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An Underground Army


For tourists, Xi’an is best known as the home of the terra cotta warriors. Discovered by local farmers digging a well in the 1970s, the terra cotta warriors are part of the massive grave complex of Qin Shihuang, an emperor who ruled around 220 B.C.

Previously, Qin was known in history for unifying China (through a brutal military campaign) and beginning construction of the Great Wall. With the discovery in the 1970s, archaeologist soon came to learn about his massive tomb complex, for which he had craftsmen build more than 7,000 terra cotta figures of foot soldiers, archers, charioteers and horses.

Today, about three thousand of the figures are unearthed and reconstructed in the main viewing area of the Terra Cotta Army Museum. Excavation still continues at the site, where workers unearth more figures in dozens or sometimes hundreds of pieces. To reconstruct just one of the figures takes around three months.

The terra cotta warriors have become one of the most known symbols of China, and have given historians a lot of insight into the beliefs and burial habits of the ancient Chinese. This large, still-life army is a striking sight to see. Even more striking to me, though, is everything it says about Qin and the ancient Chinese attitudes. Hundreds of thousands of workers toiled for nearly 40 years to create this terra cotta army to escort Qin to his afterlife, along with many other yet-to-be-unearthed features of the burial site. Afterward, many of the workmen and artists were killed, so that grave robbers would not discover the location of the burial site.

China’s history is defined by the heavy-handed rule of its emperors, and pock-marked with millennia of human rights abuses. Though we in the West still take issue with many of the policies of the current Communist Party rule (I can’t access Facebook, Twitter or Google here, thanks to the government’s “Great Firewall“), through the long lens of history we can see now just how far China has come. Hopefully, continued openness, free trade and interaction with the West will help China to emerge from its cocoon of authoritarianism to show the world the beauty that waits inside.


Full-size replicas of the terrac cotta warriors are available in the on-site gift shop… for about $3,000.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.