Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum (35 kilometers northeast of Xian, 5 kilometers east of Lintong County, 1.5 kilometers from the Terra-Cotta army) is the tomb of Emperor Qinshihuang, founder of the first unified empire in Chinese history during the 3rd century B.C..Qing Shi Huang (personal name Ying Zheng) began the construction of his mausoleum when he was still the 13-year-old king of the Qin State during Warring States period of China in 247 B.C.

Located at the northern foot of Lishan Mountain, Emperor Qin's burial complex covers 90 square kilometers (35 square miles) and reportedly was built by as many as 700,000 workers over a 37-year period. The tomb is covered by a 260-foot-high mound with a square 1,500-x-1,700-foot base. To this day it remains unexcavated by archeologists but appears to have been robbed at least in early times by looters. What is inside its regarded as one of great mysteries of archeology. The tomb was surrounded by a seven-meter-thick wall but little of it remains today. There is little for tourists to see except for a big mount of earth.

Emperor Qin’s burial complex embraces four pits—three with terra-cotta soldiers and one unfinished and empty . Pit 1 is situated about a mile east of the emperor’s underground burial structure. About a third of it—covering 3.5 acres—has been excavated so far. The other three pits are nearby.

The tomb plus the pits with the 10,000 terra cotta soldiers is recognized by Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest tomb. It measures 7,129 feet by 3,195 feet and 2,247 feet by 1,896 feet. The entire tomb complex, including the terra-cotta army, extends over an area of 22 square miles. It is arguably the greatest afterlife palace ever built. The only things that rank with it are the great pyramids in Egypt.

statue of Emperor Qin

Under the mound is a giant pit, covering 820,000 square feet, that was dug in terraces to a depth of more than 100 feet. The subterranean palace at the bottom of the pit is roughly 200 by 525 feet, the size of more than 3½ football fields. Surveys indicate that the tomb itself has a circular inner wall with four gates and a circumference of 2,500 meters, and an outer wall with a circumference of 6,000 meters — measurements that correlate with Ming-era accounts of the tomb. The outer wall reportedly was 23 feet thick but little of it remains today.

Travel Information: Tourists are not allowed inside the mausoleum but can visit the surrounding gardens and mountains. A reconstruction of the mausoleum, located to the west of the original, allows the visitors to get a sense of what the interior of the mausoleum is like. Tel: +86-029-83912542 Admission: 40 yuan during the busy season (March-November), 20 yuan during the low season; 110 yuan includes mausoleum, Museum of Qin Terracotta Army, Museum of Terracotta Acrobatics, Museum of Terracotta Civil Officials and Museum of Stone Armor; Hours Open: 7:30am to 6:30pm; Getting There: Tourism Bus 5 (306) from the east square of Xian Railway Station to Bing Ma Yong

Websites and Sources: Qin Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Emperor Qin Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Xian : Wikipedia Wikipedia
Terra-cotta Army of Emperor Qin Wikipedia Wikipedia ; UNESCO World Heritage Site : UNESCO ; Emperor Qin's Tomb: UNESCO World Heritage Site UNESCO ; Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University; 2) Chinese Text Project

Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor — which includes the grave mound, mausoleum constructions, burial pits, sites of ritual construction and the terra-cotta army — was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Nearly 600 sites within 56.25 square kilometers (22 square miles) have been identified, making it the largest tomb in the world, according to UNESCO.

18th century rendering of Emperor Qin

According to UNESCO: “ Begun in 246 B.C. the grave mound survives to a height of 51.3 meters within a rectangular, double-walled enclosure oriented north-south. Nearly 200 accompanying pits containing thousands of life-size terra cotta soldiers, terra cotta horses and bronze chariots and weapons-a world-renowned discovery-together with burial tombs and architectural remains total over 600 sites within the property area of 56.25 square kilometers. According to the historian Sima Qian (c. 145-95 B.C.), workers from every province of the Empire toiled unceasingly until the death of the Emperor in 210 in order to construct a subterranean city within a gigantic mound.

No doubt thousands of statues still remain to be unearthed at this archaeological site, which was not discovered until 1974. Qin (d. 210 B.C.), the first unifier of China, is buried, surrounded by the famous terracotta warriors, at the centre of a complex designed to mirror the urban plan of the capital, Xianyan. The small figures are all different; with their horses, chariots and weapons, they are masterpieces of realism and also of great historical interest.

