Mysteries Abound in Xi’an

Xi’an is a good place to get some perspective on just how big China is; with a population of 8.4 million (i.e. New York City), Xi’an is only the 13th largest city in the country. For many years the imperial capital of China, Xi’an is now firmly relegated to the status of a second city, but one that is the site of much of China’s dynastic history.

Xi’an is largely unremarkable, which is to say it’s a nice, fairly developed city (particularly for its location in central China), but nothing special for a tourist.

There are a few things to see in the city center, but you come here to see the famous Terracotta Army. For reasons I’ll get to later, I approached the Terracotta Warriors with a measure of skepticism and managed expectations. Having said all that, it was pretty cool.


A brief history: the Terracotta Army is only a small part of the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China who unified the country for the first time in 221 B.C. Though he only reigned for about 30 years, he made lasting contributions, creating a unified language, standardizing weights and measures, beginning construction of the Great Wall, and introducing a single currency in all of China. Like many powerful rulers in history, he was also a ruthless monster and the standard of living under Qin Shi Huang was terrible and basically everyone starved.

He technically assumed the throne when he was 13, but didn’t gain full authority until he was 22. That didn’t stop him from beginning to construct his tomb immediately, and preparations began when Qin Shi Huang was barely a teenager. Similar to Egyptian practices, the Chinese believed in order to prepare oneself for death, you would need to have every necessity from your mortal world brought with you to the afterlife to continue your immortal existence. Qin Shi Huang was not one to skimp, and his entire tomb takes up 20 square miles, stocked with everything he might need.

The Terracotta Warriors were meant to protect the emperor from evil spirits after death and only account for a very small portion of his enormous mausoleum, the rest of which has never been opened (more on that later). In addition to the soldiers, each of which has a unique expression and includes details like facial wrinkles and fingernails, there are several full-size terracotta horses that once pulled wooden chariots, which have not survived.

This statute, of a high-ranking officer, is one of the largest found (the statues are sized accordingly to their rank).
This statue of a high-ranking officer is one of the largest. The statues are sized accordingly to their rank.
If you look closely, you can see his forehead wrinkles
If you look closely, you can see his forehead wrinkles

I was lucky to visit the day before a national holiday (also more on this later), so the pits were relatively empty and I didn’t have to fight for a spot along the railings to get a good look down. Pit 1, where 6,000 of the 8,000 statues were found, is the “wow” moment of the whole experience, and you’ll see soldiers that have been fully reconstructed, as well as sections of the pit that have not been fully excavated, where you can see the broken statues buried in dirt as they were found 40 years ago.

Behind the standing soldiers, you can see the piles of dirt yet to be excavated.
Behind the standing soldiers, you can see the piles of dirt yet to be excavated.

Like anything of this level of fame, some people are amazed by it and others are thoroughly disappointed. I fell somewhere in the middle. I didn’t find myself breathless before the enormity of the spectacle, but the scale of the operation is pretty awe-inspiring. The viewing platforms in Pit 1 give you a good perspective on the area, so you can really take in the whole scene. Pits 2 and 3 are much smaller, and Pit 3 is considered the headquarters of the whole army, as statues representing military officials were found here.

So, are they real?

Pit 2
Pit 3

If you’re not familiar with this, there is a lot of chatter about the authenticity of the warriors and several compelling reasons outlining why they are fake. I had read all of this before I went out to see the Terracotta Army, so I did look a little more closely than I might have otherwise (as if this would make a difference and I was going to be the one to finally figure this out).

I’ll stack the evidence disproving their legitimacy first (all of this can be found with a simple Google search, by the way, these are not my original hypotheses). The most damning piece of evidence, to me, is the lack of documentation; there is no mention of the Terracotta Army in any writing from this period, which includes details about Qin Shi Huang’s tomb and its construction. This would have been a herculean feat, though not wholly impossible, so no mention of it seems highly questionable to me.

Many people also think the timing of the discovery of the warriors is suspicious. A farmer digging a well came upon the pit and reported it to the government… in 1974, right about the time China was reopening to the West. The Terracotta Army would be the perfect thing to attract tourists from around the world.

Thirdly, the rest of the tomb has never been opened. During the Cultural Revolution, many tombs near Xi’an (there are hundreds of royal tombs from several dynasties in this area) were raided and destroyed, so the government passed an ordinance saying these tombs could not be opened—any of them, not just Qin Shi Huang’s. A logical step at the time, but the continued adherence to this practice seems odd to me, and many people have speculated about the reason for not opening and further exploring the amazingly huge tomb of Qin Shi Huang. Perhaps because there’s nothing there?

