Terra Cotta Soldiers on the March

A traveling exhibition of China’s terra cotta warriors sheds new light on the ruler whose tomb they guarded

The 1974 discovery of buried vaults at Xi'an filled with thousands of terra cotta warriors stunned the world. (O. Louis Mazzatenta / NGS Image Collection)
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For archaeologists, one indicator that Qin rule had collapsed suddenly was the extensive damage to the terra cotta army. As order broke down, marauding forces raided the pits where clay soldiers stood guard and plundered their real weapons. Raging fires, possibly set deliberately, followed the ransacking, weakening support pillars for wooden ceilings, which crashed down and smashed the figures. Some 2,000 years later, archaeologists discovered charring on the walls of one pit.

Throughout recorded Chinese history, the first emperor's Ebang Palace—its site on the Wei River, south of ancient Xianyang, was not investigated until 2003— was synonymous with ostentation. The structure was said to have been the most lavish dwelling ever constructed, with an upper-floor gallery that could seat 10,000 and a network of covered walkways that led to distant mountains to the south.

"All Chinese people who can read, including middle- school students, believed that the Qin dynasty collapsed because it put so much money into the Ebang Palace," says archaeologist Duan. "According to excavation work from 2003, we found it was actually never built—only the base. Above it was nothing." Duan says that if the palace had been erected and demolished, as historians thought, there would be potsherds and telltale changes in soil color. "But tests found nothing," says Duan. "It is so famous a symbol of Chinese culture for so long a time, showing how cruel and greedy the first emperor was—and archaeologists found it was a lie." Duan also doubts accounts of Qin Shi Huangdi's expedition for life-prolonging herbs. His version is more prosaic: "I believe that the first emperor did not want to die. When he was sick, he sent people to find special medicines."

The emperor's tomb lies beneath a forested hill, surrounded by cultivated fields about a half-mile from the museum. Out of reverence for an imperial resting place and concerns about preserving what might be unearthed there, the site has not been excavated. According to a description written a century after the emperor's death, the tomb contains a wealth of wonders, including man-made streambeds contoured to resemble the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, flowing with shimmering, quicksilver mercury that mimics coursing water. (Analysis of soil in the mound has indeed revealed a high level of mercury.)

Yet answers about the tomb are not likely to emerge anytime soon. "I have a dream that one day science can develop so that we can tell what is here without disturbing the emperor, who has slept here for 2,000 years," says Wu Yongqi, director of the Museum of the Terracotta Army. "I don't think we have good scientific techniques to protect what we find in the underground palace. Especially if we find paper, silk or textiles from plants or animals; it would be very bad if they have been kept in a balanced condition for 2,000 years, but suddenly they would vanish in a very short time." He cites another consideration: "For all Chinese people, he is our ancestor, and for what he did for China, we cannot unearth his tomb just because archaeologists or people doing tourism want to know what is buried there."

Whatever future excavations reveal about Qin Shi Huangdi's enigmatic nature, some things seem unlikely to change. The emperor's importance as a seminal figure of history won't be diminished. And the mysteries that surround his life will likely never be completely resolved.

Arthur Lubow, who reports frequently on culture and the arts around the world, is based in New York City.


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