Complete guide to visiting terracotta soldiers in China

An extraordinary site guarded by an eternal army


Qinling North Road, Lintong Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China

GPS: 34.387323797412, 109.28206265764

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The terracotta army of terracotta warriors in the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor is located some 30 kilometres east of the city of Xi’an, in the Chinese province of Shaanxi. It was discovered by chance in 1974 by a Chinese peasant, Yang Zhifa accompanied by two cultivators, by digging a well in a wild and isolated area. Dated from the 3rd century BC, this amazing place kept in an exceptional state despite more than 2,200 years spent underground, is one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century.

The largest necropolis of imperial China (98 km²), the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor shelters two sites one kilometre apart: the tomb of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty (Qin Shi Huang) in the shape of an unexplored pyramid mound and terracotta soldiers in China buried in various crypts below the ground. The construction of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, a colossal site at 35 metres depth, was ordered by Qin Shi Huang as soon as he acceded to the throne at the age of 13. In -221 he founded the first unified and centralized state of China, ending the Warring States period (Emperor Qin is also behind the construction of the Great Wall of China). In search of an eternal life, this formidable politician and military leader has only one obsession: obtain an elixir of immortality. Qin Shi Huang makes this mission a national priority and sends emissaries on expeditions to all possible places in his new empire to the East China Sea.

Emperor Qin probably died at the age of 49 in 207 BC and rests alongside a gigantic army of terracotta soldiers in China. The sculptural army are modelled in yellow clay, this army is made up of thousands of soldiers dedicated to the protection of the emperor after his death: infantrymen, archers, crossbowmen, horsemen, officers, generals, chariot drivers, horses as well as acrobats, water animals and birds. It is also intended to perpetuate the reign of Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife. Measuring almost 2 meters high, each soldier presents a singular and unique aspect according to the features of his face, his hairstyle, his posture, the position of his arms, his clothes, his rank or his weapon. Fragments of the statues are still extracted today (only a quarter of the warriors would be reconstituted). According to scientists, the environment around the tomb of the emperor Qin is full of pitfalls (traps and crossbows in particular) carefully set up at the time to prevent anyone from entering the mausoleum. The tomb could itself contain mercury or toxic gases. The Chinese government is therefore cautiously waiting for new technologies to emerge to ensure that the site can be accessed without risk of damage or danger. While the excavations have only just begun, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor is far from having delivered all its secrets to archaeologists discovering the terracotta soldiers in China.

