Back to blog index

Xian: The Two Thousand Year Old Houseold of Emperor Han Jing Di


Outside the air is warm and dry, and a breeze- carrying red dust and the smell of flowers – blows across the grassy fields nearby as you walk from the harsh sunlight down a long sloping ramp into increasing darkness, and it takes some time for your eyes to adjust as you descend underground into the two thousand year old tomb of Emperor Han Jing Di.

I am back in ancient Xi’an this week, my second visit to the terracotta warriors in less than a year, and yes it does seem like I’ve done nothing but trip around China these last couple of months. Yet another advantage of having a friend visit is that I have an excuse to go travelling again barely two weeks after returning fromy last trip, and to be honest, the allure of Xi’an’s street food was a major pull. Xian’s fame comes justifiably from its terracotta army, but for me, other than the delicious streets of the Muslim Quarter,the place I really looked forward to revisiting was this much quieter mausoleum north of Xi’an.

Where the warriors are certainly large, impressive and imposing, the crowds chattering in eight different languages and shoving you on all sides to get photos can detract from the experience a bit. The terracotta figures in the Tomb of Emperor Han Jing Di on the other hand are small – half life-size – and you can enjoy them quite alone in the dark solitude of this underground museum which far fewer people visit.

As your eyes grow accustomed to the very low light, you realise you are walking on a see-through glass foor, and stretching out under you are nine of the Emperor’s eighty-one burial pits. The pyramid-shaped grave of the Emperor is a smallish hill outside, covered with wild grasses and jujube trees. Not far away lies the smaller grass-covered hill of Empress Wang’s tomb, he in the west, she in the east. Radiating out from each of the pyramid’s four sides, deep underground, lie neatly arranged rows of pits, each representing a department in the Emperor’s household.

Just like Emperor Qin Shi Huang who built an entire replica terracotta army with which to continue waging wars in the afterlife, Emperor Han Jiang Di also created a replica of his household to accompany him, but instead of soldiers there are thousands of fine-featured members of the Imperial household, administrators, advisors, craftsmen, kitchen hands and cooks. Jiang Di was not a warring man, and together with his father their reign is considered one of the golden periods in Chinese history – a time of relative peace and prosperity. 


I now stand above the first pit. It is filled with small doll-like figures, all naked and armless, and they look strangely vulnerable. Once, in the beginning, they had carved wooden arms holding swords, and scrolls, and they wore the elegant and brighty coloured silk robes of the Western Han Dynasty, but time has taken away all but their pale thin terracotta bodies. A face appears out of the dirt with tiny distinct features – a broad forehead, strong nose and small lips sit above an armless torso still buried in the earth.


The next pit contains around a hundred figures, all lying knocked over like so many skittles. I notice the figures with male faces have very small or absent genitalia, and I realise this is the Department of Imperial Eunuchs, castrated as children to protect both the beautiful concubines they serve, and the Emperor from internal threat. A white skinned figure stands out from the others, with a small delicate face, and tiny breasts. She is a concubine, fair-skinned and lovely, protected on all sides by ranks of eunuchs.


The next pit is extraordinary but so dark it is difficult to make out much at all until my eyes adjust again. Instead of the disorder of the previous pits, many of the figures here stand in ordered columns, buried alarmingly up to their necks in earth. Historians believe that by some minor past miracle, this pit was the victim of grave robbers – they dug a deep hole, and stole some figures leaving a circular disrupted area seen in the centre of the photo. It’s thought that heavy rains seeped down the hole soon after, bringing a thick layer of mud to rest in the floor of the pit and cementing the figures forever in their original positions. These are the members of the Imperial kitchen, a vast department with many staff.

The kitchen department is the last to have been excavated. So that the Emperor would have sufficient food in the after-life the kitchen is stocked with hundreds of pots of grain, wine and condiments, hundreds of cooking vessels and implements, and thousands of livestock, all in terracotta miniature. Ranks and orderly rows of pigs and piglets, nanny goats and billy goats, chickens, ducks, geese and dogs line up to pay their respects to the Emperor. 
The wild dogs, pointy eared with down-hanging tails, look mean and nasty and were apparently intended for the cooking pot, but the domestic dogs, round-eared and cheery, stare at me through two thousand year old eyes, tails practicaly wagging with friendliness and…wait a second…is that miniature dog grinning at me??  The sculptor’s playful hand reaches through two thousand years, and grabs me firmly by the arm. ‘Do you like the expression on that one?’ he seems to be askingI can feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck as, in the dark and the solitude, I feel the history.







Hanyangling Museum
(also known as the Tomb of Emperor Han Jing Di)
Approximately 20 mins east of Xi’an Airport
Open 7 days
Entrance March to November 90 yuan pp, 8.30am – 7pm
Entrance December to February 65 yuan pp, 8.30am – 6pm
www.hylae.com