Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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The Mausoleum of Qin's First Emperor

In 1974, a huge pit containing pottery figures dating to the Qin Dynasty was discovered to the east of the First Emperor's mausoleum n China's ancient capital, Xi'an. The pit is large, occupying an area of 20,760 square meters. After several years' excavation, a large number of weapons, of various types, and a whole array of pottery warriors and horses were unearthed. These burial artifacts form an important source of information about Qin Dynasty society, its politics, economy, military affairs, culture, art and science. Often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the terra cotta soldiers and horses have attracted tremendous attention and interest both at home and abroad. Small wonder that many foreign visitors should say, "If in China you miss the pottery soldiers of Qin in Xi'an, it is as if you had not been to China at all."

When you go and visit the No. 1 tunnel in the pit, you will see pottery figures varying from 1.8 to 1.86 meters in height, standing side by side and keeping ranks. Judging from their apparel and posture, one can easily tell apart soldiers and generals archers and chariot drivers. They look different, yet so true to life that they are like an army standing in full battle array, on the point of marching off to war. There are also on display in the tunnel excavated earthen horses, each about 1.7 meters tall and over 2 meters long. They stand four to a chariot to which they seem to be harnessed. With head raised high , mouth agape, ears perked, eyes wide open and with the four legs erect, these horses are as true to life as the terra cotta men. Looking at these magnificent and delicately molded earthen warriors, and horses, one will be amazed at what a huge amount of manpower, materials and money was involved in the building of a mausoleum like this.

In 221 B.C., after eliminating the six rival states, King Ying Zheng of Qin established, for the first time in Chinese history, a unified, multi-national state under a centralized leadership. During his reign, the emperor issued decrees for the standardizations of law, currency, the script , weight and  measures. Believing that he had achieved even greater feats than the legendary emperors and kings, Yin Zhen decreed that the use of the royal title of "king" should be discontinued and proclaimed himself "the First Emperor" in hope that his reign would be succeeded by the Second Emperor and then the Third and so on into infinity.

In order to consolidate his regime, the First Emperor had all the bronze weapons in the hands of the people  confiscated. He then had them melted and made into twelve gigantic bronze figures. He also ordered the burning of all the books by influential scholars and philosophers of various schools of thought. Worse still,he even had several hundred Confucian scholars buried alive. However, he was an extremely superstitious man and had long been dreaming of obtaining an elixir that could rejuvenate him and extend his life forever. But just in case he should meet the inevitable, the emperor hoped that in death he could still enjoy all the luxuries and pleasures had when alive. So, for 36 out of the 37 years of his reign, he had more than 700,000 laborers pressed into serviceto build his own mausoleum, a paradise of an abode for an eternal existence. In fact, it was not until two years after he had died that the project was finally completed.

According to historical records, molten copper was poured onto the bottom of the burial pit to stave off wetness which was inevitable in a pit so big and deep, and on this metal base the emperor's coffin was to lie. The mausoleum was composed of many beautiful halls and chambers in which were stored all kinds of valuable jewelry. It was filled with mercury too, to form make-believe lakes and seas. On the ceiling were hung what were called "moon bright pearls", to stand for the sun, the moon and the stars. There were sculptures of wild geese cast in gold or silver, and lamps and candles made of fish fat. There were imitation pine and cypress trees carved out of various kinds of precious stone. As a safeguard against grave-robbers, automatic bows and arrows were ingeniously installed inside the mausoleum to kill any intruder.

It is indeed a great pity that this luxurious underground palace was completely destroyed. Within seven years after the death of the First Emperor of Qin, Xiang Yu, a well-known rebel leader, led his troops in the conquest of Xian Yang, rampaging through the imperial palace, burning everything down on their way. They had also tried to dig up the mausoleum. There is another story about its destruction. A shepherd boy once found that a lamb in his flock was lost. With a torch he made his way into a cave near the mausoleum. Somehow he left the torch behind, which caused a huge conflagration that burned its way into the mausoleum. The cave, it is said, turned out to be an entrance passage to the emperor's mausoleum.

Much research and excavation is still going on at the site of the mausoleum. The full story is yet to be revealed, but not before the whole underground structure is brought to light.


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