Thursday, February 26, 2009

Army of the Afterlife

Well we hoped for a change in the weather and we got it. Instead of rain today we had snow. I guess we can’t be too upset when you consider how badly the farmers need the water. Anyway, today it was off to world of the afterlife. Qin Shi Huang was the first Emperor of unified China, uniting warring factions under his rule in 221 BC. During his reign he standardized Chinese writing, weights and measures, and currency. He also connected separate sections of the Great Wall into one, more or less, continuous barrier. While he was a powerful leader, he was also ruthless. He initially ascended to be emperor of this region at the age of twelve. Preparations began immediately for his trip to the afterlife, and it was the fruits of those preparations that we witnessed today. Of course I am talking about the Terracotta Army. The Terracotta Army is a force of over 7000 life size clay figures, each with unique facial expressions, buried in battle formation, east of the Emperor’s tomb. The tomb and the army took 700,000 laborers and 37 years to complete. Some historians believe that Qin Shi Huang expected to continue his rule in the afterlife, and that is why he wanted an army to protect him. Whatever the reason, the sight of rows upon rows of warriors, lined up in the archeological pits, is awe inspiring.

Imagine an entire army lying just beneath the surface, unknown for over 2000 years. Then in 1974 five farmers were digging a well (during yet another Xi’an drought) and dug up part of a warrior. Since it was during the Cultural Revolution, when the “old ways” were frowned upon, they didn’t report it to anyone. Eventually a journalist from the area heard of their discovery and reported it to the party officials. One thing led to another and the excavations finally began, continuing even today, as much of the area is yet to be uncovered. In an interesting twist of fate one of the farmers that made the original discovery was signing copies of a book about the Army today, and Martha got to shake his hand. Of course she bought an autographed book.

After yet another delicious meal it was off to visit Qin Shi Huang himself. Actually he is buried several hundred feet underground, but we did visit the site of his mausoleum. According to historical records, written a century after Qin Shi Huang’s death, the tomb includes a map of the known world in stone, with all of the rivers of China formed with mercury. Recent tests confirm the soil around the mausoleum has extremely high mercury levels, suggesting that the account is accurate. Buried with the Emperor were all manner of treasures and weapons, for his use in the afterlife. Supposedly there are also crossbows positioned to fire automatically if the tomb is disturbed. It all sounds a little Indiana Jones to me, but it is said that truth is stranger than fiction, so who knows.

Our last stop of the day was the Huaping Pools. This is the site of the Tang Dynasty era winter palace. The pools are fed by hot springs poring from the mountain side, providing a welcome relief from the winter cold for the privileged. As the day was cold the group thought about jumping the railings to take a dip. We all managed to resist this temptation.

Then it was back in the bus for the trip back to XFLS and to meet up with host families. Tomorrow we head out of town to the Famen Temple and the Qian Mausoleum. The amount of information that we have been given from our guide has been staggering. Who knew that we would be studying over 3,000 years of history? Today’s look at the Terracotta Army was such a highlight as it is considered by many to be the 8th wonder of the world.

The kids are having an incredible experience as they adjust to different food, new friends, and being on the other side of the world.


  1. What great images! I wonder what are the vestiges of the Four Olds? How were they saved/ salvaged? As China emerges as a global power, what are the "new" Olds? Is there a balance between advancement and preservation? How is this balance seen? felt? heard? What is similar/dissimilar to the USA? Korea?

    Ms Shifrin

  2. Sara - The pendulum seems to have swung since the days of Mao. Though his image is still ever present, it is now mostly on bags or t-shirts for tourists. The four olds have returned and the Chinese seem truly proud of their pre-modern heritage. We have seen and heard about the impressive imperial dynasties of the past and even visited a brand new cultural theme park dedicated to celebrating the Tang Dynasty. Within the park we walked through poetry valley, where poems from Tang poets were written on the faux rock walls. Dress of the 7th century was evident throughout the park. Freedom of religion is now in evidence as well, though members of the Party are "fired" if they practice any religion. The official line is that Mao was mostly right in his policies, though there is concession that some of what he enforced was wrong-minded and counter productive. With a rapidly growing middle class the new olds seem to be cars and European fashion; good old-fashioned middle class materialism.