Finally, only Chinese archeologists have ever examined the Terracotta Amy in the pits in Xi’an. The warriors have been sent to museums around the world (as many as 20 at a time), but no foreign archeologist has ever worked at the origin.

The statues were originally painted, and you can see vestiges of the original coloring here. This warrior is a kneeling archer.
The statues were originally painted, and you can see vestiges of the original coloring here. This warrior is a kneeling archer.

So, as for proof of their legitimacy, everything about the concept seems to check out. I visited another, smaller tomb of a different emperor the day before that had the exact same thing, just much smaller. The warrior statues were probably two feet tall and relatively crude, compared to the life-sized and detailed Terracotta Warriors. Given what a megalomaniac Qin Shi Huang was, I think it’s totally conceivable he would want an outrageous, over-the-top, never-been-done-before display for his own tomb. The task was enormous and seems almost impossible—it took 720,000 people 38 years to complete it—but the construction of the Pyramids seems like a near-impossible feat, too.

Secondly, as I mentioned, some of the warriors have been sent around the world where they have been examined by foreign archaeologists not under the thumb of the Chinese government, so if they are fakes, they would have to be damn good ones. Or, at least some of the statues must be real.

Finally, if this is all chicanery, it is the most elaborate hoax being carried out in the modern world that I can think of. When you visit the site, you’ll find not only fully reconstructed statues—which, my guide told me, have been filled in with plaster in areas where pieces could not be found, so no one pretends they have been perfectly reassembled—but you’ll also find statues that are partially reconstructed, pits that are in the process of being excavated, archaeologists at work tagging thousands and thousands of terracotta shards, and areas that are untouched, where you can see pieces sticking out of the dirt. If the entire thing is fake, this is quite the operation to make it look like a working archeological site. It’s not an impossible feat, but this would be an expensive and precariously maintained joke.

My noncommittal answer to all of this is I think they are kind of real. I don’t think the entire thing is fake, as Qin Shi Huang was very much a real person and I have a hard time believing this is not his tomb; the scale of it certainly seems in-keeping with his character. He must have a tomb somewhere in Xi’an and if this isn’t it, where is it?

Secondly, too many museums and too many archaeologists around the world have seen some of the statues, so unless everyone has been duped by very good fakes, I think these few warriors, at least, are real.

What I doubt is the entire operation. There have been totally unexplained hiatuses in the reconstruction project, and while reconstructing these statues would take an enormous amount of time, something just doesn’t add up to me. Somehow it’s both taken too long and not enough time to amass the collection of fully put-together warriors they have now. The below picture shows a group of completed statues and it’s tough to get exact numbers, but I think they have fully reassembled about 1,000 so far including some of the horses, which, I have to say, looked to be in suspiciously good condition.


My best guess, knowing nothing about anything, is that the tomb is real and some of the statues are real. I don’t think all the in-tact warriors you see today at the site are real, or even partially real. In some ways, I don’t think this would be such a bad thing. Looking at a pit of broken statues is not that amazing, so I don’t think it’s crazy to create models to give people today an idea of what it would have looked like, as long as you’re up front about it. The Chinese maintain it’s all authentic, and maybe it is.

I also think it’s very possible that the scale of this has been exaggerated wildly. Not because the construction of it is so inconceivable, but because parts of the “unexcavated” areas looked awfully suspicious to me when I thought about it later. The statues that are in the process of being reconstructed are comprised of thousands of tiny fragments and you can see holes where presumably they will be filled in with plaster. Yet, when you look at parts of the pit that haven’t been unearthed yet, you can see entire arms, legs, chests, and heads sticking out of the dirt, waiting to be reassembled. How is it that these statues are in such good condition while the others have been shattered?

Again, no one wants to look at a pile of dirt with broken terracotta in it, and a partially buried arm or leg seems a bit too convenient.

Just for clarification, the statues are all destroyed 1) because the roof on the pit collapsed and 2) a few years after Qin Shi Huang’s death in 210 B.C., a civilian uprising overthrew the dynasty and armed forces stormed Qin Shi Huang’s tomb and destroyed much of it. All of the statues used to be holding weaponry (you can see their hands are bent as if around spears) and the thinking is that these were all stolen during the raid.


