The architectural and historical wealth of the country would take a lifetime to explore, but certain monuments are not to be missed on even the shortest visit to China. Among these are two of Beijing’s most famous sights, the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, as well as the fascinating contents of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb in Xian – three of China’s more than three dozen World Heritage Sites.
Southwest of Beijing in China’s central plains, an incomparable historic treasure lay hidden beneath the ancient capital city of Xian for a thousand years. Discovered in 1974, the Terracotta Army of Xian consists of over 8,000 figures of warriors, horses, and chariots; each a unique creation of kiln-fired ceramic. Buried with the ruler of the first Qin dynasty, the soldiers were intended to accompany the emperor to the afterlife. This incredible collection of life-size statues, buried within a massive underground necropolis, is a testament to the power and ambition of the first emperor to rule all of China, who was also the first to connect existing fortifications into what would become the Great Wall.
To walk along the structure known as the Great Wall of China, several thousand miles of fortifications built over the course of 2,000 years, is to walk in the footsteps of sentinels from centuries past, watching the horizon for northern invaders. Today certain sections of the wall near Beijing are besieged by a modern-day invasion of tourists, but areas such as Mutianyu, in the countryside outside of the city, offer visitors a quieter and more peaceful opportunity to experience the grandeur of this historic edifice.
Just as the Great Wall was built to defend against Mongolian tribes from the steppes, the walls of the Forbidden City were built to protect China’s emperors from the commoners living in the metropolis that surrounded them. The nearly 10,000 rooms of the Forbidden City were finally opened to the world in the 20th century, after 500 years during which the royal courts of the Ming and Qing Dynasties were sheltered within its exquisite palaces and gardens. It is said that it takes three full days to see all of the halls, gardens, and treasures of this remarkable monument to five centuries of imperial wealth and power. However, even a short visit to the Forbidden City is enough to see an astounding amount of artistic and architectural riches.