“US Flier Reports Huge Chinese Pyramid In Isolated Mountains Southwest of Sian,” read a New York Times headline on March 28, 1947. This was not the first time Colonel Maurice Sheahan had seen the great mound in China Shaanxi Province. He had spotted it from an airplane while working for the Chinese government before the Second World War. During the war he served as a US Army officer and for a time as supply officer to the fabled Flying Tigers. Now, after the war’s end, he had returned to take a closer look.
The colonel described the location as being 40 miles southwest of Sian, the provincial capital, now spelled Xi’an. From the air he estimated the pyramid’s height to be 1,000 feet and its width at the base 1,500 feet. At that size it would dwarf even the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.
A flurry of reports and speculations followed in the American press. A scholarly commentary described the find as being “like the discovery of a new planet whose existence had been anticipated even though it had never been seen . . . .” The American Weekly embellished the initial report, insisting that there were actually two huge pyramids, not one, and that they might be as much as 4,000 years old.
Professor Derk Bodde, a Chinese specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, was quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer as saying that the pyramid probably was the tomb of China’s first emperor, and if so, dated from the Qin dynasty in the third century BC. Local Chinese officials added to the general confusion by dismissing the reports altogether. On March 31 representatives of the Xi’an government announced that they had investigated Colonel Sheahan’s claims, and the giant pyramid did not exist.
Both Professor Bodde and the Chinese officials were correct. The tumulus that colonel Sheathan saw from the air was indeed the Qin tomb, the burial place of China’s first emperor, but the colonel’s estimates of its height were exceedingly generous, and his estimates of the location were off by some 50 miles. Even though Xi’an is one of China’s ancient imperial capital cities, and monumental tombs are almost commonplace in the nearby countryside, there are none of note in the rugged mountains to the southwest.
The colonel’s pyramid was not where he said it was, nor was he the first Westerner to discover it. The great tumulus was already known to Western sinologists by at least the 1920s, and an American guidebook described it and located it correctly in Lintong County. A French archaeological report published in 1924 provided photographic evidence. To most Westerners, however, China had long been a mysterious place, primarily of interest to missionaries and archaeologists, until war bound us together as allies. After the war, curiosity was great, and there was much to discover. But for the Chinese, one fearful struggle had just ended and another, a costly civil war, was about to begin. Speculation as to the contents or the meaning of the tomb of a discredited emperor was a luxury they were not ready to afford.
Today a highway connects Xi’an with the flat, dusty reaches of the narrow Wei River Valley. The road skirts the graceful ridges of Mount Li just to the south and the banks of the Wei River to the north. Peasant farmers, pulling, pushing, or riding in their wobbly carts, compete for road room with caravans of dilapidated, sputtering local buses, fleets of sleek coaches from distant cities, and rightly colored vans emblazoned with the logos of luxury hotels. The air holds the churning dust suspended, releasing it like drizzle onto the surface of anything that passes through. A cacophony of automobile horns mixes with the jangle of bells, shouts, whistles, and choruses of peddlers waving their goods to the chant of “Cheap, cheap, cheap.”
The great tumulus rises more than 140 feet from its base, which measures more than 1,100 feet on each side. It once crowned a lavish funerary park that in Qin times was named Mount Li Mausoleum in honor of the mist-shrouded mountain range that rises nearby. The bits and pieces of archaeological evidence so far collected suggest that an impressive complex of offices, walkways, and service buildings, together with a lavish temple, once graced the garden.
These structures were meant to ensure the perpetuation of ceremonies and sacrifices to King Zheng, the “Tiger of Qin,” who before his death had assumed the grand title Shihuangdi, First Sovereign Emperor, and established a new dynasty. The tumulus was once surrounded by two walls – an inner wall with a perimeter of one and half miles and an outer one with a perimeter of four miles. This configuration of enclosed space closely resembles that of Chinese imperial cities, with both a “forbidden” inner quarter and outer sectors of either side of the outer wall.
The first emperor was a brilliant but tortured man who was obsessed with the fear of death. When he was not energetically avoiding assassination, he was searching for elixirs of immortality. How was it, then, that the emperor devoted so much energy to planning his tomb? Part of the answer lies in ancient Chinese perceptions of the soul and the afterlife. The Li Ji, or Book of Rites, compiled in the Han dynasty that succeeded the Qin, explains that each person has two souls: the shen, or spirit, and the gui, or ghost. The gui remains underground after death, while the shen flies upward to become a divine being. Different types of ceremonies were required to serve each spirit.
