Terra Cotta Men & Mercury Poisoning

Having lived in China for over a year now, I’ve nabbed a few opportunities to venture out exploring from my home base of Chengdu. I have under my belt multiple visits to the glittering capital of Beijing; I’ve stopped in Guangzhou, an important southern port city. My husband and I visited Jiuzhaiguo and its breathtaking nature park; we made our way up to Harbin, a Chinese city located near the Russian and North Korean borders (a phenomenal trip that included visiting the world’s largest ice festival, as well as snow fox and baby tiger-snuggling moments).


See?! Baby tiger!

But of all the Chinese spots I’ve been blessed to see, perhaps the most pleasantly surprising was Xi’an.

Many westerners may never have heard of Xi’an. Of those who have heard of it, this is likely only in association with the Terra Cotta Warriors discovered there. Certainly, I fell into this category until about a month ago.

But after a visit, I can testify that while the Warriors are assuredly worth a gander, Xi’an’s appeal expands far beyond that one site. Circling the heart of the city is an ancient defensive city wall, the best-preserved in all of China. Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter is equally captivating, a thrilling blur of smells and sounds and tastes, boasting treats like Turkish ice cream, enlivened by vibrant Mid-Eastern music. Down one of its narrow alleys is a centuries-old mosque, whose architecture is a quietly beautiful visual analogue for the city’s curious synthesis of Chinese and Islamic cultures.

Xi’an was also the eastern gate to the famous Silk Road, China’s entry-point to that foundational thoroughfare for cultural exchange. Our party arrived in Xi’an at the peak of the persimmon and pomegranate season–both fruits that were introduced to China via this ancient trade route. Everywhere, the trees hung heavy and bright with this fruit, and vendor carts overflowed with the brilliantly-hued red and orange globes. Xi’an’s uniqueness as a cultural kaleidoscope born of the Silk Road is evident everywhere.

Truly, Xi’an is a bit of a hidden jewel in terms of Chinese history and culture. One of China’s four great capitals, Xi’an was the command center for thirteen of China’s dynasties, including several of the most important ones: Qin, Han, Tang, etc.

It was under China’s very first emperor that Xi’an was initiated as the kingdom’s capital. Prior to Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s ascension to power in 221 BC, China had been divided into often-warring clans; it was Qin Shi Huang’s successful unification of these factions that secured his role as emperor over all. During his reign, he spearheaded at least two major construction projects: 1) the unification of the previously disjointed segments of the Great Wall built up to that point; and 2) the construction of the largest burial complex in the world, which included (you guessed it) the Terra Cotta Warriors. Historians estimate that over 700,000 laborers worked for roughly three decades to create this massive mausoleum. Thus far, modern excavators have uncovered a 20-mile complex–and they aren’t finished digging yet.

Let’s just skim over the fact that countless artisans and laborers died realizing Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s architectural dreams; that more still were killed in order to guard the secret of his burial complex; that his wars augmented these numbers further still; that supposedly he had 3,000 of his wives and concubines buried alive in his mausoleum so he could have someone to cuddle with in the afterlife…. All total, according to our Xi’an tour guide, Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s reign saw approximately 6 million of his people dead, out of an estimated overall population of 24 million. Once the math facts are in, it’s understandable, I think, that a coup d’état was staged directly after the emperor’s death, bringing about the close of that first imperial dynasty. After all, the first (and last) Qin emperor had been responsible for killing off a quarter of China’s citizens.

This rebellion resulted in what surprised me most about the Terra Cotta Warriors–they’re in ruins. In fact, thus far excavations have unearthed only one undamaged warrior–the Kneeling Archer, whose fame is predicated solely on his remaining intact.

I think I had this concept of perfectly preserved warriors because of the prevalence in print and e-media of photos like this one, where the warriors are perfectly arranged, erect and at attention:


But the reality of it is this: the Terra Cotta Warrior site, discovered in 1974 by three farmers digging a well, is in shambles. Shortly after Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s death (and entombment in his giant necropolis), a rebellious band tore through the complex. The actual tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang appears to be untouched. But the surrounding pits (only three of which are currently viewable by tourists) were raided, vandalized, and burned, the terra cotta figures destroyed and their iron weapons confiscated by the insurrectionists.

Of the three pits currently tour-able (more are scheduled to be unveiled in the future), one originally contained 6,000 warriors; another, infantry and calvary units (horses and chariots included); the third, high-ranking officers and an area for animal sacrifice. Looking down into these pits, you see eerily clear evidence of the seething raid that tore through these rooms. Terra cotta horses and men lie in shards, armor crushed, chariots fragmented. In certain areas of the pits, replicas have been stationed to give the viewer an idea of what the undamaged site might have looked like. But what is visible is an architectural site that is very much still in progress. The largest of the pits even contains what Warrior archeologists have dubbed a “hospital”: a work station where warriors are painstakingly reconstructed, one sliver of clay at a time, until they are complete enough to be restored to their ranks in the pits.

What makes this process all the more challenging is that each warrior is truly distinct. Lore has it that each warrior’s face was modeled after that of an actual soldier from Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s army. Ultimately, the emperor’s aim was to have a complete replica of his army ready to accompany him into the hereafter.

Which brings us to Emperor Qin Shi Huang himself. Shockingly enough, his tomb, the crowning jewel of his massive burial complex, has yet to be explored. Less than 1% has been excavated. Why?

Turns out the emperor had a mercury habit he never quite kicked.

During his life, Emperor Qin Shi Huang sought to attain immortality. Ironically, he did this by regularly imbibing our favorite thermometer component–quicksilver (AKA: mercury). Obviously, this produced the opposite effect. But the same shortage of scientific knowledge that had Emperor Qin Shi Huang looking to mercury for longevity in the first place also prompted him to incorporate it into his tomb as a means of achieving the same end. According to 1st century Chinese historian Sima Qian, mercury rivers were set into the floor of the emperor’s burial tomb, designed to flow in such a way as to replicate the local rivers surrounding his capital. A 2005 Chinese archeological team tested 4,000 samples of earth from the tomb area–all came back extremely positive for mercury. Until researchers can determine a means of tackling the tomb while still protecting excavators, the site remains impenetrable.

I’m guessing even Dr. Indiana Jones might have some trouble overcoming that hurdle.

But in spite of the obstacles and the renovation remaining to be done, Qin Shi Huang’s Warriors are well worth a visit. Like the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Warriors–whatever their mottled history–are an incredible testament to human ambition and achievement. In a 21st century where electronic ease has replaced much of the trial of artistic craft, it is truly breathtaking to see what can be accomplished by man’s hand and imagination.

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