Weekly Photo Challenge – Eerie – The Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi’An, China

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”




This week Cheri has challenged us to illustrate the concept of “eerie”.  For me, the ghostly Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi’An meet the need quite nicely.  Since they were discovered by local farmers in 1974, I’ve looked forward to the day when I might see them in “person”.  This year as we traveled throughout China, I finally got my chance.



Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.”
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/search_results.html#uETE7pHxFJkOzir5.99
Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.”
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/search_results.html#uETE7pHxFJkOzir5.9

“Listen up – there’s no war that will end all wars.”

Haruki Murakami

The warriors are part of the funeral tomb of Qun Shi Huang the first emperor of a unified China. They were built from 210 to 209 BC, cover an area of 35 square miles, and are remarkable in many ways.  Fully life-sized, each is different from the others and is  equipped with weapons – cavalry soldiers are also supplied with their horses.  In addition to the warriors themselves, pits were found with rare birds and animals as well as their attendants, and stables were found which had been supplied with water basins and bowls of millet as well as hay. Two sets of bronze chariots, to be used by the emperor for inspection tours after his death, took two years to restore.  The workmanship on the bronze is extraordinary, and would be difficult to reproduce even today.  Excavation work continues, with new findings every day.



“War does not determine who is right, only who is left.”

Bertrand Russell

Sadly, along with the warriors, mass graves have been found of the craftsmen and construction workers involved in their creation.  Because many of the skeletons appear to have been struggling, it is assumed they were buried alive in order to preserve the secrecy of the tomb.  Also buried along with the emperor by royal decree were those of his many wives who were without children.

Using modern technology, it has been proven that the pits of the 8,000 soldiers, 600 horses and miscellaneous other figures (such as musicians, acrobats and government officials) represent a mere 1% of the pits that are known to exist.



  “All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”

John Steinbeck

Historic accounts tell us that the site was destroyed by fire during a rebellion in 206 BC. The wooden roof of the pits collapsed and left most of the warriors and their accompanying equipment shattered.  Piece-by-piece, the soldiers are being painstakingly excavated, re-assembled at the excavation “hospital”  (where heads are matched to bodies and bodies are matched to feet etc.), and then returned to their original position.  The scale of the excavation is incredible, with hundreds upon hundreds of rows of soldiers lined up in order of their rank, ready to do battle if necessary.  Foot soldiers with spears, swords or quivers of arrows, cavalry with their horses, generals with their carts – an entire army at the ready should combat become necessary in the afterlife which the emperor believed happened underground.



“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Sun Tzu

The warriors were originally painted using bright colors, but it was discovered upon excavation that their colors curled after just 15 seconds of exposure to the air, and completely disintegrated within 4 minutes.  As such, excavation was stopped until scientists could develop a way to protect the warriors once they were exposed to the elements. Chinese scientists, working with scientific experts from Germany, have now developed a way to preserve the color on newly-excavated figures and work is again underway.

The detail on the faces and costumes of the warriors is amazing – here are some examples of the incredible craftsmanship:







After spending the day engrossed in the amazing battalions of Qun Shi Huang’s life-sized army, we traveled to visit yet another tomb, believed to be that of a Han nobleman, excavated in 1990.  This site includes some 40,000 smaller figurines estimated to be 2,000 years old. Unlike the Qin warriors, these were dressed in fabric clothing which has long-since deteriorated.  You can see that the smaller soldiers are anatomically correct, and in fact a group of eunuchs, who played important roles in the ancient dynasties, was also found.



  “If we don’t end war, war will end us.”

H.G. Wells

It was an incredible experience, seeing these soldiers –  created over 2,000 years ago –  standing at the ready to defend their emperor.  There are many more such tombs awaiting discovery and exploration.  Most interesting perhaps, the tomb of the emperor himself has not been opened due to concerns about it’s preservation – but supposedly it holds riches far beyond anything  unearthed thus far. Records say it is an underground palace with copper walls, quicksilver rivers designed mechanically to actually flow, and whale-oil candles meant to “burn for eternity”.  Some 600 satellite pits are known to exist.



“It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.”

Joseph Heller



“There is nothing that war has ever achieved that we could not better achieve without it.”

Havelock Ellis

Seeing the warriors first-hand one cannot help but think about what life must have been like for the people after whom these terra cotta versions are patterned. Because of the position of the warriors and the lighting in the pits, photography is extremely challenging, but nevertheless worth a try. Only visiting dignitaries such as Bill Clinton, Queen Elisabeth and Vladimir Putin for example, are allowed to enter at warrior level.

Considering the time and energy that went into their creation, it is only appropriate that the warriors should be a major subject of study and fascination in today’s world.  For me, it was a bucket-list item well-worthy of its place on my ever-lengthening list.

