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Calendar >  Travels With TR – Terra Cotta Figures of China

Travels With TR – Terra Cotta Figures of China

By   /  January 29, 2015  /  No Comments


tom & carolTravels With TR – The Amazing Terra Cotta Figures of China


Close-up of warriors face

Some years ago, I had the good fortune of leading a group of adults on a trip to see the wonders of China. One of our stops took us to what has been called by some the 8th Wonder of the World, the Terra Cotta army figures and sculptures of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang. It was declared by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987. This huge site currently consists of 4 partially excavated massive pits and a large unexcavated tomb mound at Mt. Li. The pits presently contain 8,099 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, all life sized and made out of terra cotta from the surrounding countryside. Excavation continues at this site and everyday new discoveries are unearthed. The most amazing aspect is most of the life sized statues are broken into hundreds of pieces each that teams of workers each day painstakingly assemble what this complex once looked like.


Close up of warriors.

Work began on the massive site in 246 BC when Emperor Qin was 13 years old and beginning his reign to unify China. The purpose was to build a tomb and figures to protect the Emperor once he died in the afterlife. Li Si was the designer of the site and Zhang Han was the construction supervisor. This project would take 38 years to build. The site was discovered in the modern era on March 29, 1974, by 3 local farmers from the Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province. The story is that one of the farmers dropped a bucket into a water well to get water from an underground spring, but instead of going splash the bucket went crash and when they pulled the bucket up it contained what would be parts of one of the terra cotta figures. The farmers contacted local Chinese archaeologists and the excavation of the site began. For over 2,000 years the warriors, and the site they were in, would be buried up to 16 or more feet deep with the accumulation of reddish, sandy soil. It is also thought that some of the damage to the warriors could have been from tomb robbers breaking into the pits after the death of the Emperor.

Emperor Qin was the first to standardize written script in China, he joined the states with canals and roads, unified the

Emperor Qin's unexcavated mound tomb.

Emperor Qin’s unexcavated mound tomb.

warring states, standardized weights and measurements and started building the Great Wall of China.  The Emperor was obsessed with searching for everlasting life and it is said he had over 8,000 of his subjects searching for a method to live forever. Their search would prove futile as Emperor Qin would die at age 50. His body, along with the construction of a huge mausoleum, would be placed in a pyramidal shaped necropolis mound behind the warrior’s pits. The mound was built to a height of 249 feet. This site is a sacred site and is said to be booby trapped, which may account for the fact that there is no indication the tomb has been broken into for over 2,000 years. Supposedly, inside the mausoleum there is said to be a complex constructed resembling the Imperial Palace in what is now Beijing, massive towers, numerous artifacts, a ceiling painted to depict the heavenly bodies, and most importantly, rivers filled with mercury. Tests on surrounding soil does indicate that there are extremely high levels of mercury in the area.  This poisonous substance may be one reason why the tomb has not been broken into and a reason no excavations have begun on the tomb.

Terra Cotta figures missing heads in pit.

Terra Cotta figures missing heads in pit.

Also under excavation are the workshop areas where the 700,000+ workers worked on the construction of the thousands of warriors and other sculptures. It is thought an assembly line production was set-up to produce the bodies of the warriors, horses, chariots and other items. Archaeologists believe there are 8 face molds that were made for the bodies and these molds would be slightly changed so that no one warrior face looks the same, including their hair style. Along with this the workers would mold officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians. These figures are in other pits at the site. All of the sculptures were once painted with bright pigments. Due to being under ground for so long, most of the pigment has disappeared. The figures vary in height, with the generals being the tallest. The warriors all once held real weapons – spears, swords, crossbows. To date, over 40,000 bronze weapons have been uncovered. The statues were arranged in military

A general and his horse.

A general and his horse.

formation by rank and duty.

As the excavations continued it has been found that all of the figures faced east. It is thought this symbolizes Qin’s attempt at unifying east and west China. The 4 pits have been excavated to a depth of 23 feet. Pit One has 11 corridors, 9 feet wide with over 6,000 figures found. Two thousand are on display at the site. Small bricks form the floor and from remains found it is thought a wooden ceiling once covered the corridors. Pit Two contains 4 types of war chariots and 2,000 cavalry and infantry. Pit Two also shows signs of fire damage. Pit Three seems to have been a command post with high ranking officials represented. Pit Four seems to be empty at this time. There are possibly other pits at the site that have not been excavated.  They have been referred to as the Lishan Garden and called the Museum of Terra cotta Acrobats, the Museum of Civil Officials and the Museum of Stone Armor.  Some even think more terra cotta soldiers may be found.


The miniature version of the warriors in Katy, Texas

A museum was built at the site in 1975 and has been expanded since this time. The thousands of tourists that visit each year can also visit the new museum, visitor’s center, a restaurant and gift shop. In the gift shop, visitors can purchase a number of items to remember their visit. One of the items for sale are life sized recreations of the warriors, standing or kneeling. My wife and I made such a purchase and had the warrior shipped back to our Vista home. My wife was able to negotiate getting my picture taken with the one remaining farmer who discovered the original terra cotta figures in his well. We have a permanent reminder of our trip in our living room and a picture of the Chinese farmer in our den.

For those who were unable to travel to China, for a few years Americans could stay in the United States and see a fairly exact recreation of the Emperor Qin’s burial site, only this site was in Katy, Texas.

A life sized warrior over looks the replicas

A life sized warrior over looks the replicas

This outdoor museum was called the Forbidden Garden’s. It was a 1/3 scale model of over 6,000 replica terra cotta soldiers displayed in formations. There were several life sized replicas and weapons on the site. The builder of the Forbidden Garden’s was Ira P.H. Poon, a Hong Kong real estate mogul, living in Seattle. Mr. Poon wanted to create what he considered to be cultural remembrance for Chinese Americans to see part of their culture without actually being there. Katy, Texas, is on the outskirts of Houston, Texas, a city that has the 3rd highest Chinese population in the United States. Mr. Poon selected Katy as the site as he found property at an inexpensive price that would fit his dreams.  He also built a small scale models of the Forbidden City of Beijing, the Temple of Heaven and more. He used a terra1140,000 square foot building to put these models in as well as having 40 acres for the reconstruction of the terra cotta figures pits. It is estimated Mr. Poon invested over $20 million dollars in this venture. The outdoor museum was built in 1997. Unfortunately, vandalism and Houston’s desire to expand the Grand Parkway Highway led to Mr. Poon to close the site in 2011 and sell off the statues.

Mr. Poon’s site might have been an exact reconstruction, but nothing can compare with seeing the real Emperor’s tomb and the warriors. There are many amazing places and wonders to see in China and the terra cotta figures are a must see. You will not be disappointed.


Photos by Tom Robertson



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  • Published: 9 years ago on January 29, 2015
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  • Last Modified: January 30, 2015 @ 11:47 pm
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About the author


Tom “TR” Robertson – 35 year Vista resident; 43 years at Carlsbad High School as the A.S.B. and Yearbook Advisor (retired); 35 years as a volleyball official for San Diego County C.I.F.; 15 years as a Academic League Moderator for North County high schools; work part time in the Special Events Office for the San Diego County Fair. Hobbies – going to new and unusual restaurants; going to movies, watching college basketball and football games; going to plays and musicals, traveling to anywhere in the world, playing with Australian Shepard Sydney, enjoying these and more fun activities with my wife Carolyn, spending time with two sons – Brian and Chris. For the Vista Press I write the Travel articles, write play and musical reviews, review restaurants and cover special events in Vista and other locations and cover other local Vista news.

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