THE terracotta warriors came to Dublin when I was a kid. A small detachment of them, anyway – perhaps a dozen life-sized clay soldiers from an army of thousands. Most were infantrymen, arranged in marching formation. A couple were cavalry, mounted on sepulchral horses and frozen in mid-trot. Their eyes were open, their faces angled and shadowed in a way that made them seem splendidly charismatic, if also potentially wicked. They didn’t quite look alive, but you wouldn’t want to turn your back on them either.
My father read about the exhibition in a Sunday newspaper and sold me on these pottery figurines as guardians of the kind of tomb that Indiana Jones might have raided. He took me to see them the same afternoon, and I learned that they were actually discovered by farmers digging a well near Xi’an, in north-central China, a decade before. Archaeologists had since found an entire necropolis just below the dry red dirt, an underground city of undead warriors, all buried with the Emperor Qin Shi Huang on his death in 210 BCE. Even given their full story, or as much of it as was known at the time, I was still young enough to imagine that the warriors were real men, turned to stone by some natural or magical calamity.
Thirty years later – and 2014 marks the fortieth anniversary of the excavation – I go to visit them on their own turf. Travelling China by rail, tracking inland toward Xi’an, I look forward to seeing them as if they were old friends. I know I’ll have to share them, of course. Now advertised as the eighth wonder of the ancient world, their burial ground just outside the city has been circumscribed within a tourist village that currently draws two million visitors a year – more than any other historical attraction in the country, except the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.Xi’an itself is a historical attraction, with a great wall of its own.
Formerly known as Chang’an, it dates back more than 3000 years and once served as a capital for several ruling dynasties. In the 14th century, when the Ming Dynasty ruled from Peking, they built a fortified perimeter around Xi’an that in the 21st now functions as an elevated promenade. Walking that wall at sunset, with the sky ablaze and a warm breeze blowing through the red flags and banners, you might feel momentarily transported to the distant past – an increasingly rare sensation in the modern, urban People’s Republic.
Pushing through the narrow street markets of the old Muslim Quarter, you can pretend that the place hasn’t changed much since it marked the start of the Silk Road, or the end of that road for travellers and traders bearing saffron and pistachios from Persia. But most foreigners these days come first and foremost to see the terracotta warriors. Joining a tour group from my hotel and boarding a bus to the site, I am just one of thousands who make this trip every morning, in a convoy that takes well over an hour to travel only 20 kilometres through heavy traffic.
Our tour guide Zhang Jiajia makes the best of it, introducing herself as “Lady Jiajia” and telling us that she is “27 and single” before giving us a potted biography of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Did we know, for example, that Qin was the first dynastic “emperor” to ever use that title, having conquered various warring states and united them into the earliest incarnation of the China that we know today? Or that it was Qin who first started work on the Great Wall itself, linking several provincial fortifications into a continuous line of defence?
He established a single coherent civil administration, a standard system of weights and measures, a uniform style of written script. Some of this information is relatively new, and much of it has been recently revised in light of still-emerging evidence. For the longest time, Qin was better remembered as a warmonger who ruled as a tyrant, and bankrupted his regime with the cost of his grand projects. But since the discovery of his vast clay funeral cortege, and later his own burial vault in a nearby mound beneath Mount Li, he has become more famous for his death and afterlife than anything he ever did above ground.
“The warriors were made to guard his tomb,” explains Lady Jiajia. “But also to fight for him in the next world, okay?” Starting almost every sentence with “hello” and ending with an “okay” to check we’re keeping up, she proceeds to walk and talk us through the tourist village that now surrounds the three main excavation pits. The first of these we visit was the second to be discovered in June 1976, two years after the original pit and slightly to the north. Designated Pit 2, it contains a range of different forces in four separate arrays – infantry, cavalry, charioteers and archers, plus one of seven generals to be unearthed from the site.
Apparently his upturned feet denote his rank, not to mention his impressive height and the ribbons that decorate his armoured vest. “Hello, pay attention to the details,” says Jiajia. “Everything means something, okay?” Her own favourite of the warriors literally stands apart, preserved inside a glass case and surrounded by onlookers, whose flashbulbs illuminate his face. He’s an archer, though his wooden bow and arrows are missing – long since rotted, looted, or burned away. But where many of his comrades were damaged or lost in fires, earthquakes, cave-ins and grave-robberies over the centuries, this one is otherwise perfectly intact.
“He is magic,” says our guide, sounding genuinely in awe of him and possibly in love with him. For my own part, I’m remembering my own first encounter with these soldiers, and reflecting on the fact that they haven’t changed much. Protected as they are by UNESCO and the Chinese government, while they in turn protect their emperor, they will still be holding together long after I’m dust. It’s an obvious thought but doesn’t quite go without saying, especially when so many people are mimicking the stances and expressions of these sculptures as they pose for photographs. The tourists in the room outnumber the warriors by a ratio of at least 3:1, but we all know that they will outstare us into eternity. (Which is not to say that they are invulnerable – the slow fade of their original paintwork accelerated on exposure to oxygen, and their brightly-coloured faces, eyes and armour are now dulled to a uniform earthen grey-brown.)
And there is a deeper poignancy to their story that our guide starts to unpack as we move on to Pit 3. The smallest of the main excavation chambers, this one contains only 68 soldiers, most of them officers and many of them headless. Historians have read this as a sign that work stopped abruptly when Qin Shi Huang passed away. His necropolis project had begun some forty years earlier, when the future emperor was barely 13, and an estimated 700,000 labourers had since literally given their lives to it. A few were commissioned artisans and master craftsmen but the majority were slaves, convicts and feudal peasants who either died on the job or were killed as a matter of policy, their skills and secrets taken to the grave by force.
And while some of the terracotta figures were explicitly modelled on members of Qin’s living army, it now believed that many of those doomed workers carved their own features into the clay. The way that Lady Jiajia tells it, with a touch of emotion and a glimmer of myth-making, they poured their very life-forces into these vessels, knowing that nothing else would survive of them. In that sense, I had it right as a kid, and there are real men inside each one.
We finish the tour in Pit 1, the first and biggest of the catacombs, where 2000 warriors are standing to attention, with a further 6000 still buried and waiting. (And not just combat troops – more recent excavations in the other pits have uncovered servants, cooks, jesters, concubines and animals, an entire culture rendered into pottery and reposing underground.) The emperor, meanwhile, lies undisturbed in his own mausoleum half a mile away, which archaeologists don’t dare enter because the vault is ringed with a poison moat of mercury. Surveying what’s left of his army, I try to imagine these stoical figures fighting Qin’s battles in the afterlife. I could have pictured it better when I was younger. Now I find I’d rather think of them at rest.