Tomb building was also a political statement. Even before Qin times, funerary design was a matter of great symbolic importance. The height of a tomb mound symbolized the rank of the deceased. Status had once been inherited, but increasingly it was the result of achievement. In accordance with the first emperor’s unique place in the history of his people, his tomb had to be the most extravagant ever seen – part of a massive building project that included expanding the capital at Xianyang, not far from present-day Xi’an, and constructing a new grand palace on the south bank of the Wei River.
Chinese court history tells us that the same laborers who excavated the earth covering the imperial tomb also raised the timbers of the emperor’s E Pang Palace. More than 700,000 men, most of them convicts, apparently shifted back and forth from one project to the other. The emperor, according to one Chinese account, boasted: “This palace will have the capacity to entertain one hundred thousand men who will come by cart to drink wine and on horseback to warm their hands by the fire. One thousand men will sing and ten thousand will harmonize.”
The great palace was not finished in the emperor’s lifetime, but court histories record that he enjoys its replica in death. His earthly spirit was said to roam courtyards like those of the vast edifice – though on a smaller scale – that were reproduced inside his tomb.
The first emperor, apparently determined to be first ancestor as well, erected the Temple of the Absolute south of the Wei River. He dedicated it to the worship of himself and ordered it to be connected to his tomb and to the capital of arterial roads. Few indications of this construction survive.
While there has been a considerable amount of probing of the ground around the mound, the tomb itself has never been opened. Speculation as to its contents has been based on one source, the account of Han dynasty court historian Sima Qian, who wrote his monumental Shi Ji, or Historical Records, a century after the fall of the Qin dynasty.
The tomb may have been begun as early as 246 BC, when King Zheng ascended the throne at the age of 13. Large-scale construction followed in 221 after the unification of China. Some records, along with the recent discovery of a stone-working site just to the northwest of the park, suggest that the tomb chamber is built of stone. Sima Qian’s brief description of the tomb hints at dazzling contents. As the emperor had ruled the universe in life, so was he meant to enjoy it in death.
Within the tomb chamber, China’s great rivers were recreated in mercury, which flowed by some mechanical means into a miniature ocean. Model of palaces and pavilions, constructed to scale, most likely duplicated those familiar to the emperor in life. Precious utensils and other valuables were placed in the tomb for his perpetual enjoyment. On the ceiling appeared all the constellations of the heavens, while the geography of the earth was represented below. Statues of officials paraded in imitation of courtiers in the imperial palace of the first emperor’s capital at Xianyang. The lamps that lighted this scene were fueled with whale oil to ensure that they would burn for the longest possible time.
The account continues by saying that the emperor, who died in 210 BC, did not go to his tomb alone. Large numbers of childless concubines, along with the laborers who knew the tomb’s secrets, were compelled to join their ruler in death. To forestall looters, artisans were said to have prepared death traps that would fire crossbows at anyone so foolish as to enter the tomb chamber after it was sealed. As a final gesture, the mound was planted with trees and grass to give it the innocent appearance of a natural hill.
Later Han dynasty accounts, however, claim that few – or none – of the riches placed in the tomb survived the Qin dynasty. In 206 rebel general Xiang Yu reportedly ordered 300,000 soldiers to excavate the tomb and set fire to the surrounding buildings. His soldiers labored for 30 days to carry away the treasures of Mount Li. Whether the account is true or not, people apparently believed it. History records little more about Mount Li after that time. The Chinese people seemed to want no more to do with the place or with the regime that had created it.
The Tiger of Qin is as much a mystery as the tomb itself. In 238 BC, having been king since boyhood, he came of age and strapped on his sword in an official ceremony. By then the kingdom of Qin, in an attempt to unify china, had been intensifying its campaigns against its neighbors for at least a century. The approach of ferocious and disciplined Qin warriors inspired terror. One history records that they received their pay only upon delivery of severed enemy heads. Other stories tell of warriors throwing conquered enemies into boiling caldrons and then drinking this ghastly human soup. These tales may be exaggerated, but the Chinese people knew that ware no longer confined itself to a show of force by generals in chariots as it had in days of chivalry. Fighting now involved the entire population. When a town was put to siege and overthrown, no life would be spared.
The legendary ferocity of the Qin soldiers was overshadowed only by the reputation of their leader, King Zheng, who, after achieving military victory in 221, united warring Chinese kingdoms for the first time and announced the beginning of a dynasty destined to last forever. According to an inscription on a monument erected by imperial decree, “His influence knows no end, his will is obeyed and his orders will remain through eternity.”
