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The Terra Cotta Warriors Of Xi'an - Is There A Curse?

Updated on February 20, 2016
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Brian Gray, obtained his degree in Language from Lee University, and has been a published author and professional writer since 1985.

The Terra Cotta Warriors Of Xi'an

The First Emperor Of China

The Great Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di lay dying. The year was 210 B.C., and he was just forty-nine years old. Only a year before, a disconcerting cosmic sign from the gods had signaled his end when a meteor had fallen in Dong Chun. Onto this sacred meteor, some anti-imperial citizen, in order to show everyone that the emperor had lost the mandate of Heaven, had etched an ominous augury that the emperor would die and his empire would be divided. Of course, that was then, he thought to himself, and after all, he had taken care of that matter in his usual custom. The meteor had been ground into powder by royal decree, and everyone who lived in the immediate area where the meteor had fallen had been put to death. This was how Qin Shi Huang Di dealt with anyone who opposed him, and it was not the first time his subjects had felt his ruthless power. A year before the meteor, 212 B.C., there were many schools of philosophy, including Confucianism, and because these schools of thought appeared, in his mind, to threaten his authority, he ordered all books burned that were not related to his reign, 460 scholars buried alive and 700 others stoned to death. There would be no tolerance for anyone speaking against Qin Shi Huang Di, and even Mortality, the God of Life, was going to be subdued by this emperor...or so he thought. Still, Qin Shi Huang Di was troubled by feelings of illness that his royal doctors had not been able to banish, and he summoned his loyal adviser. “Have they returned?” he asked weakly. “We are still awaiting them, Majestic and Heavenly Emperor. It cannot be much longer, and we have sent others to find them and hasten their arrival.” The First Emperor of China was waiting for the emissaries he had sent in search of the Elixir of Immortality, which supposedly existed on the far away three islands of the Immortals in the East China Sea. Perhaps to bring him closer to that area in anticipation of receiving the elixir quickly, Qin Shi Huang Di had gone to the Eastern portion of China to tour his kingdom. But, perhaps as foretold by the signs of a falling meteor and a fateful inscription, he would never receive the Elixir of Immortality, and he would never return alive to his capital of Xian Yang.

They Once Held Weapons

From Ruled To Ruler

Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di lay on his bed thinking back through his life, pondering his many past accomplishments, anticipating his future plans. He thought back to 246 B.C., when his father, king Yi Ren, had died, and he, as Prince Ying Zheng, had thereupon ascended to the throne at the young age of thirteen. He remembered how he felt being suddenly thrust to the center of court attention, attending to the details of properly burying his father with royal dignity, and at the same time learning how to conduct himself as a ruler to be both feared and respected lest someone take advantage of his youth. Ying Zheng had as his wise statesman a man named Li Si, and it was with the influence of Li Si that Ying Zheng ruled with the effectiveness that he did. He set out to bring uniformity and standardization to quite literally everything. The Chinese script was standardized, thus enabling all of the various dialects in China to communicate with a single written language. Parts to military weaponry were standardized so that, for example, crossbow and arrow parts could simply be replaced instead of needing an entirely new weapon when some part broke. Coins, weights and measures, even how wide the axles of a cart could be, all were standardized. Canals and roads were built, and ultimately, over the coming years, Ying Zheng would bring all of the various sections of China’s warring states under his rule. And as he conquered each of the other kingdoms, he ordered the families of their rulers sent to live in his capitol city of Xian Yang so that he could ruthlessly control any desire to dissent. Qin Shi Huang Di thought back to when his first advisor, Lu Bu Wei, had led an orchestration designed to overthrow him. He had banished Lu Bu Wei, and so induced a constant fear of execution in him, that Lu Bu Wei ultimately committed suicide by drinking poison. By 221 B.C. he had subdued all of the other kingdoms, and he gave himself he title “First Majestic and Heavenly Emperor of Qin,” Qin Shi Huang Di. With this act, the lowly horse breeders of the small state of Qin, and who had once served the Zhou Dynasty rulers centuries earlier, these superior horsemen had gone from serving to ruling. Ying Zheng was no longer a servant of the Zhou, but the ruler of all of the greatly-enlarged kingdom of Qin. It was no longer a small state, it was now a vast empire. Yes, Qin Shi Huang Di had made many enemies along the way, even endured several attempts at assassination and overthrow. But, hadn’t he subdued all of them? Those who opposed him were silenced with death. And those afar off? Well, he built walls.

