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'Terra Cotta Warriors': The emperor

More than 1,000 warriors have been dug up from huge pits, above, near Qin Shihuangdi's tomb. Farmers found the site in 1974.
More than 1,000 warriors have been dug up from huge pits, above, near Qin Shihuangdi's tomb. Farmers found the site in 1974. (By O. Louis Mazzatenta/National Geographic)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

They say you can't take it with you. No one, apparently, told that to China's first emperor.

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When Qin Shihuangdi (pronounced "chin she-hwong-dee") died in 210 B.C. at age 49, he took to his grave everything he needed in life: kitchen utensils, cash, even something that looks suspiciously like a straight razor. For his amusement, he also brought along a menagerie of bronze animals. He was, in short, a "strange dude," as Ann Lawrence, the woman in charge of training National Geographic Museum docents, puts it.

Then there's the little matter of that 7,000-man terra cotta army. The emperor was so worried he was going to need protection after he died that he ordered the construction of four large pits near his own eventual tomb -- the largest is the size of two football fields -- to be filled with his personal Secret Service detail, painstakingly sculpted out of clay.

What was he so afraid of? Well, you don't get to be emperor by being well liked. Uniting several warring kingdoms made him a lot of enemies. He needed soldiers in real life? He was going to need them in the afterlife, too.

Not that he really thought he was ever going to die. See, the pits were a kind of insurance policy, in case his real plan -- immortality -- didn't work out. In fact, when Emperor Qin finally passed, he was off looking for eternal life. (The official explanation? Imperial inspection tour.) Some speculate that he was poisoned by mercury, which he was ingesting in hopes that it would enable him to live forever.

And we all know how that worked out.

Long after the emperor's death, the roofs of the pits caved in. The figures fell over and were buried. The emperor and his army were forgotten, until 1974, when a group of farmers digging a well stumbled upon something unusual in the dirt, leading to a kind of life after death for Qin Shihuangdi after all.


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