Arriving in Xi'an at dawn, just as the first rays of light begin to color the sky, I carry with me the memory of seeing an exhibition in Barcelona of 31 ceramic pieces from Xi’an that had toured the world.
These figures from the Qin Dynasty (221-207BCE) represented the figures of a general, an archer and an acrobat, with every detail of their armor and clothing shown. I am excited about seeing in situ the spectacle of the many other thousands of figures that are a legacy of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. His army of Terracotta Warriors was one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century.
The Bingmayong archaeological site, 35 kilometers east of Xi’an, was discovered by chance in the spring of 1974 by peasants digging a well. The rumors that had surrounded the area for centuries became real almost overnight. Under a few cubic meters of red sand, 7,000 terracotta warriors stand guard near to Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. The First Emperor made history by unifying China during a reign that began when he was only 13 years old. He defeated six major kingdoms, unified measures, currency and script, and constructed roads and canals covering a greater total length than built by the Roman Empire. He also founded a centralized and efficient government that served as a model for all the dynasties that followed.
Of course, he did not get to be Emperor without cracking more than a few heads along the way. Among countless other atrocities, he enslaved thousands of captives to build his capital, burnt almost all the previous written texts of the time and buried alive some 500 people who protested against his rule. He also had a reputation for paranoia.
Xiang Chen works at the archaeological site as a restorer. He explains that Qin Shi Huang hoped to continue his reign once he was dead and did not skimp on resources. The site sprawls over 56 square kilometers with the vast buried army being revealed in a series of excavated pits covered with new roofs to protect them from the elements.
The first I visit has a collection of more than 1,300 pieces, horses and horsemen, arranged in 14 rows protected by an advance party of kneeling archers. Besides the awesome scale, I delight in being able to see five figures close up: a pair of archers, a soldier with his horse and two officers of differing rank. The sculptures are perfect in every detail, as well as each being recognizably different individuals.
Their sense of life leaps across the centuries. What battles did they fight, what adventures did they have, what loves lost and found?
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