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  • An exceptional archaeological site of stupendous proportions; a major historical discovery of the 20th century; the largest mausoleum in the world in which the emperor and the army in charge of his protection aspired to immortality
  • The prowess of construction and the fine details of the life-size armed forces; the warrior’s contingent comprising about 8,000 soldiers, 650 horses and 100 chariots in battle order and ready to fight; the collection of tens of thousands of vintage weapons (spears, bows, crossbows, chrome swords and bronze spears or arrowheads) ; the stone armour supposed to protect the mausoleum from evil spirits in the other world
  • The excellent state of conservation of the site, over 2,000 years old; the meticulous work of archaeologists to carry out the excavations and reform the broken statues
  • The pit N°1, the largest, made up of thousands of soldiers in combat formations and chariots in the background
  • The pit N°2, containing four different types of military units (cavaliers, archers, chariots and infantry troops)
  • The pit N°3, the smallest, representing the headquarters, the close guard of the emperor and the command centre of the armies (officers and horses)
  • The historical film screened at the museum (in English); the room where the bronze chariots drawn by four horses are displayed (some were armed with spears and shields while others were reserved for the transport of high ranking officials) ; the new museum of bronze chariots and horses
  • The pottery workshop located near the complex reproducing miniature statuettes and real-sized statues using the same manufacturing techniques used during the reign of Emperor Qin Shi Huang
  • The many buried treasures not yet discovered (weapons, jewellery, offerings, funeral objects, tomb of the emperor…)
  • The Warring States period dates back to the 5th century BC. It refers to the 7 vassal and rival states (Chu, Han, Qi, Qin, Wei, Yan and Zhao) of China who have clashed for several centuries for control of central power. It coincides with the decline of the Zhou Dynasty and the supremacy of the State of Qin in -221, leading to the creation of the first empire in Chinese history. During its peak, the emperor controlled a vast territory composed of 25 to 30 million inhabitants.
  • The Chinese chariot has played an important role in the process of unifying China in antiquity. This military device, used on a large scale on the battlefields, was the most advanced weapon at the time (prior to the cavalry and the crossbow). Strongly anchored in Chinese culture, it is not surprising to see this chariot occupy a symbolic place in the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor.
  • According to ancient stories (including Shiji, The Records of the Grand Historian written by Sima Qian from -109 to -91), Qin Shi Huang buried alive with him all those who had participated in the construction of the mausoleum to keep this site secret forever. This represents about 700,000 people who had been forced by the emperor, to whom shold be added around fifty of his concubines. The First Emperor is said to have spared his soldiers and his army, which he had modelled in terracotta. These reconstructions of fighters were made in pieces on an industrial scale from workshops specialising in various parts of the body (heads, legs, arms…). The statues were then assembled, painted in bright colours (as a marker of rank or uniform) and covered with a protective layer of lacquer. However, in contact with the air, the colour pigments tend to disappear within a few minutes. It seems that Qin Shi Huang took care to represent in his terracotta army all the ethnic groups he conquered within his empire.
  • The construction of the mausoleum lasted over 30 years according to Danielle Elisseeff (a French historian specialising in China). It was started early in the reign of the emperor (crowned in 246 BC) who died before he could complete his work. Although his tomb was never excavated, Qin Shi Huang is said to have been buried with all the services he would have needed to continue his mission at the head of the kingdom he had founded: palaces, administrative buildings, rare objects and precious metals… Stretching over 2 kilometres long and 1 kilometre wide, the tomb of the first emperor is said to rest on a bronze floor with a representation of the Yellow River (Huang he) and the Blue River (Yangtze) filled with mercury (numerous measurements confirm the presence of this toxic metal underground).
  • Emperor Qin also initiated the construction of an even more extensive network of roads than the one built under the Roman Empire. This absolute and authoritarian sovereign spread blood and terror around him by reducing people to slavery. He succeeded in unifying the currency, the written language, the weight and measurement systems within his immense empire at the origin of modern China. Died before his 50th birthday, it is likely that the founding father of the Great Wall of China killed himself by self-poisoning (he ingested mercury to become immortal).
  • A total of 600 pits are said to make up the site of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (only one tenth has been excavated and studied to date). Following the death of Qin Shi Huang, the Han Dynasty seized power in 206 BC with the intention of destroying all traces of the tyrant. It was a former peasant (Liu Bang) who became a warlord to lead the revolt and rebellion against the Qin dynasty. The capital of the empire was burnt and part of the mausoleum was deliberately damaged. The historian Danielle Elisseeff believes that everything possible was done to make this place forever forgotten in Chinese history.
  • Legend has it that local peasants repeatedly tried to cultivate the land beneath the huge burial site. When they came across heads, they became frightened and turned back, thinking that they were deities incarnating the devil or evil spirits. According to them, these creatures hidden underground consumed all the rainwater, which explains the extreme aridity and sterility of the surrounding soil.
  • In early 2020, 200 new statues of clay soldiers were exhumed in pit N°1. They were discovered in the company of weapons (swords, shields, bows), horses and chariots.
  • The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor is easily accessible by bus from Xi’an station. Getting there at the site opening time (8:30 am) has the advantage of visiting it before the arrival of the first groups of tour operators.
  • It is advisable to start your itinerary with the museum of the Terracotta Army and to follow the opposite direction of the visit to discover the most impressive troop of soldiers at last (pit N°1).
  • The explanations on the spot being relatively summary, it may be useful to go through the services of a guide.
  • At the end of your excursion to the mausoleum, do not miss the other historic monuments of the city of Xi’an, an important old stage of the Silk Road (including its fortifications of the 14th century and the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda from the middle of the 7th century).

Where to eat

  • Shankui Rishi
    (Japanese cuisine)
  • Haidilao Hot Pot Cheng
    (typically Chinese)
  • Duo Spanish Authentic Cuisine
    (with a Mediterranean accent)

Where to go

  • Fortifications of Xi'an
    (wall well-preserved)
  • Huaqing Hot Springs
    (royal springs)
  • TangBo Art Museum
    (history museum and art gallery)

Where to stay

  • Ancient City International Youth...
    (in the centre of Xi'an)
  • Ci'en Hotel
    (peaceful and well situated)
  • Sofitel Legend People's Grand...
    (elegant and sophisticated)