• Is the Terracotta Army of Xi’an worth the detour?

I don’t know if this has happened to you before, but I’ve sometimes been kind of disappointed after visiting world-famous places and landmarks. The Terracotta Army (or Terracotta Warriors, as they are also called) of Xi’an is one of those landmarks that left me thinking “it’s nice, but…”.

Soldier statues, Terracotta Army

(All images are © 2015 Fernando Cortés-Cabanillas. Please contact me if you’d like to use them).

And it’s probably not the Warriors’ fault, mind you. After all, this is an impressive monument; the megalomaniac creation of Qin Shi Huang, a belligerent king who fought and beat all his enemies to become the first emperor of a unified China in 221 BC.

For his journey into eternity, this, by some accounts, brutal and ruthless man had a mausoleum built that many centuries later, in 1974, would become one of the most impressive archaeological discoveries ever made.

Such is the scale of this monument (about 50 km2), that only a small fraction of it has been unearthed and studied yet. From what has been discovered, it is believed that Qin Shi Huang sought to be buried with a life-size representation of his court, including scribes, bureaucrats, courtiers and, most famously, an army to protect him from his enemies.

General view of pit no. 1, Terracotta Army

This general view of pit no. 1 gives an idea of the scale of the Terracotta Army.

Statues in pit no. 1

Based on the around 2,000 statues unearthed so far, the Terracotta Army would be comprised of up to 8,000 statues (about 6ft-1.82m tall) representing soldiers, officers and generals of different branches (cavalry, archery, infantry), complete with weapons (of which only the metallic parts have survived), horses and bronze chariots.

Pit no. 1, Army in formation, Terracotta Warriors

This kind of sight should be enough to deter any of the emperor’s enemies in the afterlife.

High-rankling officer, Terracotta Army

In addition to the pits, you can visit a permanent exibition showing some of the statues in better shape than the rest, like this one.

Bronze chariot and horses, Terracotta Army, Xian

Cavalry soldier and horse figures, Terracotta Army

Officer statue, Terracotta Army

Thousands of statues and no two alike!

Perhaps the most mind-boggling feature of the Terracotta Army, besides its sheer size, is the amazingly intricate and varied details of the statues.

If you look closely, you’ll find all sorts of hairstyles and facial features, including different head and eye shapes and sizes, facial hair styles and a host of other details. Not only that, but the uniforms, body shapes and postures are strikingly diverse. Although at this point archaeologists can’t be sure, they think there’s a good chance there are no two statues alike. Think about it: a whopping eight thousand statues, all different from each other.

Statues in pit no. 1, Terracotta Army

You don’t need to look very closely at this shot to notice that all the statues are different to each other.

Soldiers in formation in pit no. 1, Terracotta Army

And the range of differences between the figures is obvious even from a distance.

Detail of the hairstyle in a statue

Look at the attention to detail in the hairstyle of this officer.

If this were not impressive enough, there is the fact that the tomb of the emperor himself is still to be dug out. The main reason for this is that archaeologists have seen what exposure to air, humidity, mold and pollution has done to the already unearthed statues and want to be prepared before digging up the tomb’s contents.

Indeed, although the statues nowadays look kind of drab, showing just faded shades of brown, ochre and grey, archeologists believe that many of them, possibly all, were painted in colorful lacquer. Trouble is, these pigments have suffered the effects of time and decay the most, and whatever has been found left, has peeled off or disintegrated within minutes of being exposed again.

Officer statue showing original colors, Terracotta Army

This is what the statues looked like originally, according to the archaeologists. Sadly, the lacquer pigments are now lost.

This is one of the reasons why the site is being excavated little by little. The other is that very few of the statues found are intact. Most of them are beheaded or lack one or several limbs. So the process of cataloguing and piecing all of this together is slow and complex.

Close-up of soldier statues, Terracotta Warriors

Dismembered and beheaded statues, Terracotta Army

Imagine how hard the task is for the archaeologists working on this site.

Restoration area in pit no. 1, Terracotta Warriors

In pit no. 1 you can watch the experts work on the restoration of the statues, although you’ll need to zoom in a little.

At this point you may be wondering how I could not be that impressed by the Terracotta Army. Well, I’m not sure. I enjoyed the visit, but I certainly expected more. A few years ago, I’d been to the itinerant exhibition of the Terracotta Warriors in Madrid, and I recall being blown away. So I suppose I was expecting to be even more in awe at the sight of the statues in their original setting, especially considering the scale of the monument. Well, I wasn’t.

It’s hard for me to explain why, but the Terracotta Army was not my favorite part of Xi’an. It was the city itself that I liked the most, with its old ramparts, its Muslim Quarter and its buzzing street-life. In fact, I had so much fun photographing Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter that I felt compelled to tell you about it in one of the very first posts on this blog.

My final verdict is that the Terracotta Army is definitely worth visiting if you haven’t been to any of the itinerant exhibitions. If you have, I’m not sure the Terracotta Warriors are worth the detour by themselves. If, on the other hand, you are planning to go to Xi’an anyway (which I recommend) and have enough time, by all means go see the Army regardless.

By the way, if you’re still unsure, you could do a lot worse than spending one hour watching this excellent documentary (it may not be available from this link in your area).

Have you visited the Terracotta Warriors? What were your impressions? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!

A couple of tips for visiting the Terracotta Army

  • Start your visit at the smaller pits (no. 2 and 3), and end at the much bigger and impressive pit no. 1. That way your excitement won’t peak right at the beginning of the tour.
  • Don’t worry too much about crowds. There was a lot of people when I visited, but not to the point of it being uncomfortable, since the site is big enough.
  • In the pits, you’ll need a mid- to long-zoom lens to make reasonably close-up shots of the statues in the pits. Alternatively, if you have a camera with a 12 Mpx sensor or more, you’ll be able to crop to zoom in without losing image quality.

2 Comments

  1. Ha, I completely agree.. China might be my most favorite country to travel in and I adore Chinese history, to the point that I accidentally minored in it… But somehow the Terracotta warriors are a bit lackluster, even if you know the interesting history behind it. Still, your pictures are fantastic and it’s nice to get another blogger’s perspective. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Phew, I was fearing I might be the only one to feel this way!
      Thanks very much for your kind words and for stopping by, Daphne.

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