The Terracotta Warriors and Tiananmen Square: how to bury a people

It’s the artists I keep thinking about.

There at least 6000 terracotta warrior sculptures, perhaps many more (their burial site hasn’t been fully excavated.)  These warriors were created during the Qin dynasty, 2200 years ago, when China was sparsely populated.  So how did the emperor Qin Shi Huang find and mobilize so many artists in this rural area outside of Xi’an?


Sure, a despot could coerce thousands of unfortunate people to dig a giant hole and brace the pit’s tunnels with walls.  But how could even the cruelest emperor force an average human to make a sculpture like this?  Is it possible to strong-arm talent?


But they did do it, those artists in rural China 2220 years ago.  A crazy emperor wanted an army to guard his tomb and he got it, a real army.  Each sculpture is unique, down to the facial expression, ears and hairstyle.  Every ribbon holding together every piece of armor, every wrinkle of fabric: unique.


If you’ve ever wondered what shoes looked like two millennia ago, now you know, to the very laces.


I’m not an archaeologist, but I’ve seen a lot of art and I know a lot of artists.  These sculptors, I can tell you with certainty, had pride in their work.  I mean, I know they probably had no choice, but they wanted to get it right, to the best of their abilities.


They must have known their work would be buried.  That all their efforts and skill were going to be hidden and appreciated by no one, forever.  (Lucky for us some farmers digging a well in 1974 discovered them, buried in formation).


Backing away from the warrior sculptures, it’s easy to see the artists varied in talent; some warriors are stiff, with tube-like arms.  Others are so alive they seem about to scratch their legs or throw a spear.  I saw faces in the crowd of tourists reflected in the faces of the warriors, whispering to HOB “Look, there’s a guy over there with the same nose as that warrior.”


At a distance the warriors are more impressive, but less human.  It is easier to think of them as an emperor’s vanity and less of the achievement of artists.


The day after seeing the Terracotta warriors, HOB and I took an overnight train to Beijing.  HOB didn’t want to leave Beijing without seeing Tiananmen Square, so we decided to walk there.  It was a pleasing walk, through those low-slung old school, hipster hutongs jumbled up with bland hi-rises and burnt orange phone booths that haven’t been used in at least a decade.

Our walk ended outside Tiananmen Square in a long security line, where we waited to be patted down and have our backpacks run through a metal detector.  A guard wanded us and checked our passports and visas.

After the first line we waited in yet another line, where security guards glared and, I kid you not, police robots with inset cameras circled us.  Our documents and bags were checked again, though we fared much better than the Chinese, who were roughly searched.  One woman in front of me had a folded poster from her backpack confiscated, though it looked like a film poster, not anything political.

Finally we exited security and stood in front of a gate with a portrait of Chairman Mao over the entryway.  The Mao portrait was a prime photo backdrop for Chinese tourists: “Hey, I starved 36 million people to death, want to take a selfie with me?”

After passing though the Mao portal we stood in the square in front of Forbidden City, and then we were funneled out into another street, far away from Tiananmen Square.  So we circled around, walked some more and—you guessed it—stood in two more long security lines to see Tiananmen Square.


Only we didn’t really see Tiananmen Square, we just stood in front of it, along with security vans, more police (and police robots).  Dozens of men in military garb marched by, goosestepping in such a mannered, campy way they reminded me of club kids voguing in night clubs in the 1980’s.  Other than a gift shop with Mao merchandise and collectible plates featuring President Xi Jinping reclining in front of waterfalls, our access to the square was completely blocked.  The Chinese tourists stood beside us, denied entry to the main square of their own capital city—People’s Republic indeed.

“Let’s get out of here!” HOB said, and we did, walking with no intent other then to leave the police orgy behind.

