Clay Warriors




October 2009 • Canon 40D camera

UNESCO World Heritage site
Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

X i’an is arguably most famous for the Terracotta Army. This UNESCO World Heritage excavation site contains over 8000 life–size statues of an army, created over a span of 40 years to protect China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇, in the afterlife. Along with 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, this amazing army was only discovered in 1974 by a local farmer who was drilling a well.

There are three excavation ‘pits’ that you can visit and today we were going to to see them. From the parking lot, it’s about a 20 minute walk surrounded by souvenir shops along the way. You finally arrive at a large square with three buildings to the excavation pits along with an exhibition hall.

Pit I

This is the largest and the most photographed of the excavation pits. It feels like you are in an aircraft hanger. It is believed to house around 6,000 Terracotta statues but only 2000 are underneath and on display. That is because the original statues were colourfully painted, but when they were exposed to the air, the colours faded and disappeared. Since then, no more statues were unearthed until they find a way to preserve the paint.

It was a pleasant surprise to find out that each warrior has a unique facial features and expression. I spotted one stature that had an amazing smiling facing that made me laugh. They are also very detailed—from their hairstyles and gestures to the clothing and weapons. Many of the statues had real weapons, such as swords, spears and bows. But they were not on display in the pits.

As we walked around the pit, further at the back the statues had fallen down like a ten pin bowl had been thrown at them. How were the statues made you may ask? According to studies, the parts were created separately and then assembled together. The head, arms, torso and legs were moulded with clay on the outside. This allowed artists to create the details you see on them.

Fired in kilns to make the clay hard, they were later painted to complete the terracotta warrior. They were buried in trenches with a wooden roof, which over time gave way and smashed on top of the warriors. At the back of the pit you can see on display the warriors that are currently being restored.

Did you know...

China's First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇 is responsible for two of it’s famous tourist attractions: The Terracotta Army and and The Great Wall of China (he was the first to build a wall to protect against warring tribes from the North). Along with above two he also unified China, becoming Qin Dynasty (秦朝) and standardizing writing and currency as part of his legacy.

Tea party

Tian Lai Teahouse

After pit one, we all met at the Tian Lai Teahouse for some refreshments. We all chose to have some tea so we were treated to a Chinese art of tea ceremony. We had a hostess that would demonstrate making the tea. We all sat around a circular table with the hostess in the middle. She would explain the different types of tea on offer and we could smell a sample of the tea. We each chose our tea and then the hostess would make it.

There was a certain ritual in making the tea; the way she poured the water into the cup and then covers the tea before serving us. It was great to experience this tradition as throughout our journey in China, drinking tea is an integral part of Chinese society. After enjoying our tea, we headed back out to the remaining two pits.

Green tea

Zi yang Rich Selenium Tea

Pu er Tea

Ku Ding Tea

Flower tea

Jasmine Tea

Gingseng Tea

Lychee Black Tea

Dragon Well Tea

Da Hong Pao

Chrysanthemum Tea

Oolong tea

An Xi Tie Guan Yin

White Tea

Pit II

Discovered in 1976, pit two is adjacent to pit one and smaller. It is mostly uncovered, and is shaped as an L-shape pit opposed to a rectangular pit as in Pit 1. The warriors in here are mostly archers and some war chariots. At the side of the pit is an interesting display of four terracotta warriors fully intact. There are two archers; one standing and one kneeling. The archer standing has no armour on while the one sitting is heavily armoured up.

The third warrior is a cavalryman with his horse. Fourth you see a middle–ranking officer. Finally there is a high–ranking officer or general on display. It is a chance to get really up close to the warriors and see the amount of detail that went into crafting them. It’s an amazing piece of human artistic history to witness.


This pit was smaller than the other two and was also discovered in 1976 after pit 2. To me, the pit looks like a U shape with high corridors. It is considered by historians to be the command centre for the other two pits. An interesting feature here is that most of the warriors did not have any heads with no one knowing why. There is also four horses that is thought to have been in front of a chariot, which has since disappeared or destroyed.

Exhibition Hall

The exhibition hall is small with three display halls. The famous hall is the one with the two Bronze Chariot and horses. They were unearthed in 1980 around 20m West of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor 秦始皇. It was jam packed with people in here and we didn't stay too long inside.

Final thoughts

Another place I wanted to see as a child, The Terracotta Army was an interesting historical site to visit... well pit one being the most interesting. Pit two and three are not that impressive to be honest, with the exception of the display in pit two which is worth spending time to see. Some say you should start at pit three and work your way up to pit one to feel more impressed as you go. The restoration work is still in progress and it feels like there will be more discoveries in the years to come.

Nowhere else in China are there full size realistic figures. And there is nothing else in the Chinese art tradition that comes close. It reminds me of Greek statues... There are some scientists and historians that believe there was some kind of contact between East and West at the time of the First Emperor 220 BC. Which makes this discovery more fascinating. Come equipped with a good lens to zoom into the warriors to get a closer look at their facial expressions. Like a lot of popular places in China, it is filled with local tourists so expect crowds everywhere. And I recommend the tea ceremony in the tea house.

Explore more of China

View all articles for China

Related Articles

Back to full list of destinations