Part Of The Ancient Wall In Xi'an

This is part of Qin Shi Huang Di's legacy, the original wall of the city.
This is part of Qin Shi Huang Di's legacy, the original wall of the city.

Part Of The Ancient Wall Of Xi'an

I took this photo to give some perspective of its height and size.
I took this photo to give some perspective of its height and size.

Climbing To The Great Wall

I decided to photograph my photographers.
I decided to photograph my photographers.

An Army Silently Awaits Its Emperor

An Army For The Afterlife

In the north, the Hsiong Nu, the ancestors of Attila the Hun, were constantly raiding his kingdom. To fend off these invaders, Qin Shi Huang Di ordered the construction of a large wall, and hundreds of thousands of slaves labored between 220 B.C. and 206 B.C. to build it, with thousands dying in the process. Later, it would be the joining of other walls to this project that ultimately became the Great Wall of China. But, there was an even greater project that he mused upon. He had ordered his advisers to find the Elixir of Immortality beginning around the age of thirty, and over the years, he had tried many of their concoctions in hopes that they knew what they were doing. But, taking nothing for granted, Qin Shi Huang Di had begun to prepare his conquering of the kingdom to come, the world of the afterlife. If he could subdue the Warring States, surely he could subdue the world of the afterlife. Inside a nearby mountain, he ordered the construction of a royal court and a facsimile of his kingdom. There were placed inside this mountain tomb all that he would need to maintain his lifestyle, including bronze and terra cotta figures of royal assistants for running the royal court and empire, plus acrobats, musicians and dancers for entertainment, as well as lavish furnishings. The kingdom was reproduced in scale, and fascinatingly, the constellations were reproduced with pearls and precious gems, while the rivers and streams were duplicated to flow through bronze mountains and filled with quicksilver, mercury, so that they shone like silver. And since this amazing substance, quicksilver, was revered as magical, this same magical substance had been included within the elixirs his royal entourage had mixed for his longevity. Little did Qin Shi Huang Di know that this silvery substance was highly poisonous, and instead of lengthening his life, these elixirs had produced the opposite effect. But, along with his massive tomb, he had more than 700,000 laborers work for years on a reproduction of his vast army. More than 8,000 soldiers, charioteers, archers, generals and horses, created larger than life so as to be formidable in this life and the next, were all arrayed to face East near and around his burial tomb. Row after row, each soldier was created from fired clay, painted meticulously to resemble real-life warriors, and they were fully outfitted with complete sets of weapons. Qin Shi Huang Di would take the kingdom of the afterlife by storm. And in the process of building this massive stone army, thousands more slaves died under merciless conditions of forced labor and harsh working conditions. Fear kept them all working. And as Qin Shi Huang Di lay pondering these things, he was dying, and he did not even know it. He fell silently to sleep.

Face Of A High-Ranking Officer

Prophecy Fulfilled

Before he passed away, Qin Shi Huang Di had decreed that his eldest son, Ying Fu Su, would succeed him. This was not good for the royal counselor, the eunuch Zhao Gao, who felt that he alone knew best how to administer the empire in the absence of Qin Shi Huang Di. He also knew that work on the great royal project of the stone warriors was yet unfinished, and if the news of the emperor’s death got out, the work would not only cease, there could be a massive revolt. Zhao Gao colluded with Li Si and came up with a plot to conceal the death of the emperor, using a cargo of salted fish to hide the stench of the decomposing body. Even though the emperor’s body was successfully returned to Xian Yang and interred within the mountain mausoleum, and work continued on his fear-inducing “afterlife army,” like the omen of the meteor had decreed, the empire immediately began to fall apart. In four years that followed the death of Qin Shi Huang Di, Zhao Gao had Li Si murdered, Qin Shi Huang Di’s eldest son, Ying Fu Su, would be tricked into committing suicide, his second son, Ying Hu Hai, would seize power, take the royal title Qin Er Shi, only to be forced to commit suicide by Zhao Gao...and Zhao Gao? He would subsequently be murdered. The meteor had fallen, the decree of the gods had been given, and the Qin Dynasty would be no more.

