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24-25 May 2018.
Once upon a time, about 2400 years ago, there were seven warring kingdoms in the place now known as China; everyone was fighting everyone and there was rarely peace in the land.

The kings of two of these dominions decided to make a peace pact. The King of Qin sent his son Yiren to live in the kingdom of Zhao. A precarious peace was then established between the two states.

With politicking and underhanded machinations, an influential merchant of Zhao helped Yiren get back to Qin. He also presented Yiren with his concubine who bore Yiren a son, Ying Zheng.

With the passing of time the King of Qin died, his heir apparent became king and then he too died. Finally it was Yiren’s turn. Yiren became King of Qin, and his son Ying Zheng was named as his crown prince. After reigning for just three years Yiren died, and at thirteen years of age, in 246 BCE Ying Zheng became King of Qin.

The final twist: some records indicate that Ying Zheng may actually have been the illegitimate son of the merchant. No wonder he went to such lengths to help Yiren get back to Qin, and onto the throne.

It is a story of secrets, lies, politics, and backroom deal-making to equal any found in all the royal courts and halls of power throughout history the world over. And yet it produced something of great significance: the unification of China.

It seems hard to believe, and no doubt with the help of a lot of generals and the like, but by the time Ying Zheng was thirty-eight, in 221 BCE, he had conquered all six of the other warring states, and proclaimed himself Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di – the First Emperor of Qin. He was the founder of the Qin dynasty, and the first emperor of unified China. The pronunciation of Qin is close to chin giving China its name.

Having proclaimed himself emperor he soon ordered the building of a great mausoleum to take care of his needs in the afterlife, in much the same way as the Egyptian pharaohs. It seems to me that a lot of these ancient powerful rulers had a peculiar preoccupation with the afterlife. Perhaps it was the only way they knew how to live on forever, so they wanted to take everything with them.

Nothing could have prepared me for my first sight of the terracotta warriors. I walk into the main hall, work my way through the crowd to the front of the railing surrounding the pit and look out over a vast sea of life-size clay soldiers. My jaw drops.

I’m in an enclosure that covers more than three acres and before me is an army of 2000 soldiers in battle formation disappearing into the distance. The scale is barely comprehensible. There are an estimated 8000 of them, most of them still buried.

In 1974 farmers were digging a well outside of the city of Xi’an when they came across an astonishing find. It was a life-sized clay soldier poised ready for battle. The find was reported to the authorities, and since all land in China belongs to the government, the land in the area was immediately seized. Thus began one of the biggest archaeological digs of all time, revealing one of the greatest historical discoveries in the world.

The people of the area were displaced and new housing built for them. They were not happy about losing their farms, and there was a generation in there that really struggled. These days the income of the area is robust due to the thousands of domestic and foreign tourists who come to see one of the most extraordinary creations of the ancient world. Swings and roundabouts, but the word is that when developers find any indications of ancient China (and apparently this is not infrequent) they don’t report it because they don’t want the land they are building on confiscated.

Talking of swings and roundabouts – Emperor Qin standardized coins, weights, and measures throughout China. Under his rule the states were connected with canals and roads, and he is credited with building the first version of the Great Wall. But by all accounts he was also a cruel dictator.

Slowly I make my way around the balcony that overlooks the pit from all sides. Each life-sized figure is unique, their clothing and hairstyle signifying rank.

There are hundreds of them. They are lined up three-deep across the front of the enclosure,

and beyond this vanguard are row upon row of soldiers, vanishing far down the hall into the trenches from which they were unearthed. I stare and stare at them, taking in the detail. Every face is different. Every one. It’s as if they were made from life.

There are horses four-abreast with their soldiers,

and in other pits there are chariots, weaponry, drums, concubines, as well as acrobats, dancers and musicians caught mid-performance, and much more. It is estimated that there are more than 8,000 soldiers, with 520 chariot horses and 150 cavalry horses, all made from clay, as well as 130 wooden chariots. The majority of them are still buried. The entire necropolis, which includes Qin’s tomb, is estimated to cover 98 square kilometres and is a microcosm of the emperor’s imperial court.

The tomb remains unopened, in part because of the fear of disintegration on contact with the air. The soldiers were originally painted in bight colours, red, green, blue, in great detail, but when they are unearthed the paint flakes off within minutes. Apparently some German scientists have figured out a way to preserve the paint as the soldiers are dug up but will only give the secret to the Chinese in exchange for some of the warriors moving to Germany. The Chinese government refused the offer.

As I continue my journey along the balcony overlooking this main pit I try to imagine the soldiers painted in the bright colours they would have originally worn back in 210BCE. How glorious they must have looked, battalion upon battalion ready to defend the emperor.

At the back of the hall the archaeologists are hard at work,

slowly digging broken pieces from the trenches

and piecing together fragments to create complete statues.

In another building there are perfect specimens on display: a kneeling archer (one of 160 that have been found),

a high-ranking officer,

and a cavalry officer with his horse (one of 116 that have been found).

A painstaking five years was needed to put together the two bronze chariots found near Qin’s tomb. For over two thousand years they lay in a box buried in a trench eight metres (26ft) underground. It is believed they were intended for Emperor Qin to use them for inspection tours in the afterlife. They are exactly half-size replicas of the originals, constructed in bronze and cast bullion, and complete with a team of four bronze horses and a coachman, and about fourteen kilos (30 lbs) weight of gold and silver pieces. The carriages alone have about 3,400 parts each. Like the army they would have originally been painted in bright colours.

There is large hill close to where the warriors are located that is known to be Qin’s unopened tomb. Historical reports written 100 years after his death, and modern probing techniques, indicate that the tomb is a magnificent place with bronze mountains, rivers of mercury, precious jewels and pearls representing heavenly bodies in a dark blue firmament, birds of gold and silver, palm trees of jade, fine vessels, and rarities. There are models of palaces and pavilions: everything the emperor could need or wish for. It is reportedly a vast underground palace that took 700,000 conscripted workers 36 years to complete.

The scale of the whole mausoleum is barely comprehensible: 8000 soldiers and their weapons, hundreds of clay horses, human skeletons (likely the emperor’s children), horse skeletons, the bronze chariots and horses, many artefacts, hundreds of clay concubines, performers, musicians, and even a zoo for exotic animals!

What we see, in this extraordinary place, is simply a taste. By a long shot most of it is still buried and will probably remain so. The treasures of the past, the work of thousands upon thousands of artisans, will likely remain hidden in their original burial place.

Seeing all that has been unearthed, and now researching and writing about it, I am again bewildered by this preoccupation with the afterlife as if it’s some otherworldly continuation of the present life. It was the same with the Egyptian pharaohs, King Tutankhamen being the most obvious example. What were they thinking? Did they seriously believe they could take it all with them? I guess so.

Next post: either some stories from Xi’an – China’s capital for nearly 2000 years, or something about the food!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.