Photos by Brian Jewell
You find it in the terra-cotta faces of a hidden army, the brilliant stone tiles of a forbidden city and the dazzling bright lights of a modern city center — in China, feats of architecture and opulence seem to mark the passage of time itself.
The history of China dates back thousands of years and features dynasties of dumbfounding wealth and power. Each ruling family and historical era has left its mark on the land, often in the form of larger-than-life vanity projects that speak to the power and riches they enjoyed.
For tourists, a visit to China is like a trip through its storied and colorful past, site by incredible site. I spent 10 days touring the country last year and found myself fascinated by the massive monuments and colorful relics that together tell the story of China through the centuries.
An Army of Clay
A chronological journey through China’s imperial splendor begins in Xi’an, a city in central China that is most known for the army of clay soldiers buried in a field on its outskirts. Discovered in the 1970s, the terra-cotta warriors have become one of China’s most popular historical attractions.
Emperor Qin Shihuang ruled China beginning about 220 B.C.; he is known for unifying the country’s various ethnic groups and beginning construction on the Great Wall. During his reign, Xi’an was the capital of China, and the emperor picked a spot outside the city to be the site of his massive tomb complex. To accompany him into the afterlife, he commissioned the construction of 6,000 terra-cotta figures that were to be buried with him in the tomb.
“Each of them is unique,” said Albert, a local guide who showed us around the site. “They could have been made after their real-life counterparts. Their faces and expressions look different.”
Today, the site is a large museum, with terra-cotta figures visible in three different pits. The main exhibition of the Terra Cotta Army Museum features thousands of soldiers, lined up in rows, with earthworks built up alongside them. So far, some 3,000 soldiers, archers, horses and chariots have been uncovered. Workers continue to excavate more of the site, where they often find fragments of the statues that were shattered into pieces by tomb raiders over the centuries.
This large still-life army is a striking sight. Even more striking, though, is what the place demonstrates about Qin and the ancient Chinese imperial attitudes. Hundreds of thousands of workers toiled for nearly 40 years to create this terra-cotta army to escort Qin to his afterlife, perhaps the world’s largest and most costly send-off.
A Forbidden City
Pictures of Tiananmen Square, with its bustling crowds and massive memorial photo of Mao Zedong, became the most iconic images of Beijing in the 20th century. But just beyond the gate where Mao’s face looms sits the Forbidden City, a historic site that was the heart of China’s imperial Ming Dynasty.
Constructed some 600 years ago for Ming emperors, the Forbidden City housed the families and servants of Chinese royalty until 1921. But few common citizens ever glimpsed the inside of the palace, as entrance to the complex was forbidden to all but the emperors and their entourages. After the dynasty fell in the early 1920s, the new government opened the complex to the public as a massive historic site, now known officially as the Palace Museum.
When my group and I crossed the gate from Tiananmen Square into the Palace Museum, we found ourselves separated from the noise of modern Beijing and surrounded by a world of luxurious architecture. These garrisons, halls and living quarters were meticulously handcrafted and painted with colors and imagery that reflected the great dynastic and mythic traditions that span Chinese history.
Although most people call it the Forbidden City, you could just as easily call it the Never-Ending City: The palace complex has hundreds of buildings with a total of 9,999 rooms, according to our local guide, Eddy.
As we toured the buildings, Eddy pointed out many of the traditional beliefs and superstitions that have found their way into the Forbidden City’s architecture. Outside the emperor’s throne room, a brilliant red building set upon a three-tiered marble terrace, two large stone lions guard the entrance to the emperor’s throne room.
“Lions are considered the best guardians to keep away the evil spirits,” Eddy said. “That’s why you find them in front of every important site in China. The bigger the lions, the more important the site is.”
The throne room was designed to be the most impressive building in the complex. Although the throne looks uncomfortable, during the Ming rule, it was the seat of all power in China, and its occupants inspired awe in all those who were fortunate enough to see it.