Over 2,200 years ago, a 13-year old boy became the very first emperor of China. For all these years, his immense tomb site and complex remained hidden from the world, only to be discovered in 1973 by farmers near Xi’an, China when they unearthed shards of pottery while digging a well. Emperor Qin Shihuangdi (Qin Shi Huang) had created an unparalleled underground realm to continue his imperial rule and achieve immortality after death. A massive army of 8,000 life-sized soldiers and many other figures was created from terracotta clay to stand guard in the pits dug around his tomb. Only two museums in the United States have been approved by the Republic of China to host an exhibition featuring 10 of these ancient warriors and many other artifacts. The Pacific Science Center in Seattle is fortunate to be one of these, and the popular exhibit runs until September 4th.
Why should I see this exhibit? A few reasons:
Sheer size and age: Nothing on this scale or size has been done for a royal burial in China before or after the Qin Dynasty. At 22 square miles, it’s the largest burial site in the world. Only 2,000 warriors have been uncovered so far and painstakingly reassembled out of an estimated 8,000 total. Each statue weighs an average of 300 pounds. It’s estimated that 700,000 workers labored over the span of the emperor’s reign to complete this massive project. Many of them were criminals or called up by draft. Although there were also skilled craftsmen and volunteers, some were there to serve out a punishment or to pay off taxes. Some workers were entombed.
There were also carved clay acrobats, musicians, armor, animals, and chariots. And real weapons, real musical instruments, and coffins with animal skeletons. The emperor wanted to be entertained in the afterlife.
Short reign, much accomplished: Although Qin Shihuangdi’s empire only lasted 36 years, he managed to leave a mark in various aspects. His burial site is unprecedented in size and scope. The republic had previously consisted of Warring States, which he unified in less than a decade. As China’s First Emperor, he standardized the money (coins) of his realm; previously they had been every shape and size. He is sometimes credited with building the Great Wall of China, formerly a series of sporadic little walls.
The best is yet to come: The most amazing section of the burial site has yet to be unearthed: the emperor’s burial chamber and tomb mound. According to historical records dating 200 years after his reign, an elaborate sub-chamber with two manmade, underground rivers filled with toxic, liquid mercury exist near his tomb. High mercury levels have been detected around the site, so it’s necessary to proceed with caution. Also, sadly, the bright paint on the warrior figures, after being buried for over 2,200 years, flaked off within 10 minutes of exposure to the open air. So technology might need to catch up to avoid this when Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb is finally opened. His manmade tomb mound, at 250 feet high, is larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.
Qin Shihuangdi longed for immortality. And in the uniqueness of his burial, he has done just that.
Click here for Pacific Science Center ticket information.