The Tang Dynasty Music and Dance Show pays tribute to the time when Xi'an was at its height during the Tang Dynasty from 618 to 907. The city, formerly known as Chang'an, was the imperial capital during 13 dynasties and once one of the largest and most populous cities in the world.
Xi’an – Long Read

Three thousand years of history

Photo by Wes Walker

Xi’an – Long Read Three thousand years of history

Hello Xi'an, home of the Terracotta Warriors of China's First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, and the former capital of 12 Chinese dynasties as well as the starting point of the Silk Road at its eastern end. This ancient city has more than 3,000 years of history behind it but has also grown into one of the country's most important and modern regional centers.

Sergi Reboredo
Sergi Reboredo Travel Photographer

I arrive 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, 20 miles 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 20 square miles 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?

Here, I meet Chinese businesswoman Joan Hui, who is visiting from her home in Malaysia. “Xi’an is one of the great cities of the Ancient World, like Athens, Rome, or Cairo,” she says. “Xi’an brings alive this important part of Chinese history – the Qin Dynasty. In the history books, you can imagine what life was like during that time but the Terracotta Warriors actually bring it to life and leave you in no doubt how powerful the Emperor Qing was.”

Warriors, chariots and horses arranged in battle formation

A second pit a short distance away contains only 72 figures, mostly generals and other senior officers, the headquarters staff. But most exciting of all is the final pit, which has a staggering 6,000 figures of warriors, chariots and horses arranged in battle formation. Again, archers screen the flanks, while crossbowmen add their firepower to the shock troops of the heavy chariots, each pulled by four horses. The main body of soldiers is arranged in 36 rows and armed with spears, axes, daggers and swords. All the figures are sculpted in life-size terracotta, although the bright paint they were covered in has faded through the passage of time.

Variations in hairstyle, clothes and features denote the various ethnic groups that served the Emperor. The site has still not revealed all its secrets by far. “In 1980 there was another unique discovery: a pair of bronze chariots,” says Chen. “Then, in mid-2012, over 100 new terracotta warriors were found, equipped with horses and chariots. Excavations have also begun on what is presumed to be the Mausoleum of the Emperor himself at Mount Li, about 30 kilometers away from the current city of Xi’an.”

Something not found so far are helmets or shields, although both were common in the armies of the time. “Perhaps their absence was designed to highlight the value of the warriors, or perhaps it was more of a marching army than one in battle formation,” says Chen. “No one knows for sure.”

Despite the ongoing archeological work, the main burial chamber of the Emperor remains undiscovered. The Emperor did not provide any clue to its location and, guided by his unbridled fear of death and the afterlife, he set traps and false leads. However, some researchers claim to have a fairly accurate idea of the exact place because of the presence of heavy amounts of mercury thought to have been used to represent rivers in a model of the empire. New technology also allows remote probing for monuments and objects still deeply protected by soil cover. “We will see what news Xi’an has to offer in the coming years,” says Chen Xiang.

One unspoken reason to leave the tomb buried is to protect it. “During the past few years, things have changed rapidly in China,” says Joan. “There are large numbers of local tourists now and a number of attractions had been spoilt by commercial development. Xi’an is one place that has been properly protected, with visitors not allowed near the Terracotta Warriors or the Horses. There are still a lot of hidden treasures, such as the tombs of the Emperors, waiting to be excavated but, without appropriate and modern technology, they are safer left alone. China has, first of all, to tackle its pollution problems because bringing out such treasures now would destroy them. It’s a pity that we might not be able to see them during our lifetime but we have to wait until the time is right.”

Something made over 2,000 years ago that was not meant to be seen

Dr Marcos Martinón-Torres is Professor of Archaeological Science at University College London (UCL). He and his colleagues work on a joint project between UCL Institute of Archaeology and the Museum of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum in Xi’an. “It is extraordinary to be able to see something made over 2,000 years ago that was not meant to be seen,” he says. “It is unlikely that anyone, including the Emperor, saw it the way we see it today. The warriors were buried just below ground level and covered with a flat roof, just above the highest lances. They were covered from back to front as they were put in place, so no one had a sight of the entire army.”

The team’s study of the production process of the weapons shows that they were ready for use, with no efforts or resources spared. “Each is sharpened and is a real, lethal weapon,” he says. “Then it was buried, so it was not made simply to impress, it was made for use.

Historical texts tell us how ruthless the Emperor was and the Army reflects the military aspect of his rule. No doubt he felt he needed it to protect him in the afterlife from those seeking revenge. The logistical effort is amazing, to produce something so sophisticated and beautiful and yet so large in scale. We can compare the production process of the weapons to the cellular process used by Toyota cars and we are studying if the whole figures were made in a similar way, using 3D digital models. What’s interesting is that so far they seem to be totally individualized. So the weapons are perfectly standardized, but the warriors are all individuals, just as you would expect in real life.

“This site has continually surprised the research community,” he says. “As to what we will find next, your guess is as good as mine. All we know is that what we discover will continue to amaze us.”

