It is difficult for 21st century Westerners to fully comprehend the mind set of ancient people’s attitudes to the afterlife. The Egyptians believed that life after death was a natural continuation of life on earth hence the importance of keeping the body intact and filling the Pharaohs’ tombs with the necessities for such a “life”. Other civilisations have had similar rituals and beliefs but the Chinese fear of non-existence drove them to extraordinary lengths in providing for the future welfare of the dead. Of course we only have the archaeological evidence of the tombs of royalty and the plains around Xi’an are littered with them.

Having visited two of the most famous ones, those of  Emperor Qin Shi Huang (246BC-210BC) of Terracotta Warrior/Great Wall fame and Emperor Jindi (188BC-141BC), I was amazed at the size of the area covered by the tombs and burial pits. I was also fascinated by the obsession with the afterlife that created an industry out of recreating “aristocratic life on earth”. The ancient Chinese believed everyone had two souls – the Po or earth-soul and the Hun or chi- soul. At the time of death the souls separated and had different destinations. The souls were not immortal however and their survival could be increased by feeding them. Life was made easier for the Po if it was given food, clothing and precious objects. This idea still persists in China today – see my blog “Money to Burn”.

Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum is a vast testimony to this megalomaniac’s fear of the afterlife. He certainly had good reason to be afraid of the thousands of spirits of the slain waiting to take their revenge and so he ensured that his tomb was guarded by 7,000 life-size terracotta warriors with horses, chariots and weapons. The tomb itself is said to contain rivers of mercury, cross-bow booby traps and replicas of his earthly palaces with jewel encrusted ceilings. Soil tests have indeed revealed significant levels of mercury and given what has already been uncovered, there is no reason to doubt the literature about his tomb. Ironically, he drank a potion of mercury during his lifetime as it was thought to be the elixir of life. It probably sent him mad and was most likely the cause of his death. His tomb still lies unexcavated. It sends shivers down my spine to think of all the workers who built the tomb being incarcerated in it, to prevent any knowledge of the “warriors” whereabouts being reported.

Emperor Jindi’s tomb was a real contrast to that of his megalomaniacal ancestor. Personally, I preferred it and thought the museum was far better than the one at the Terracotta Warriors.  His reign was peaceful and enlightened and the contents of the tomb tell us more about daily life than military might. The hundreds of burial pits have revealed elegant palace maids in Han costume, hundreds of domesticated animals and terracotta figurines. These originally had wooden arms and were dressed in colourful silk costumes. Again, as in earlier and later tombs, the motto was “to attend to the dead as if to attend to the living.”

Maids in death

Warrior ready for battle

Domestic animals and horses



All this attention to the afterlife is not done and dusted by any means. Its influence is still present in the daily life of the Chinese today. The next holiday I get will be “Tomb Sweeping” at the beginning of April. This originates from the Zhou Dynasty, 2,500 years ago, where people will worship their ancestors with food and flowers and willow branches will be placed around the tombs to ward off evil spirits. Despite the revolution, some beliefs just will not die!

For more photos go to:



  1. #1 by jelford on February 1, 2012 - 1:10 am

    It is good to hear that you are finding the time to visit some of the interesting sights in China.

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