I can’t speculate as to numbers, but my guess is that this 8,000 number is artificially high. Because it’s competing with things like the Great Wall or the Forbidden City, this would have to be something unprecedented in size to be impressive by comparison (and make people want to visit), so I think that what is probably a cool, if not particularly amazing, tomb has been artificially tarted up into this world-class display.

This is a minor detail, but the Terracotta Army is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and while I hardly think that’s an infallible committee, I’d like to think they do their research and would have tried to debunk everything I’ve just laid out before giving it that designation.

So there’s some intrigue for you to mull over.

The other main site in Xi’an is the Muslim Quarter. Minority ethnic groups altogether only account for 8 percent of the population in China, and while the Muslin community is not particularly big, they are an interesting group that maintain a lot of their cultural heritage distinct from Chinese traditions.

Usual street market insanity
Usual street market insanity
Making ginger candy
Making ginger candy

I spent a morning walking around the colorful bizarre and the food stalls in this neighborhood and if this is your first stop in China, you’ll have a great time pushing your way through the crowd and seeing all the wacky things on display. Frankly, after walking through other neighborhoods like this in Shanghai, I wasn’t particularly wowed. A loud street market is a loud street market, so you can only see so many.

The other cool thing in this neighborhood is the Great Mosque, which you would never know is a mosque if you weren’t paying attention, as it is built in a traditional Chinese style with interlocking courtyards and several pavilions.


Dating back to 742, the mosque is in excellent condition for its age and the combination of Arabic writing with the very traditional Chinese architecture is a wild melding of two pretty distinct cultures.

You can’t visit Xi’an without a visit to the city wall. Walls like these used to surround almost every major Chinese city, though many were torn down under Mao. Luckily for us, the Xi’an government didn’t have any money at the time, so the historic wall remains. Its 8.5-mile expanse encircles the city center and you can rent some very rickety bikes to circumnavigate the whole thing. The 1,800-year-old cobblestones definitely don’t make for the smoothest ride, but a turn around the wall gives you a great view of some of Xi’an’s oldest and newest buildings.


Finally, this really has nothing to do with Xi’an, but it’s an interesting anecdote about life in modern China. September 3rd was the 70th anniversary of the Chinese victory over the Japanese in World War II and to celebrate, Beijing hosted an absolutely massive military parade. If you haven’t seen footage of this, it’s really worth a five-minute snoop on YouTube. It is highly unusual and hypnotic in its weirdness.

More than one person described the parade to me as the “anti-Japanese celebration” and as such, it was a national holiday (during which many Chinese take the opportunity to vacation in Japan). This happened on a Thursday, and in order to allow people to have a three-day weekend, rather than go back to work for one day on Friday, the government simply moved up the weekend, so everyone got Thursday, Friday, and Saturday off, and went back to work on Sunday. So school, for example, started on Sunday and went through the following Friday.

In many ways, this is oddly logical. Why is a weekend so fixed when it is? If you get three days off and everyone else is on the same schedule, isn’t that the main point? Of course I had to laugh at this though, particularly the bit about school. If any school district in the U.S. was told it had to work on Sunday, but got Thursday, Friday, and Saturday off, there would be a national uprising.

Furthermore, my guide told me that her daughter’s assignment for the weekend was to take a picture of the student and his or her parent watching the parade and bring it to class on Sunday (she’s in second grade). We all had assignments just like this in grade school, but I love that they snuck in making sure both the student and the parents were watching this incredible display of military might in Beijing. You know, for school.

It’s mind-boggling to see the things that happen behind the firewall here. On the day of the parade, Obama was off climbing glaciers and looking pensive in Alaska, but the story here is that he was snubbed and didn’t get an invitation to the parade because of the close ties between Japan and the U.S. The below photo of the First Family “watching the parade” has been making the rounds here as proof of how crushed they all were that they couldn’t attend in person.

I can't find an exact date on this, but it's at least four years old.
I can’t date this exactly, but at a minimum, it’s four years old. Look at the kids!

I’m not going to defend the dumb shit that circulates on the internet in the U.S., but honestly.

Overall, Xi’an was fine. I probably wouldn’t make the trek again, as I think it’s one of those cities that’s good for living in, but not so great for visiting, but I enjoyed my time there. Whether or not the Terracotta Army is real, I practically think it’s worth the haul just to see it for yourself and try to figure it out. Worst case, you’ve seen one of the greatest pranks ever.

My final stop before Hong Kong was the amazing Guilin. More on that tomorrow.


2 thoughts on “Mysteries Abound in Xi’an

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