Make Terracotta Animals, Not War: The Tomb of Emperor Jingdi

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Today’s post is a flashback to my trip to China in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake. We spent most of our time in Beijing, but we did manage to make one trip to Xī’ān, home of the famous terracotta warriors buried with Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Another less famous emperor has a tomb nearby, however, and based on Lonely Planet’s assessment of it as “easily Xī’ān’s most underrated highlight,” we decided to book a private taxi to take us to the tomb of Emperor Jingdi (also referred to as the Han Jing Mausoleum, Liu Qi Mausoleum or Yangling Mausoleum) through the local tourist agency. We had to do this, since the tomb isn’t accessible via public transportation, but the booking process was remarkably easy, especially considering that neither of us spoke Chinese.

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Image courtesy of learnchinesehistory.com

A Han-dynasty emperor, Jingdi (188–141 BC) was a complicated man. Due to the Taoist influence of his mother Empress Dou, Jingdi continued his father Emperor Wen‘s policy of wúwéi (nonaction or noninterference) and did much to improve the life of his subjects: he lowered taxes greatly, used diplomacy to cut back on unnecessary military expeditions and even reduced criminal punishments. However, he was also criticized for general ungratefulness, including his harsh treatment of his wide and of the general who helped him to win the Rebellion of the Seven States. Anyway, the contents of his tomb are fairly fascinating; they reveal a lot more about daily life than about martial conquest, which is quite a contrast to the Terracotta Army.

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The museum was quite impressive.  The tomb was still being excavated, so the museum was essentially a set of glass walkways designed to give visitors the optimal view of the 21 narrow pits inside. The glass floors allow you to walk on top of the ongoing excavations and really get a good look at the relics. Upon entering, we were instructed to put plastic bags over our shoes so as to avoid scratching the floor.

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The pits were really fascinating. They believe that over 50,000 terracotta figurines were buried here, but they are really different from the terracotta warriors that we’ve all come to know so well. These figurines were much smaller than the latter, and they included eunuchs, servants, domesticated animals and even female cavalry on horseback. Of course, their ornate garments and even their movable arms had long since decayed, so many of the pits contained only the remains of the slender wooden bodies, which made them look disturbingly like mass graves.

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An exhibit in another part of the museum gave examples of what these figurines might have looked like originally in their colorful silk robes:

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They also had reconstructions of a few of the more dramatic pieces, such as the procession below:

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In all, there are believed to be 81 burial pits here. I’ve just shared photos of a few to give you an idea of the variety. As we walked through the glass-encased passageways, the museum was eerily quiet. It was also kept incredibly dark, presumably to protect the relics (which explains the slightly fuzzy quality of some of these photographs). When we first arrive, we were among perhaps only a dozen other visitors–again, a stark contrast to the crowds at the complex surrounding the Terracotta Warriors. It was a really dramatic experience.

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At one point in the museum, you descend some stairs and get to actually walk alongside a couple of the pits, to take a look at the figurines and ceramic pots at eye-level. I particularly enjoyed the animals, like the sheep pictured in the first photo above and the goats and pigs depicted below:

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To give you an idea of the atmosphere of the place, I took a video of my walk through this final level. It gives you an idea of how dark it was in the museum, although it sounds like a group of students on a tour came in, which made it much noisier than it had been previously. Anyway, it was really interesting to experience history by walking through someone’s tomb:

Around the outside of the museum, they had built a structure to house the remains of the old gates guarding the tomb (you can see a model reconstructing the entire complex in the second photo above). The new structure protects the ruins from further erosion and allows visitors to walk around the old walls from a variety of angles.

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The upper levels also house a number of relics and models of what the complex used to look like:

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On the way out, our guide told us that the inconspicuous mound below is actually the final resting place of the emperor himself:

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I was really happy that we took the time to visit this lesser known Xī’ān attraction. It only took an afternoon, it was affordable, and I learned a lot about a really unique historical site. It was a truly memorable experience. If you’re building time to see the Terracotta Warriors into your China itinerary, you might consider saving a half-day to see the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi. I certainly don’t regret it!

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