To see what some others considered “eerie”, click here.

113 thoughts on “Weekly Photo Challenge – Eerie – The Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi’An, China

  1. Pingback: Lens-Artists Challenge 113 – Labors of Love | Travels and Trifles

  2. I am writing to request your permission for me to use the photo labeled “Red Jacket”. I am writing a manuscript comparing cultural similarities between the West and East. The hair knot on one of the terracotta soldier (knotted on one side of the head) resembles those on the ancient Germanic Suebi tribes – the Suebian knot. If permission is granted, I will attribute the figure to you in the legend as “Photo courtesy of Tina Schell”. I hope to hear from you.

    • Thank you for your note. You have my permission to use the photo in question for the stated purpose, so long as the photo is attributed to me. Best wishes for the success of your manuscript.

      Tina Schell

      Sent from my iPad


  3. Pingback: Half and Half – Weekly Photo Challenge | Travels and Trifles

  4. Fantastic post…the photos are tremendous, and the writing equaling incredible. The quotes went so well with the photos, and back in the 90s when I first went to Xi’an and saw these Terracotta Warriors all I could think about for days was the effort that went into building these…and that what we are seeing is only a fraction of what still lies beneath.

    • Thanks Randall! Must have been amazing to see them back then. Probably worth another trip for comparison 🙂

      Sent from my iPad

  5. Hi Tina, Thanks for the great post about the buried army at Xian. We visited this site in 1987 when it was much more rudimentary than I understand it is today, but fascinating all the same. Unfortunately we didn’t have digital photography and blogs them to allow us to share our experiences as you have done here. Chris G

    • Hi Chris – great to hear from you!! I hopped over to your travel blog and had great fun reading thru. Be sure to visit my post on Shanghai (we were there 4 days) https://travelsandtrifles.wordpress.com/2013/10/12/weekly-photo-challenge-infinity/ for a comparison of experiences. Many friends have told me about earlier visits to Xi’An where photography still was not allowed and the environment was awful. It’s now spectacular and photography is encouraged altho tripods are not allowed. My use of a VPN as suggested by an ex-pat blogger in Shanghai (with whom we met while there-really fun!) made internet access SO much easier! Hope you’re enjoying the US by now – thanks for popping by!

      • Hi Tina, Arrived home to NZ three weeks ago after 3 mths on the go. Had a great time, but tiring at times. Enjoyed our three weeks travelling around the national parks of the US despite the Govt shutdown! Missed out on Yellowstone altogether and had a few adventures visiting some of the others. Thankfully the State of Utah did a deal with the Federal Govt to pay the NP staff so the parks in Utah could reopen and save their tourist industry from having a disastrous end of season. One hotel operator at Bryce lost 3500 bookings because of the shutdown. On a smaller scale the motel at Kanab were we stayed had lost 350 bookings by the time we got there. Blog suffered during our travels as too late at night before I could even think about it. Will be back on air again next week, hopefully. For the last 3 weeks we have been unpacking all our belongings into a new house. Thanks for the tips on NYC. Managed some, but not all, of your recommendations. Glad your China trip went well. CG

  6. Your marvellous photos took me back to 1989 when I travelled through China and had the privilege of standing in awe looking at these amazing warriors. It definitely is an eerie experience. Back then we were not allowed to take photos big signs every where. They were housed in a very basic corrugated Nissan style shelter. Have they given them better accommodation yet?

    • LOL – yes there are now 3 buildings and they’ve done a beautiful job with a huge building with curved ceiling and lots of natural light. Photographers are everywhere but no tripods allowed and the lighting is still a challenge! An amazing spectacle for sure!

      • China has changed so much from the blue Mao suits worn by every one, male and female, back then 24 years ago and the main transport was bikes. I was there the year that the Tiananmen Square massacre happened, I would love to go back again. Though I think the atmosphere of the warriors in the dusty makeshift hangar still covered in dust and dirt and many of them broken and fallen over as I remembered,, would be so different to todays presentation.

  7. I’d love to see the full Army in Xian, one day – but I did manage to see the “travelling warriors” as they passed through Europe a couple of years ago, in Budapest. Just made me want to see the rest, even more!

    Stunning images, Tina 🙂

  8. Of course I’ve seen photos of the warriors, but what I like about yours is that you provided three perspectives – you stepped back so that I can see them in context, you showed them nearby, and then the close-ups. The work – the details, the variety, everything – is just beautiful, and it must have been a breathtaking experience to be in their presence. I didn’t know about the ongoing excavation, and the color preservation – very cool!

Please Tell Me What You Think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: