Archaeology lovers around the world have undoubtedly heard of the famed Terracotta Army which was discovered in the 1970s in Xian, in northwest China, and attracts millions of visitors each year. But few realize, that behind the awe-inspiring story, lies a spine-chilling legend – the Curse of the Terracotta Army .
Dubbed the 8th wonder of the world, the find has provided countless treasures and information about the rule of Emperor Qin Shi Huang . Remembered as a megalomaniac obsessed with finding the formula for eternal life , some argue that he achieved it with his mammoth funerary complex, which—after being hidden for over 2,000 years—is now a major tourist destination.
Historians estimate it took 700,000 laborers over three decades to build. Legend suggests that these workers were then buried alive to deter grave robbers and keep the tomb’s location secret. In 91 BC, Sima Qian wrote that that “after the burial and sealing up of the treasures, the middle gate was shut and the outer gate closed to imprison all the artisans and laborers, so that no one came out.”
The emperor’s tomb was protected by an immense Terracotta Army of 8,000 life-sized statues. The surrounding pits also included terracotta horses, bronze chariots and even acrobats, symbolizing eternal servitude to the emperor.
The mass of life-sized terracotta soldiers, part of a Terracotta Army created to protect the Chinese emperor, is an unforgettable sight. But could the droves of tourists be disturbing the afterlife of the sleeping emperor and unleashing a terrible curse? ( lapas77 / Adobe Stock)
Amidst thousands of amazed visitors, only a few know the intriguing tales of misfortune surrounding this archaeological wonder. Ancestor worship in Chinese folk religion grants immense power to the dead. Respecting their resting places is deemed necessary to placate these ancestral spirits and disturbing burial sites violates these beliefs. Paul Bahn noted that “in ancient China, the stability of the world depended on the ancestors sleeping undisturbed.”
These beliefs may explain the myths surrounding the Terracotta Army . The first terracotta soldier appeared as workers were digging for water during a drought in 1974. “Everyone was afraid to touch it. We thought it was a temple statue, a Buddha perhaps, we were frightened that the Buddha would punish us,” commented Yang Quanyi, one of the original workers.
For the seven men who first encountered the Terracotta Army , these comments could be regarded as prophetic. As news spread of the emperor’s tomb, the government came to claim their farmland and demolish their homes for excavations, museum space and souvenir shops, erasing their farming way of life for ever.
Among the well-diggers, one committed suicide, while the others either died in poverty or have had to resort to signing books about the discovery for meager pay. Meanwhile, imposters continue to exploit their identities for profit. While the discovery enriched the government through tourism revenue, the commodification of the Terracotta Army became a lasting curse for these men and their families.
Top image: Image of several members of the Terracotta Army in Xian. Source: lapas77 / Adobe Stock