Standing Guard Through History

The Terra-Cotta Warriors and more in the ancient city of Xian

By: Lee Foster

XIAN, China Some 720 air miles southwest of Beijing lays the ancient Chinese capital of Xian (pronounced shee-ANN). In 1974 a wonderful event occurred in Xian, which thrust the already noted archaeological zone to the forefront of world tourism.

In that year some farmers, digging a well in their fields, uncovered a stone terra-cotta figure of a warrior. Chinese archaeologists quickly stepped in and subsequently excavated some 2,000 of these warriors, each showing individual features.

The models for this realistic portrayal were chosen from the ranks of the army throughout China. The warriors were guarding the tomb of the great emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, the builder of The Great Wall. The tomb itself has been located, but Chinese archaeologists have decided not to open it until the artifacts can be better protected. Today you can witness this extraordinary discovery under a large hangar-like building that protects the excavated relics.

Going to see the Terra-Cotta Warriors is one of the most moving encounters with history a traveler can imagine. The warriors and their horses stand four abreast, in full battle formation. Their wooden arms of bows and arrows, swords, spears and crossbows have disintegrated with time. Originally brightly painted, the terra-cotta figures now show a uniform red-clay appearance. The horses remain alert, the chariots are ready to roll.

It is said that the craftsmen who made the soldiers were, in the end, sealed into the tomb, alive, probably to keep the entrance secret from looters.

Some other choice artifacts, including a bronze chariot inlaid with gold and silver, have been uncovered and are on display as well.

Qin Shi ruled China over 2,000 years ago. Altogether, Xian is known for 12 dynasties of rulers, five dynasties of which are of major importance. The city enjoyed a 2,000-year window of prosperity, 1000 B.C.-1000 A.D., before power finally shifted to Beijing. In the 11th century Xian was the largest city in the world, with over a million residents.

From Xian, in 138 A.D., the first scouts were sent west to the Middle East (and eventually Europe) along a road that became known for its most precious trading commodity silk. Silk from China was once worth its weight in gold in the streets of ancient Rome. The Silk Road brought China in contact with many countries. Marco Polo became an articulate recorder of the greatness of Xian and China in the 13th century. The country’s cultural attainments surpassed, in his judgment, anything that Europe offered.

Today, the ride out to see the figures gives clients a good sense of backroads China the small brick villages, intensive agriculture and mountain backdrops to the fertile but dusty valleys. You see many small-scale enterprises, such as single-blade sawmills, that create materials for the villages.

The city of Xian also has much to offer the traveler. At the remarkable Shaanxi Museum clients can observe 114 huge stone tablets with ancient Chinese writing carved into them. One tablet, from the 8th century, notes the presence of Christianity in China in the 7th century. The Shaanxi Museum displays one of China’s most important collections of ancient artifacts.

Walking in Xian can be engaging. Xian has preserved its ancient city walls, which add character to the setting. The city market is especially colorful, selling everything from wild mushrooms to eel. The Friendship Store is well stocked with carvings, silk, ceramics such as cloisonne vases, and cotton textiles.

In the evening, tell clients to attend the Tang Dynasty Show, re-creating the dance, music and even the musical instruments of the Tang court. This is one of the most entertaining shows in China today.