A Hidden Treasure For 2,000 Years

The vast and imposing stone army that had taken decades to build was hated by those who slaved to produce it. Though many of the stone warriors had been encased and hidden in their new “tombs,” those that had not yet been secured suffered at the hands of mobs who came and broke down the majestic works of art, then set fire to the roofs of their underground barracks. With time, the fires burned out, the smoke ceased to rise from the ashes, the earth above fell in and covered the faces of these lifelike stone soldiers, Nature added layers and layers of soil, and the vast terra cotta, battle-ready soldiers were completely encased and forgotten. Inside a nearby mountain, an ancient emperor slept. Villagers toiled the land above all of these long forgotten memories, and two-thousand years passed. But, that long, uneventful sleep was to be accidentally interrupted in 1974.

Some Of The Soldiers Were Attacked

Looking into one of the many pits.
Looking into one of the many pits.

The Condition When Found

One has to marvel at the painstakingly incredible work done by the Chinese experts at reconstructing these artifacts.
One has to marvel at the painstakingly incredible work done by the Chinese experts at reconstructing these artifacts.

Incredible Restoration

This priceless chariot was completely restored.  Amazingly, the humans are only about two-and-a-half feet tall.  Life size?
This priceless chariot was completely restored. Amazingly, the humans are only about two-and-a-half feet tall. Life size?

Another Chariot Before Reconstruction

Another Priceless Artifact

This chariot was probably for a commanding officer.
This chariot was probably for a commanding officer.

The Discovery - Curse Or Gift?

It was March of 1974, and a bad drought had persistently plagued the local farmers. The Communist commune leader decided that they needed to produce a well, and he sent a team of farmers to dig one. About noon on the third day of digging there in Shi Yang village, just outside the city of Xi’an, Yang Zhi Fa and one other farmer were about six feet down in the hole when his shovel hit something hard. He gingerly dug it out, brushed off the dirt, and what he at first thought was just a brick, turned out to be an exposed portion of a warrior’s tunic made out of terra cotta. Continuing to scrape away the dirt, Yang Zhi Fa eventually discovered he was looking at a full-length body of an ancient warrior! Soon, the other farmers were peering down into the hole. “Maybe it’s an ancient kiln,” said one farmer. “Maybe it’s a temple,” suggested another. Word eventually spread to the village where some, upon seeing the silent stone soldiers’ faces, remarked that this was bad feng shui, possibly an offense to Buddha, and fear spread that this was a bad omen that would bring evil to them all. Many were in favor of reburying the discovery and moving elsewhere with the search for a well. But, history speaks for the results. Today, there is a large archaeological project going on there, with thousands of priceless artifacts uncovered, and countless more expected to exist around the countryside in as yet undiscovered underground tombs. And while the museums that have been built over the digging grounds of the terra cotta warriors are open to the public, the tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di remains unopened. With all of its reported vast treasures, those in power are afraid to open it. Their reasoning is based in discussions that range from the results of drilling tests that revealed high levels of mercury in the soil, to ancient records of crossbow booby traps, to the more interesting fears of losing artifacts that could dissolve before our eyes if exposed to the current elements. For example, all of the terra cotta warriors were originally vibrantly colored to look very much alive, but once they were unearthed, the colors immediately disappeared. And, of course, there is the superstitious fear that Qin Shi Huang Du should not be disturbed. Any possibility to those fears being real? Is there a curse for disturbing Qin Shi Huang Di and his army? Some like to point to these facts: Of the original team of farmers who were there that day when the well they were digging accidentally opened the portal to the ancient past, the two youngest members of the team died in their 50s, jobless and penniless; one of the team members suffered from heart disease, had no money for medicine, and hanged himself in 1997; all of the farmland was claimed by the government, and the homes of all the inhabitants were demolished to make way for exhibition halls and gift shops. None of the original farmers who made the discovery have ever been compensated for their efforts, and instead, lost their homes and farmland permanently. Any money sent by the government to compensate their loss was taken by corrupt officials. The surviving four farmers can be occasionally seen signing autographs at the main museum which provides a small income for them. Should the terra cotta warriors have been reburied and forgotten? You be the judge.

The List Of Names

The names of the farmers who were present at the discovery of the famous terra cotta warriors are: Yang Zhi Fa (discoverer), Yang Quan Yi, Yang Pei Yan, Yang Xin Man (head of the original team sent to dig the well), Yang Wen Hai (deceased), Yang Yan Xin (deceased) and Wang Pu Zhi (deceased), Yang Wen Xue, and Yang Yi Zhou according to an interview published in Beijing Today, December 26, 2003.