Of course we never could really leave the security frenzy in China—wherever we went, cameras followed us.  At every train stop, we passed through metal detectors and pat downs that would embarrass the TSA.  Our computers fell to the censors, blocking out most of our regular sources of news.  We only saw one bookstore, in an underground tunnel, and just a couple of news stands, thinly stocked with innocuous magazines.  No one reads on the train in China: they just stare at monitored and censored social media sites on their phones.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be an artist or an intellectual in China, with no rights to free expression, media or religion.  We saw some wonderful examples of Chinese citizens practicing the traditional arts of calligraphy and Peking Opera.  What is is like for artists who create in non-traditional forms or who want to create political work?  I don’t envy them, though perhaps artists always rise to the occasion, creating their best work in spite of cruel emperors, dictators and presidents-for-life.


By the way, if you were wondering why the Terracotta Warriors were lost for 2200 years, the reason is simple: when the sculpture army was complete, the artists and workers were buried alive inside the pit with their creations so they couldn’t give away the secret of the location.


How we got to Xi’an: train from Pingyao.
Where we slept: Xing Long No.37 Hostel. Price: €16 for a double. Recommended: yes

How we got to Beijing: train from Xi’an.
Where we slept: Nostalgia Hotel Beijing- Yonghe Lama Temple.  Price: €44 for a double. Recommended: yes.




  1. Nemorino · · Reply

    What Mao has in common with Caligula, Lucio Silla, Charlemagne, Idomeneo, Nabucco, et al: these are all despots whom I know mainly as opera characters. (Mao is a character in the opera Nixon in China by John Adams.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that is probably the only good way to know a despot.

      I did see Nixon in China, at Chicago Opera Theater, though I liked the music in Doctor Atomic better.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nemorino · ·

        We haven’t had Doctor Atomic here, but one of the Frankfurt ensemble members has sung in it and told us about it recently at Frankfurt OperaTalk.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There’s some cheesy bits in Dr. Atomic but just listen to the music:


  2. Artists, musicians, writers managed,somehow, under Stalin…but I think the Chinese methods of suppression have advanced since that era…I saw a T.V. clip recently, demonstrating how the Chinese police can track down anyone in two minutes thanks to their surveillance equipment…not a happy thought!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the technology has advanced to the point where everything can be censored and I certainly believe the Chinese police can track down anyone in two minutes. Did you know that Chinese people are banned from using images of Winnie the Pooh online?


      1. Perhaps they should change it to Mr. Toad…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Police robots? Things have changed in three years.

    Talking of dictators starving people: Winston Churchill killed 2 million people in India (by imperial British counts) and more than double that by independent estimates. About 6 million died in the Holocaust.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We didn’t dare photograph the police robots—they are kind of R2D2 looking with cameras for eyes which you can see swivel to follow you.

      People in the US seem to be aware of the Holocaust, at least I hope they are, though I never hear mention of the crimes of Churchill or Mao (or other atrocities, like the United State bombing of Laos.)


  4. This is truly scary. You are a warrior yourself! You take me to places I’m way too cautious to go myself. It never occurred to me that the artists were killed to keep their secrets. Long live artists and long live their work! We can only hope they do their best work under pressure.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, it is too horrific to think of those artists killed. Also, when the emperor died, about 40 of his concubines (the ones who didn’t give birth to male children) were buried alive in his tomb, so he would have some company.


  5. Yes, scary horrible thought the sculptors were buried alive with their artwork. Wonder where the skeletons are…. tossed away???

    Tianamen Sq. visit is best for others to read so that they don’t have such a disappointing experience like yourselves.

    Good that you went to X’ian.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Xi’an is a stylish town with great noodles! I’m sure you’ll find some tasty food in Shanghai too.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, this is crazy. Why was the security so tight? Was it for a special event or is it just always like that? We visited Tiananmen Square when we were in China in 2010, and we didn’t see much police presence.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I heard from someone who used to live there that security wasn’t always that tight. It was crazy—like we’d walk over some small pedestrian bridge and there would be a guard at each end of the 20 foot bridge next to a park.


  7. Wonder whether wordpress blogs are also blocked in China?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The headless statues are spooky.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah but kind of interesting too since you can see how they statues were assembled.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Quite a symmetric and artistic decapitation!

        Liked by 1 person

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