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Big Toys for Powerful Boys: Visiting the Terracotta Warriors
July, 22 2000

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A thousand warriors stand in front of me
All is still and quiet, with an air of tense expectation. A thousand warriors stand in front of me, prepared but calm. Thirty-two chariots in a strict battle formation make a square in the center of the troops. I am awed and silent, but not scared. The soldiers' robes, now faded, were once brightly colored with crimson, greens, purples and blues.

Nearby, in a hidden underground room, the generals and officers of the Qin army plan their strategy and issue orders to the troops. The governor wears a cap with two bird tails from a legendary bird, the daughters of the dragons. Magic and mysticism play an equal part with military logic in this command center.

Every day, more and more soldiers appear on this vast plain, near the ancient city of Xi'an, China. But from where do they come? The surrounding hills are covered in smog and mist, and the plains are filled with farms and factories.

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Each one is an individual, with his own unique expression
The soldiers continue to appear, uncovered, from deep inside the earth, with the help of expert Chinese archeologists. They were made out of a type of clay, called terracotta, and they are well over 2000 years old. Each one is an individual, with a unique expression, stature, and clothing.

Ever since I first saw the army of terracotta warriors in the movie "Baraka," they've fascinated me. I remember the camera slowly passing over one expressive, life-like face after another, and wondering where on earth they were, and why they were there. Today, I make my way through the vendors, who are selling T-shirts and little replicas of the warriors, to get a glimpse for myself!

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Qin Shihang, the 'First Exalted Emperor'
This army guards the tomb of Qin Shihang, the "First Exalted Emperor." When he was only thirteen years old, back in 246 BCE, Qin Shihang became the king of the state of Qin. At the time, China was divided into seven states, which were constantly fighting with each other, so historians call it the "Warring States Period."

"There's a reason why, these days, we try to avoid giving absolute power to people, especially 13 year old boys!" I think, looking out over the open caverns full of giant toy soldiers. Like most ancient societies, China was ruled by the powerful few over the weak, illiterate masses. What would YOU do, if you had absolute power in a society where life was short and hard and war was honorable and expected?

Like you, young Qin Shihang had big dreams. But unlike you, this 13-year-old boy had incredible power and an army at his disposal. Over the next 25 years, the Qin army defeated all the other states, creating one vast Chinese empire! It was the first time Eastern China was united under one ruler.


terracotta - fired clay used for statuettes
stature - quality or status gained by achievement
tyrant - an absolute ruler unrestrained by law
artisan - someone who creates or performs with skill

After seeing the terracotta warriors, I watch a graphic, "circle vision" movie where the actors dressed up like these warriors and officials and reenacted battle scenes. The combat at the time was mostly hand to hand, with swords, daggers, hatchets, and other messy, bloody weapons. No wonder the teenage emperor was so into war! It was like a massive video game, only it was real! One by one, the enemies' brightly colored flags were laid at the feet of a mean looking Qin Shihang, menacing in his flowing robes.

In order to strengthen and protect his empire, Qin Shihang created one currency and one system of weights and measures for the entire empire, and he standardized the Chinese written language. He forced huge numbers of peasants to work for him in massive construction projects like this one, around his tomb. His rule also saw the beginning of the Great Wall, which was designed to keep out invaders from the north. He was a much feared tyrant, who ruled with an iron hand.
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T.C. and I in the
Qin Shihang's tomb, which these warriors have attempted to guard for over 2000 years, was said to be absolutely magnificent, filled with precious stones and statues of gold and silver, rivers of mercury, and ceilings lined with pearls. The artisans who built it were buried alive so that their secrets would never be told.

Today, there's nothing but a pile of rubble left where his tomb was looted and burned by the armies of Liu Bang in 207 BCE. Liu Bang was a common farmer who, in the traditional way of the dynastic cycle, rose up to overthrow the corrupt and inefficient government that followed Qin Shihang. That was the start of the famous Han Dynasty, where the Han Chinese got their name.

After Liu Bang's army looted the tomb and busted up the terracotta army, they left everything in the vast underground chambers where they had been so carefully placed originally. For over 2000 years, this army lay defeated and unknown. Until, in 1974, a farmer was digging a new well, and out came a head, a warrior's terracotta head!

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No one knows really how many soldiers are out there
Since then, archeologists have been excavating and rebuilding these warriors. So far, in the three different chambers they've discovered, they've found 6000 terracotta soldiers, along with terracotta horses and the rotted remains of wooden chariots. The bronze weapons are still sharp, they were never used, and are on display in one of the museums. And, every day, more of the army is uncovered. No one knows really how many soldiers are out there.

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A life-size toy soldier to protect you - in the afterlife!
Looking out over the extravagance of Qin Shihang's mausoleum, I imagine what he must have seemed like to the masses of peasants that made up the vast majority of China at the time. Throughout history, China has been ruled by powerful warlords, with the land owned by rich landlords who gave allegiance to those warlords. That system stayed in place all the way until 1911! No wonder, when the Communists came around, people were drawn to their message of equality and peasants' rights! I wouldn't want a teenage boy forcing me to build life-sized toy soldiers to protect him in the afterlife, would you?!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Related Link:

Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, and the Terracotta Warriors


Jasmine - Taking Time To Remember: The Invasion in Nanjing
Kavitha - People are Strange, When You're a Stranger!
Yang-Yang - Conquering Huangshan

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