A Fortunate Meeting In 2001

Here I am sitting with Yang Zhi Fa, the man who discovered the Terra Cotta Warriors in 1974.
Here I am sitting with Yang Zhi Fa, the man who discovered the Terra Cotta Warriors in 1974.

Yang Zhi Fa Signed My Book

I would have been extremely remiss if I had not had Yang Zhi Fa autograph my copy of the book.
I would have been extremely remiss if I had not had Yang Zhi Fa autograph my copy of the book.

On The Road To The Terra Cotta Warriors

Some parts of China remain unchanged.  You get a sense of ancient ways.
Some parts of China remain unchanged. You get a sense of ancient ways.

A Typical Street Scene In The Country

I enjoyed the man on the left who was essentially saying, "Here, photograph my friend."
I enjoyed the man on the left who was essentially saying, "Here, photograph my friend."

Bowling In Xi'an? Yes!

My friend, Jeff, and I found a small bowling alley existed in our hotel.  Naturally, we played.
My friend, Jeff, and I found a small bowling alley existed in our hotel. Naturally, we played.

The Food In Xi'an Was Great!

So many incredible dishes.
So many incredible dishes.

The Lung Men Grottoes

On my way to Xi'an, I paid a visit to the Lung Men Grottoes, a vast number of carved statues, some in caves, and some exposed to the elements.
On my way to Xi'an, I paid a visit to the Lung Men Grottoes, a vast number of carved statues, some in caves, and some exposed to the elements.

Lung Men Grotto Large Figures

I'm standing by these immense carved warriors to show their size.
I'm standing by these immense carved warriors to show their size.

Beijing Opera Costumes, Or Shopping In Beijing

I have always admired the artistry of Beijing Opera costumes.  This one, hand-made and replete with solid gold thread, would cost about $10,000.00.  I had to at least try it on.
I have always admired the artistry of Beijing Opera costumes. This one, hand-made and replete with solid gold thread, would cost about $10,000.00. I had to at least try it on.

Amazing Way To Pour Tea

This gentleman would begin by pouring the tea into the cup and begin backing away, all while still maintaining a flow of tea to the cup, eventually being six feet or more away.
This gentleman would begin by pouring the tea into the cup and begin backing away, all while still maintaining a flow of tea to the cup, eventually being six feet or more away.

Taking The Train From Luo Yang to Xi'an

My train ride across China was a beautiful opportunity to see incredible vistas.  I was also  thrilled while on board by an assortment of traveling entertainers, including a skilled magician.
My train ride across China was a beautiful opportunity to see incredible vistas. I was also thrilled while on board by an assortment of traveling entertainers, including a skilled magician.

My Train Arrives

The trains in China are interesting and unique.  Very comfortable.
The trains in China are interesting and unique. Very comfortable.

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    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 16 months ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Brian. Interesting look at the Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi'an. I have always wanted to visit. I was not aware of the story of how they were discovered and how great that you had the opportunity to meet the man who discovered them.

    • Hanavee profile image
      Author

      Brian Gray 16 months ago from Pennsylvania

      bdegiulio,

      Thank you for reading my latest article. I hope you eventually get to go visit this incredible site. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the experiences that I have, and I am even more glad that I studied photography so that I could share what I saw with others who have not yet had those same opportunities. It is truly an exciting journey, so if you get to go, take your camera and record those special moments. You'll be glad you did.

      Brian

    • profile image

      Damian 16 months ago

      I enjoyed the Terra Cotta very much. It brought back memories of my trip to China in 2007. Seeing the food picture reminded that we ate like the Taoists - no meat just a lot of rice,vegetables, soup, dim sum and tea.

      It was a great time. Thank you for sharing this interesting article.

    • Hanavee profile image
      Author

      Brian Gray 16 months ago from Pennsylvania

      Damian,

      Thanks for reading and commenting on my article. Glad you got to visit China when you did. It definitely gives you a greater prospective when reading this.

      Brian

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 16 months ago from Southern Illinois

      This is an amazing story. Very interesting to read. You are a gifted writer and have lived and traveled to exciting places. The photos are beautiful. Thank you for the share.

    • Hanavee profile image
      Author

      Brian Gray 16 months ago from Pennsylvania

      always exploring,

      Thank you for reading my latest article, and I am glad that it proved interesting for you. If ever you have the opportunity to see the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi'an, by all means go...and take lots of pictures. They are definitely worth the trip.

      Brian

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