The bus back from the archaeological site to Xi’an drops me off at the nearby Huaqing Hot Pool. During the Tang Dynasty, this was a favorite place for the emperors and their concubines to swim and relax in the royal gardens. Some hot springs, now public of course, are still preserved where the water reaches 109ºF. Most visitors I see seem to prefer to simply wander through the pine trees or climb to the Taoist temple on Li Shan, also called “Mount Black Horse” from its resemblance to the silhouette of a horse. The temple is dedicated to the goddess Nüwa who, appropriately enough, is believed to have created human beings by breathing life into clay figures.

Persians, Arabs and Central Asians, who fled Mongol invasions

Back in Xi’an, I find my hotel concierge, Xi Dan, is a convincing advocate for the charms of his home town. “Many visitors expect Xi’an to be an old and underdeveloped city,” he says. “In fact, it is very modern with good transportation. Compared with some other big cities in China, it is inexpensive and is comfortable, civilized and prosperous. It has four distinct seasons, but is not too hot or too cold.”

After a good breakfast, I follow his advice about exploring the city and head for the Muslim Quarter. For centuries, this has been home to more than 30,000 Chinese Muslims belonging to the Hui ethnic minority, descendants of Persians, Arabs and Central Asians, who fled Mongol invasions to settle in this part of China at the time of the Ming Dynasty. Most are traders whose ancestors arrived along the Silk Road and the alleys of the neighborhood are at first sight reminiscent of a more somber Moroccan or Tunisian souk. The shops and stalls are full of shirts, bags, watches, bracelets, paintings, vases and, of course, terracotta warriors in all sizes and materials. Designer brands, or rather counterfeits, abound. This is the perfect place to stock up on souvenirs at good price and, Xi Dan assures me, a good place to eat.

“Xi’an, then called Chang’an, was on the caravan route to Central Asia and the Middle East, now known as the Silk Road, and this brought together people of different cultures,” he says. “That is reflected in the many different foods you can enjoy here, including Muslim dishes such as pitta in mutton broth. Another popular snack is rou jia mo, chopped meat – beef or lamb in Muslim areas and pork elsewhere – wrapped in a pancake. It is enjoyed all over China and is called the Chinese hamburger.” The large number of food stalls in the Muslim Quarter offer plenty of choice at any time of the day or night. I watch bread being baked at the roadside, enjoy delicious sweets fried with sesame oil and sample nuts coated in candy.

The heart of this neighborhood is the Grand Mosque where men with bushy white beards and white skull caps come and go in rhythmic harmony, while their women in black lace headscarves take over the family business as they pray. The mosque is built in an architectural blend of Chinese and Islamic art and is one of the largest in the People’s Republic of China. It was built facing east during the Tang Dynasty in 742 but was later restored during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The most prominent room is the Main Hall which is used five times a day for prayer, its ceiling painted in turquoise color where you can study antique ebony Koranic verses. The mosque’s courtyard is filled every evening with believers sharing dinner and reflecting on religious matters. When night falls, multicolored bulbs highlight the minaret and the Wall of Spirits, designed to keep out demons.

Sounding out at night to warn that the city gates were closing

All roads in Xi’an lead to the Bell Tower at its center, from which a huge bell once sounded at dawn as the city gates opened for business, as well as being used to alert the surrounding countryside of approaching invaders. Now stuck on a traffic island, around which vehicles circle non-stop like sharks to prey on pedestrians, it is best reached via a foot tunnel. The impressive tower dates to 1384 and is the largest and best preserved of its kind in China. Its mate on the other side of a massive square is the Drum Tower, which had a similar function, sounding out at night to warn that the city gates were closing. Like the bell, the sound must have carried for many miles across the flat countryside around.

After enjoying the view from the top, I listen to one of the regular daily drum shows, given by red-costumed artists of great skill whose drumsticks fly in mesmerizing harmony. A Drum Museum gives more insight into the importance of the drum to Chinese history and culture.

Late in the afternoon, I follow the crowds towards the south of the city where local people and visitors converge every evening on the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. This symbol of the city stands in the Da Ci’en temple complex and was built in 652 to keep safe hundreds of volumes of Buddhist scriptures brought from India along the Silk Road by the monk Xuan Zang. The temple area is surrounded by gardens and fountains that come to life with a massive sound and light show as dusk falls.

On my last day, I say my farewells to Xi’an by cycling the eight-mile perimeter of the city walls from the South Gate. Although not as famous as some others, it is the best preserved of all the walls that defended Chinese cities. It was built between 1374 and 1378 to screen the Forbidden City of the Ming Dynasty and still stands complete today. The wall is high and wide, with several smaller gates in addition to the four main ones at each cardinal point of the compass.

At dusk, lights twinkle around each gateway and red lanterns hang from key points on the wall, creating a mystical and romantic image for this great city that guards within its walls the history, majesty and essence of old China.

Other stories about Xi'an

The Tang Dynasty Music and Dance Show pays tribute to the time when Xi'an was at its height during the Tang Dynasty from 618 to 907. The city, formerly known as Chang'an, was the imperial capital during 13 dynasties and once one of the largest and most populous cities in the world.

How my hotel concierge helped me discover Xi'an beyond the Terracotta army

My hotel concierge, Xi Dan, is a convincing advocate for the charms of his home town. “Many visitors expect Xi’an to be an old and underdeveloped city,” he says. “In fact, it is very modern with good transportation. Compared with some other big cities in China, it is inexpensive and is comfortable, civilized and prosperous. It has four distinct seasons, but is not too hot or too cold.”