As the tomb of the first emperor who unified the country, it is the largest in Chinese history, with a unique standard and layout, and a large number of exquisite funeral objects. It testifies to the founding of the first unified empire-the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.), which during the 3rd B.C., wielded unprecedented political, military and economic power and advanced the social, cultural and artistic level of the empire.

The site is important because: 1) 1) The army of statues bears unique testimony to the military organization in China at the time of the Warring Kingdoms (475-221 B.C.) and that of the short-lived Empire of a Thousand Generations (221-210 B.C.). The direct testimony of the objects found in situ (lances, swords, axes, halberds, bows, arrows, etc.) is evident. The documentary value of a group of hyper realistic sculptures where no detail has been neglected-from the uniforms of the warriors, their arms, to even the horses' halters-is enormous. Furthermore, the information to be gleaned from the statues concerning the craft and techniques of potters and bronze-workers is immeasurable. 2) Because of their exceptional technical and artistic qualities, the terracotta warriors and horses, and the funerary carts in bronze are major works in the history of Chinese sculpture prior to the reign of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220).

3) The mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang is the largest preserved site in China. It is a unique architectural ensemble whose layout echoes the urban plan of the capital, Xianyang, with the imperial palace enclosed by the walls of the city, themselves encircled by other walls. This capital of the Qin (to which succeeded on the present site of Xian the capitals of the Han, Sui and Tang dynasties) is a microcosm of the Zhongguo (Middle Country) that Qin Shi Huang wanted both to unify (he imposed throughout the land a single system of writing, money, weights and measures) and to protect from the barbarians that could arrive from any direction (the army which watches over the dead emperor faces outward from the tomb). 4) The mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang is associated with an event of universal significance: the first unification of the Chinese territory by a centralized state created by an absolute monarch in 221 B.C..

Construction of Emperor Qin’s Tomb

Rendering of the inside of Emperor Qin's Tomb

Emperor Qin’s tomb is located on Li Mountain in the south and overlooks the Wei River to the north. According to traditional feng shi principals, the lay of the land from Li Mountain to Hua Mountain is shaped like a dragon. The imperial tomb is just right at the eye of the dragon. According to the Records of the Great Historian, Qin Shihuang began building his mausoleum just after he became the king of the Qin State in 246 A.D. In 221 A.D., the Qin State conquered and absorbed the other six states of northeast China and established the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.).

Construction of Emperor Qin's tomb began soon after he became emperor at age 13 and grew bigger and more grandiose as he became more powerful. More than 700,000 people built his soldiers and burial site, archaeologists estimate. The laborers — believed to have included criminal slaves and forced laborers — spent 36 years producing the terra-cotta army and Emperor Qin's mausoleum. Much of the work was done while the emperor was still alive. In 206 B.C., four years after Qin Shihuang's death, the burial vaults containing the terra-cotta soldiers were raided, burned and vandalized by peasants, who stole the real crossbows, spears, arrows and pikes carried by the statues and used them in a rebellion against Emperor Qin's descendants.

The tomb has a circumference of nearly three kilometers (two miles). The army protecting the tomb was battle-ready. The figures were placed upright in pits; wooden ceilings were added and then covered by earth. But soon after his death, uprisings and rebellions collapsed his dynasty. The pits housing the warriors were invaded, burned and they, too, collapsed. Based on the damage of the clay, they believe that the dynasty collapsed suddenly, Smithsonian reported. Rebellious forces may have raided the pits where clay soldiers stood sentry, setting fires, striking down warriors and stealing their real weapons.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Construction of his tomb had been a major preoccupation of the First Emperor during his life, and the scale of this advance guard indicates a great deal about the emperor. The figures were magnificently fashioned, each one uniquely modeled, suggesting that the emperor’s actual palace guard had posed for the figures. There were a total of over 7,000 human figures, all equipped with standard weaponry, and they were accompanied by over a hundred chariots with terra cotta war horses. Surely, such an assemblage as an "adjunct" to the imperial tomb is expressive of an outsized desire for self-exaltation. Yet it may be more significant that the army was composed of terra cotta soldiers, rather than the real article. Four centuries earlier, the First Emperor’s ancestor, Duke Mu, had felt it appropriate to order that his palace guard be buried with him, rather than using models of them (see reading 1.4: “Verses from the “Book of Songs”,” p. 18). The First Emperor does not seem to have anticipated his death as justification for the deaths of others (though the “Shiji” says that his concubines were buried with him, upon the order of his successor). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University ]

Inside the Tomb of Emperor Qin

Construction of Emperor Qin's tomb began soon after he became emperor at age 13 and grew bigger and more grandiose as he became more powerful. According to a 1st century B.C. historian chronicled in Ming-era records, the tomb contains a throne room, a copper dome, models of pavilions and palaces filled with gold, gemstones and other treasures, sacred stone tablets, copper coffins, inscribed soul towers, prayer temples, and a relief map of China with a miniature ocean and models of Yangtze and Yellow rivers filled with flowing mercury.