Qin Shihuangdi (as the emperor’s title is often abbreviated) was one of the most innovative rulers of China and one of its most hated. Stories of his excesses and cruelties were embellished through the years. One of his ministers described him as “a man with a prominent nose, large eyes, the chest of a bird of prey, the voice of a jackal, and the heart of a tiger or wolf.” This tiger, the Tiger of Qin, was ruthless and cruel, even by the standards of his own time. He trusted few people and was preoccupied with his fear of death. Nevertheless, his vision and his accomplishments changed China forever.
The first emperor wanted to turn away from the past and make a world that was truly new. He unified and he codified. With the help of able advisers he extended Qin-style administration throughout the Chinese world. Feudalism was replaced by strong, centralized government. Some 120,000 powerful families, including former royalty, were forced to move to the imperial capital at Xianyang. To prevent armed insurrection in any of the defeated states. Qin Shihuangdi ordered all their weapons to be collected and then had the metal melted down and cast into bells and huge guardian statues for his palace.
The newly established empire was divided into 36 administrative units called commanderies. Each had a civil governor, a military commander, and an imperial inspector who was directly responsible to the emperor. Farmers were given rights over their land, but they also were subject to taxation. Currency was standardized to facilitate commerce throughout the Qin realm. Standardization extended to weights and measures, the writing of Chinese script, and even the gauge of cart and chariot wheels. Laws and legal procedures promised rewards for the loyal and grisly punishments for offenders.
The Qin system of mutual responsibility – which divided the population into groups of five or ten households and made each member responsible for the actions of all the others – has influenced Chinese bureaucratic style to the present day. The imprint of Qin administration marked Chinese civilization long after the dynasty was overthrown. But it was the excesses of Qin Shihuangdi that left scarring memories on the public mind.
The emperor and his prime minister, Li Si, considered china’s ancient works of literature and philosophy – with their histories of previous kingdoms and moral strictures limiting the ruler’s authority – troublesome and outmoded. The study of past methods of government might foster criticism of the present regime and so was, in fact, subversive to state security. Accordingly, in 213 BC, Qin Shihuangdi and his minister began a literary inquisition that came to be called the Burning of the Books. Ancient texts are reputed to have been proscribed to the public, with the exception of those related to medicine, agriculture, forestry, divination, and the history of the Qin kingdom. Uncooperative scholars were punished by conscription or death. Popular myth insists that hundreds of them were buried alive.
All the public works commanded by the new emperor were built with conscript labor, but it was usually drawn from the peasantry. Besides the imperial capital, the E Pang Palace, and the monumental tomb at Mount Li, these projects included a radiating system of great new highways and the seemingly endless construction of frontier fortifications that probably linked existing walls built by the warring Chinese kingdoms. The unimaginable hardships these projects imposed earned their author the enduring hatred of the Chinese people.
Although Qin Shihuangdi founded an empire meant to endure for 10,000 generations. It outlasted him by only a few years. The Qin dynasty was violently overthrown less than four years after the emperor’s death in 210 BC. Members of the defeated nobility longed for the dynasty’s downfall, and the common people despised the regime that had ruled them with such severity. A series of rebellions followed a soldiers revolt in 209. Soon the once invincible empire collapsed.
Suddenly in the 1970s, the ghosts of Lintong became the property of a much wider world. Given the nature of Qin rule, it seems appropriate that attention should come to the dynasty and to the emperor’s tomb through the discovery of an underground army.
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According to the sequence pieced together in 1984 by the Baltimore Sun, a group of peasants from a local commune were digging a well in March 1974 when their shovels struck what seemed to be an oddly shaped rock. By the end of the day they had unearthed a life-size clay model of a man’s head with his hair pulled up into a topknot. Other pottery finds followed – more heads, together with arms and shattered torsos. At first, local people were unaware of the importance of what the well diggers had found. During the succeeding months, stories circulated about children carrying artifacts home to play with and peasants trying to sell clay figures by the side of the road.
At first, news of the discovery was kept to the residents of Lintong County. A local cultural center official visited the site and directed the digging. Farmers turned into instant archaeologists, and digging went on for at least a month without the presence of a trained archaeologist.
In June 1974 a Beijing wire service reporter, Lin Anweng, visited Lintong County. When he saw some of the figures, he was impressed by the beauty and convinced of their importance. Lin went back to the capital and wrote a special report about them. It came to the attention of top government officials in Beijing, and three days later the Cultural Relics Bureau was ordered to look into the matter. The Beijing officials instructed the startled provincial authorities to find out what was happening in their own backyard.
