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A Brief History of Xi’an’s Terra Cotta Warriors

On the eve of the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Xi’an (pronounced she-an) can best be described as a small city in northwest China’s Shaanxi province with the population of merely 280,000 people, most of whom were refugees from the Japanese invasion of East China. Since then, Xi’an has utterly transformed with a metro population of over 10 million individuals. This is in part due to the government’s industrializing efforts, but also due to its newly-found status as an international tourist destination, following the trove of archaeological treasures discovered in 1974 with the life-sized pottery Terra Cotta Warriors.

Looking forward to the future, the government wants to continue the transformation of Xi’an as a metropolis on the government’s new “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which seeks to revitalize the ancient Silk Road ties between China and its neighbors to the west through bilateral trade and investment. The recent history of Xi’an almost reads like a Shenzhen story: the transformation of a backward town to a modern metropolis. (Before developing as a Special Economic Zone following China’s economic “opening up” to the West in 1979, the estimated population of Shenzhen was around 30,000 people. Today, the official population of the city is between 10 and 11 million people; with some estimates for the entire metropolitan area to reach over 23 million.) However, the modern rise of Xi’an can also be viewed as a return to the city’s ancient status of historical importance and cosmopolitan cultural exchange as the former capital city of ten different Chinese dynasties.

Following centuries of turmoil and political instability during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE), Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor to unify all of China under a single ruler. Ascending to the throne of the state of Qin when he was 13 years old, he embarked on a strategy in 230 BCE to defeat all of the surrounding states one by one. He is also accredited with the construction of the Great Wall of China, as well as a network of roads to connect his newly-established empire.

However, before the archaeological discoveries of the 1970s in Xi’an, only a limited amount of information was available about the Qin dynasty. Most of this information was derived from historical texts, which was ultimately not a reliable way to determine the legacy of this dynasty, as scholars were biased either for or against the emperor, based on the political events of the era in which the texts were written. Needless to say, the archaeological discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors ultimately transformed the world’s understanding of ancient China.

Over 1,900 Terra Cotta warrior statues have already been unearthed within three pits in Lintong County, in the western area of the Xi’an metropolis area. First discovered by a group of relatively impoverished farmers in 1974, there are estimated to be over 8,000 life-sized ceramic pottery Terra Cotta Warrior statues. The Terra Cotta Warriors have been described as examples of mingqi. Mingqi was first termed during the late Zhou dynasty as objects which are supposed to accompany the dead to the afterlife. Technically translated as “spirit vessels”, these artifacts serve “as substitutes or surrogates for some ‘real’ object that is a living, functional, bigger, or more precious entity.” The Terra Cotta Warrior pits are located near the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, which has not yet been excavated. The first and largest pit is believed to be a recreation of the Qin army itself, as the pottery soldiers were unearthed in what seemed to be a battle formation. The second pit consists of mostly cavalry standing in front of their horses. The third and smallest pit, which contains one chariot and sixty-eight officers and foot soldiers, is believed to be the army’s headquarters.

Studying these archaeological findings can provide many insights into the Qin period. Many visitors comment on how no two pottery soldiers look alike. Indeed, individualism in both facial expressions, as well as an elaborate system of rankings seems to be an inherent quality of these soldiers. However, a closer analysis shows a much more elaborate artisanal and labor system as what spurred the creation of these pottery figures. As noted by Zhixin Jason Sun: “The thousands of individualized terracotta sculptures resulted from a mass-production process. Arms, hands, and heads were made in molds as separate modules, which were then joined with the feet and torso. In the final steps before firing, clay was applied to the surface of the sculptures so that artists could model the faces and hairdos individually.” In other words, the ancient Qin dynasty created a social structure akin to Adam Smith’s labor specialization ideal or Henry Ford’s mass production line millennia before these became commonplace labor practices.

Many scholars still debate the function of the Terra Cotta Warriors. As this is the oldest emperor’s tomb discovered and the vast entirety of the tomb has not yet been excavated, it leaves many more questions than answers: What is the purpose of a life-sized, pottery army? The question of the size of these pottery warriors is interesting, as many of the artifacts excavated from the site, such as the carriages, were not life-sized, but rather modeled on a much smaller scale. The question of why the emperor chose to be surrounded by pottery soldiers is also an interesting question. As more and more pits have been excavated, it has become clear that living beings were also buried with the emperor. Some of the horse skeletons which have been unearthed demonstrate a visible struggle, suggesting that they were buried alive. Moreover, some tombs were found with human remains, believed to be high officials who were possibly executed at Qin Shi Huang's funeral to help lead him into the afterlife. While the tombs have provided much new information on ancient China, it also has opened up a plethora of new questions about the religious, social, and cultural practices of the era.

Outside of the social sphere, however, the tombs provide additional insights into the economic and military sophistication of the era. Many of the pottery Terra Cotta warriors were found with sophisticated weaponry, attesting to the military prowess of the Qin dynasty. Moreover, monetary currencies found in the tombs attest to the political and economic development of the Qin. This matches many historical documents detailing the achievements of the First Emperor, who produced a standard set of weights and measures as well as the standardization of coinage. Regardless, the tombs have been able to visually connect the city of Xi’an with its glorious and historically significant past under the Qin dynasty, allowing the city to create a unique brand as a tourist destination in the modern era.