed in “ready positions” along with their weapons, prepared to defend the Emperor.  Then, an underground area some 230 meters long and 62 meters wide was dug out, filled with the soldiers, and covered with a roof supported by wooden beams.  The entire area was then covered with dirt to make it as inconspicuous as possible. 

Xian 018 As extraordinary as the work of the potters was, their treatment hardly matched.  If they made mistakes, they were immediately put to death.  And after the entire project was completed, Emperor Qin ordered all potters put to death, to make sure their creation remained a secret (as I said, Qin wasn’t the nicest of people!). 

Xian 039 Well, not long after Qin died, the farmers in the area ransacked the tomb.  They either wanted the weapons there, or wanted to bollix up Qin’s after-life plans, or quite possibly both.  But they damaged many of the figures, stole most of the weapons, and set the whole thing on fire.  As it burned, the roof collapsed, causing more damage.  And there it sat, for two millenia, until 1974, when a local farmer was digging a well and came across some of the fragments.  He figured out that he had encountered something significant — and boy was he right!  This is arguable the most significant archeological discover of the 20th Century. 

Xian 030 Since their discovery, the government of China and teams of archeologists have been — literally — putting the pieces back together.  So far, they’ve unearthed some 2,000 figures, and using underground imaging techniques they estimate another 4,000 remain to be identified.  So far, only one figure has been found entirely intact. 

Xian 032 The archeologists do their digging at night to avoid interfering with the day-time tourists.   Painstakingly, they reassemble each figure in a challenge that makes Rubik’s Cube look like a snap.  And gradually they are re-creating what Emperor Qin created more than 2,200 years ago.  As we walked the perimeter of the “dig,” I must have said “Wow!” a hundred time.  The pictures here hardly do justice to the impact of seeing so many life-size clay soldiers from so long ago. 

Xian 168 We ended our stay in Xian with a visit to a local school.  They arranged for Gibson and Sterling to meet a bunch of kids their ages, and — after asking each other bunches of questions in one of their classrooms — we went outside and Sterling joined the girls in a game of soccer.  We had brought a frisbee with us and I taught a group of the boys the game Ultimate Frisbee, which we Xian 184 played for close to an hour.  It was great because everyone learned the rules quickly, and none of us were all that experienced at it.  It was a real highlight of our stay there, and the people at the school couldn’t have been nicer!



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One Response to “The Emperor’s Army”

  1. Morgan (cousin) Says:

    In school we’re studying China. And we are learning about the terra-cotta soldiers. And all the different dynasties. It was more detailed than the book we read.

    We have homework based on it. Yuck!

    Say hi to Gibson and Sterlng for me.

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