The timing was right. China was in the midst of a reexamination of Qin history and the role of the first emperor. Mao Zedong, who, like Qin Shihuangdi, wanted to cast off the past, had no objection to being compared to the innovative first emperor. By September, six months after the first pottery head was dug up, professional archaeologists had confirmed the nature and value of the find. The peasant well diggers had stumbled upon a life-size military formation – 6,000 armed warriors and their horses buried several yards underground. Their like had never been seen.
Much has been said about the individuality of the faces. They may not be portraits, as some sources have insisted. It has been suggested instead that they were made from a number of different molds that produced partially finished heads. These were then hand-finished with special features such as hairstyles, beards, mustaches, lips, ears, and other details that give each face an individual look. Traces of pigment indicate that the pottery figures were originally painted in brilliant colors.
These terra-cotta warriors have prompted many questions. Why were the figures buried in this place? Especially, why were they located nearly a mile form the tomb? There is no mention of them in the historical record left by Sima Qian.
A number of theories have surfaced since the army was discovered. Chinese historian Lin Jianming argues that the array of clay soldiers and horses may not be associated with the tomb at all. Lin suggests that they were a kind of war memorial erected after unification. Such a memorial would have been an appropriate way to celebrate the emperor’s victory over his enemies during his lifetime. Other people believe the warriors are standing guard over the first emperor’s tomb. But most specialists think that the clay soldiers were meant to protect the capital from attacks launched by armies from the six conquered states in the east.
Teams of Chinese archaeologists worked doggedly at the great pit to reveal and preserve its treasures. In 1976 discoveries were made in two additional pits nearby. They contained armed cavalrymen and kneeling archers, commanding officers and foot soldiers. At one time these troops had been roofed over and protected by timber frames like the one that had covered the first pit. But the wood had long since collapsed, causing massive but not irreparable damage to the figures. Not only soldiers were found in the three pits but also a wealth of military hardware. The bronze weapons unearthed in all three locations were real.
After three years of digging, the archaeologists paused in their work to analyze the riches they had found. They estimated that they would need 20 years just to excavate the first pit thoroughly. To protect the dig and to make it accessible to visitors, the area was roofed over and a museum created in 1979. By the early 1980s the pit received thousands of visitors a day.
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Important Chinese ceremonial building was never a random affair. Structures on earth inevitably related to those thought to be in heaven, and symmetry was crucial. Discovery of the pottery warriors and horses to he east of the Qin tomb suggested that there might be other burials to the west. Several years of exploration have revealed this to be true. Further digging has slowly uncovered an expanding city of the dead outside the confines of the Mount Li funeral park.
In 1978 and 1979, excavations to the west of Mount Li exposed an entirely different kind of burial. Tradition maintained that 700,000 conscripts laborers built the emperor’s tomb. Now two burial sites revealed the fate of some of them. Near two villages, archaeologists located cemeteries for convicts who had worked on the tomb. In one cemetery, the bones of about a hundred people were uncovered, almost all of them young men. Buried with 18 of them were obituaries incised on tile, the earliest of their kind found in china. The tiles identified each person by his name and native place.
In 1980 came the discovery of two half-scale bronze chariots with horses, exquisite in detail. A parade of other finds included underground royal stables with lamps, shovels, and mangers. The stables held the remains of real horses, some of which had been buried alive.
East of the outer wall surrounding the tumulus, 17 royal graves yielded evidence of deliberate human interment. Examination revealed that men and women of noble families were buried there and had come to their end in violent ways. Some had been drawn and quartered and others beheaded or cut in half at the waist. These burials seem to confirm Sima Qian’s account that Qin Shihuangdi’s successor, his favorite son, disposed of all sibling rivals to the throne. Further discoveries include the remains of rare animals interred in clay pots, and of a kiln used in firing bricks for the tomb.
One particularly intriguing find is the location of an underground tunnel that archaeologists consider to be the main entrance into the tumulus itself. A smaller passage uncovered nearby appears to be an unsuccessful exploration by looters.
In 1985 Chinese scientists subjected the tumulus to electronic probes, acoustical soundings, and geophysical prospecting. They discovered an unusually high level of mercury in the soil – 280 times that found in the surrounding earth. Do those rivers of mercury still run? This investigation leads archaeologists to wonder if the early accounts of looting could be wrong. Trenches dug in the immediate vicinity of the tomb show that its walls are intact and the earth covering them has not been moved. But he Chinese are approaching their exploration of the tumulus with great caution. There are no plans to excavate soon.
Meanwhile, the secrets of Mount Li are safe inside the tomb, and the Tiger of Qin walks the corridors of his palace undisturbed.