About 18 miles east of Xian, in the north-central province of Shaanxi, sits what is perhaps the biggest grave in China. It looks like a large hill, visible from three miles away across the flat Shaanxi plateau. It is more than a hundred feet high and a half-mile in circumference at its base.

Yet the grave has shrunk considerably since the body of the founder of China's first great dynasty, the emperor Qin Shi Huan was placed inside more than 2,000 years ago. The old books say the mound was then more than 500 feet high and 1 1/2 miles around. It is still big enough to hold its secrets. The Chinese government has shied away so far from the mamoth task of excavating it.

About a mile from that colossal memorial to death, alongside a cornfield in a little grove of apricot and persimmon trees, rest 11 small mounds of earth about two feet high, covered by a light blanket of weeds and grass.

They look like tiny models of the grand mound to the west, but they are the relatively new graves of peasants of Shanren village, Daiyi commune, Linteng county. Their shapes testify to the resilience of old forms and customs in this ancient country.

About 300 yards down a dirt road from the little graveyard is one of the most bizarre archaeological finds of this century, a huge pit where thousands of lifesize terra cotta soldiers and horses have been unearthed. The statues apparently were a symbolic burial guard placed in the earth at the same time as the body of the Qin emperor. Tourists and heads of state come to see the vault. No one stops at the little village burial ground.

None of the graves of the burial ground is marked.

"Some people put up stone markers, but they are stolen or buried in rainstorms," said Wang Juwen, a young worker from Zian who lives near the gravesite. "Anyway, each family knows whose graves these are. Many of the graves have two people, a husband and a wife. At Qingming, people will come and bring flowers, and cut the grass, or sometimes not."

The mounds are scattered in no recognizable pattern. Crickets chirp and a motorcycle with sidecar occasionally clatters by, taking some peasants from the local commune on an errand. The buzz of a crowd at the archeological dig can be heard faintly in the distance.

But nothing stirs in the grove. A small girl walks by, wearing one of the bright-colored blouses that symbolize the new, more lighthearted post-Mao era. bShe glances without interest at the decrepit little mounds in the rocky ground and walks on.