The Emperor’s Army: Terra Cotta Soldiers in China

Morgan Garrett

When you think of China you probably think of big cities like Beijing and Hong Kong? But there is so much more to it than that. If you hop on a bus and venture a few hours outside the city, the landscape changes from skyscrapers to farms and rice fields. Cement and cars turns to dirt and oxen carts scattered about in the valleys between mountains.

Xian is a rural city north of the Three Gorges Dam, south of the Great Wall, and west of Shanghai in central China. This area is nestled in the heart of the Yangtze River basin and is home to the Terra Cotta Soldiers. This magnificent display represents the army of the first emperor of China. The life sized sculptures depict the number of soldiers that fought under this emperor and were erected to serve as protection for him in the afterlife.

These beautiful and historic art pieces were actually discovered by local farmers in the area during the 1970’s when they were digging for their fields. Each soldier is the exact height that would have been represented by each position with the generals being the tallest of the soldiers. Along with the men are chariots and horses that were sculpted to the exact dimensions that would have been in battle.

A large tent like structure was built directly over this army of clay so that they wouldn’t need to be moved and risk being destroyed. As it stands these figurines have remained in this exact place since the third century. The structure is about the size of a one and a half football fields and has zero air conditioning. The climate in China, especially in the summer is very humid and sticky. The tomb of the emperor also resides here, however it was unopened when I visited and is still unopened to this day. The Chinese have elected to keep it sealed to respect the beliefs of the afterlife as well as to preserve any remains or artifacts that have been sealed off to fresh air for the last 18 centuries. Even though I was only 11 when we visited, I can remember just how hot and muggy it was, and how overwhelming the site of an entire army was before me.

If you should ever find yourself in China, I highly recommend getting a bus or guide to take you out to the little town of Xian and stand before this magnificent army. The little farm it is located on may not seem like much, but I can assure you that you will never see anything else like this again. Pay attention to each soldier’s face, hair, décor, and expression, as they are all one of a kind. Make sure to take lots of water and a fan if you plan to stay more than an hour!