Fluttering from place to place I resemble,
A gull between heaven and earth.”
– Du Fu, Nocturnal Reflections While Traveling (旅夜书怀)
During my first summer vacation as an expat, I took my parents on a four-city three-week tour of China. It was my family’s first time in Asia and it would be my first trip to all but one of the four cities (my second time in Chengdu). Our final stop on the tour was Xi’an, a city known mainly for the ancient Terracotta Army (兵马俑), the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor.
There’s much more to Xi’an than the warriors that were buried more than 2,000 years ago and only rediscovered in 1974 by a farmer, but this was the highlight for tourists.
Rather than haggle for a taxi to take us around for the day, we opted for a tour from our hotel that included the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. But the tour started at a workshop that the guide claimed was the only authorized manufacturer of replica terracotta warriors — it sounded like we would not otherwise be able to purchase replicas anywhere else, but understanding that this is China, I knew there would be cheaper options. Of course, the replicas were even caked in local dirt for that appearance of authenticity.
The Terracotta Hawker Army
As soon as we arrived at the museum and airplane hangers that house the Terracotta Army, we were welcomed by throngs of hawkers carrying souvenirs, most of which were miniature sets of the warriors caked in dirt. For much of the time wandering between buildings, I ignored the hawkers.
At one point I decided to haggle for a set of five warriors. The hawker said, “Twenty dollars,” to which I replied, “Twenty RMB?” Of course, he expected US$20 for each one in the set. I set a firm price of RMB20 (about $2.50) for the whole set and walked away, with the hawker shouting lower and lower prices as I walked until he finally agreed on RMB20 for the set. I was then stuck with carrying the set around for the remainder of the tour.
People on my tour were so impressed by the haggling that they asked me to help buy sets for them. I also tried selling my set back to the hawkers who seemed confused when I asked them for more money for the set in my hand (at least one hawker thought it was funny and jokingly pulled out a hundred yuan note).
The Actual Terracotta Army
I knew that the Terracotta Army was big — I had seen photos in magazines — but I was not prepared for the real size of the army. If you think my photos make this place look large, you need to expand your field of vision.
The main archaeological dig site is housed in an airplane hanger — that’s how large of an area the army covers. That single site is home to more than 6,000 figures (soldiers, horses, chariots). In total there are estimated to be 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses.
Much of the Terracotta Army remains uncovered because the original figures were painted in bright colors. When the army was uncovered, the paint faded and flaked — it can supposedly disappear from the figures in four minutes. This has prevented further excavation of the site until experts can find a way to preserve the paint. The single archer on display in a case still has a small amount of paint for visitors to see.
Of course, many of the warriors are also smashed as disgruntled citizens rose up and took out their anger on the Qin Emperor’s tomb. There are also accounts that the tomb may have been plundered, though there is no evidence.
There are pits with shattered figures, though there are efforts to piece them together for display.
I gazed in awe at the expanse of Terracotta Warriors. The history our guide provided faded into the background as my eyes wandered the pit for details on each figure. From a distance they all appear similar, but the faces and hair vary slightly because each figure was supposed to represent an individual soldier.
The Terracotta Army is not only a magnificent piece of history, but also a work of art. It took hundreds of thousands of laborers to create this army and the tomb that housed them, and it is an impressive feat to behold. When combined with our visit to the Giant Buddha of Leshan, that first summer holiday around China was a marvel.