The Emperor is said to have been dressed in jade and gold with pearls in his mouth, with his coffin floating on mercury. Placed around the Emperor's body were vessels with precious stones and relics. The floor was inlaid with gold and silver ducks. The ceiling of the copper dome featured a starry sky of pearls and gems, and constellations made from candles made of whale oil, which burn longer than normal wax. To keep intruders out, the tomb was protected by crossbow booby-traps that shot anybody who tried to enter. The entire sanctuary has a circumference of nearly two miles.

So their secrets wouldn't be revealed, the craftsmen, architects and designers who made the tomb were reportedly buried inside the tomb along with court women who couldn't conceive children. When the Emperor was buried the men that carried him in were sealed in with him by a jade gate to ensure that no one knew how to penetrate the intricate tomb.

Exploration of the Tomb of Emperor Qin

Rendering of the inside of Emperor Qin's Tomb

Exploratory excavations near the tomb in the late 1990s and early 2000s unearthed China's earliest life-size statues with realistic bodies. The most interesting is a statue of a fat man, perhaps an entertainer, with a pot belly and protruding butt, described as an "artful blend of fat and muscle." Archaeologists also found armor made of tea-bag-size plates of limestone tied together with bronze wire and a 467-pound bronze cauldron, the largest ever found at a Qin site, terra-cotta acrobats, and an armored vest made of polished stone. [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, October 2001]

The foundation of two massive rectangular walls encircling the tomb area and a 20-meter-high chamber have been found. Tests have also revealed unusually high measurements of mercury, up to 100 times higher than normal, suggesting that the stories of mercury rivers and seas might he true.

Archeologists plan to wait until preservation techniques improve before excavating to royal tomb. Requests to excavate the tomb have been repeatedly turned down by the Chinese government. It claims the money and technology isn’t available for such an important endeavor. Some archeologists agree, saying that if the job is going to be done it has to done right. Some archeologists think that it is likely the tomb has been looted, in all likelihood not long after Emperor Qin’s death and the collapse of his empire. Others disagree, saying surveys indicate the main structures are intact and if anyone has entered they would have been poisoned by mercury and the mercury would have evaporated and would be undetectable today.

Epang Palace

Epang Palace (western Xian) was a palace complex of Qin Shi Huang.Construction of the palace began in 212 B.C. With the exception of its front hall, most it was never completed according to findings by Chinese archaeologists. According to David W. Pankenier, its dimensions during the Han as described by the ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian were 693 meters long and 116.5 meter wide. It rammed earth foundation platform measures 1,320 meters by 420 meters and is eight meters high. The extravagant palace is said to have been built by Emperor Qin Dynasty in honor of a woman he loved. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 2014, Beijing Youth Daily reported that the Epang Palace scenic spot, which cost more than 200 million yuan ($32 million) to rebuild and opened in 2000, would be demolished to make way for a new one at a cost of 38 billion yuan. Gu Liping of reported:Liu Xiaoguang, chairman of Beijing Capital Group, the project's investor, told the Beijing Youth Daily that the new project was misunderstood by media, and that only a preliminary agreement had been reached. Liu said the plan was not to rebuild the palace or build a new one, but to initiate a cultural development project near the site. That project has been halted, however. He also said they had planned to provide two billion yuan, with the local government offering land and other infrastructure worth 38 billion yuan. [Source: Gu Liping,, January 7, 2014]

“The scenic area surrounding Epang Palace, which occupies more than 680 acres, was opened to the public in 2000 after a five-year reconstruction. Things have not gone well since then. Due to a lack of additional tourism facilities and its location in the western suburb of Xi'an, few tourists have visited the site. The last round of advertising failed to boost business. There are about 25,000 residents living around the old Epang Palace. If the new project is approved, many would have to move out of the area.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

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