A Guided Tour of China.

Face-changing, or “bian lian” in Chinese, is an important subgenre of Chinese Sichuan opera. It is an ancient style of performance, dating back more than a thousand years. Its techniques have traditionally been highly secretive and passed down within families, from father to son, though in the modern day women have begun to perform bian lian.

It’s dangerous to reduce China to being just one thing – it is both ancient and modern, traditional and innovative. With a continuous history dating back 2,000 years, it is one of the most ancient nations on Earth today – and it is definitely complex.

For discussion: What makes a leader “great?”

The First Emperor

Qin Shi Huang (260–210 BC) was the King of the state of Qin (r. 246–221 BC) who conquered all other Warring States and united China in 221 BC. Rather than maintain the title of king borne by the earlier Shang and Zhou rulers, he ruled as the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty from 220 to 210 BC. The title emperor (huangdi) would continue to be borne by Chinese rulers for the next two millennia.

Qin Shi Huang enacted major economic and political reforms aimed at the standardization of the diverse practices of the earlier Chinese states. This process also led to the banning and burning of many books and the execution of recalcitrant scholars. His public works projects included the unification of diverse state walls into a single Great Wall of China and a massive new national road system, as well as the city-sized mausoleum guarded by the life-sized Terracotta Army. He ruled until his death in 210 BC after a futile search for an elixir of immortality.

Qin Shi Huang
Qin Shi Huang

The Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army or the “Terracotta Warriors and Horses” is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife.  It can also be regarded as a form of power projection – the means by which a government displays its authority, wealth, and overall strength, often sending a message to others about its priorities, goals, and values.

Each warrior was handcrafted – not from a mold – and displays subtle differences. They look like individual soldiers. (Xian, China, 2015.)

The figures, dating from approximately the late third century BCE, were rediscovered in 1974 by local farmers in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province. The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots and horses.

Estimates from 2007 were that the three pits containing the Terracotta Army held more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which remained buried in the pits nearby Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. Other terracotta non-military figures were found in other pits, including officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians.

The Mausoleum

In addition to the warriors, an entire necropolis built for the emperor was found surrounding the first emperor’s tomb mound. The earthen tomb mound is located at the foot of Mount Li and built in a pyramidal shape with Qin Shi Huang’s necropolis complex constructed as a microcosm of his imperial palace or compound.

According to the writings of historian Sima Qian (145–90 BCE), work on the mausoleum began in 246 BCE soon after Emperor Qin (then aged 13) ascended the throne. The project eventually involved 700,000 workers.


The terracotta army figures were manufactured in workshops by government laborers and local craftsmen using local materials. Heads, arms, legs, and torsos were created separately and then assembled.  Eight face molds were most likely used, with clay added after assembly to provide individual facial features. It is believed that the warriors’ legs were made in much the same way that terracotta drainage pipes were manufactured at the time. This would classify the process as assembly line production, with specific parts manufactured and assembled after being fired, as opposed to crafting one solid piece and subsequently firing it.

In those times of tight imperial control, each workshop was required to inscribe its name on items produced to ensure quality control. This has aided modern historians in verifying which workshops were commandeered to make tiles and other mundane items for the terracotta army. Upon completion, the terracotta figures were placed in the pits in precise military formation according to rank and duty.

The terracotta figures are life-sized. They vary in height, uniform, and hairstyle in accordance with rank. Most originally held real weapons such as spears, swords, or crossbows. Originally, the figures were also painted with bright pigments, variously colored pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white and lilac.  The colored lacquer finish, individual facial features, and weapons used in producing these figures increased the figures’ realism. Most of the original weapons were looted shortly after the creation of the army, or have rotted away, while the color coating flaked off or greatly faded.

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The Forbidden City

Qin Shi Huang never lived in the Forbidden City – his capital was in Xian, hundreds of miles south of Beijing. But for hundreds of years, the Forbidden City was the palace of the Chinese Emperor.

For Discussion: How and why do governments regulate the flow of people and information?

The Great Wall

The Great Wall of China, near Beijing.
The Great Wall of China at its most iconic and impressive. (Badaling, China, 2015.)

An Epic National Project

The history of the Great Wall of China began when fortifications built by various states during the Spring and Autumn (771–476 BC) and Warring States periods (475–221 BC) were connected by the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, to protect his newly founded Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) against incursions by nomads from Inner Asia. The walls were built of rammed earth, constructed using forced labor, and by 212 BC ran from Gansu to the coast of southern Manchuria.

Later dynasties adopted different policies towards northern frontier defense. The Han (202 BC – 220 AD), the Northern Qi (550–574), the Sui (589–618), and particularly the Ming (1369–1644) were among those that rebuilt, re-manned, and expanded the Walls, although they rarely followed Qin’s routes. The Han extended the fortifications furthest to the west, the Qi built about 990 miles of new walls, while the Sui mobilized over a million men in their wall-building efforts. Conversely, the Tang (618–907), the Song (960–1279), the Yuan (1271–1368), and the Qing (1644–1911) mostly did not build frontier walls, instead opting for other solutions to the Inner Asian threat like military campaigning and diplomacy.

The Great Wall stretches from Dandong in the east, to Lop Lake in the west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. A comprehensive archaeological survey, using advanced technologies, has concluded that the Ming walls measure 5,500 miles. This is made up of 3,889 miles sections of actual wall, 223 miles of trenches and 1,387 miles of natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers. Another archaeological survey found that the entire wall with all of its branches measure out to be 13,171 miles.

Although a useful deterrent against raids, at several points throughout its history the Great Wall failed to stop enemies, including in the Yuan – lead by Kublai Khan – in 1271 and in 1644 when the Manchu Qing marched through the gates of Shanhai Pass and replaced the most ardent of the wall-building dynasties, the Ming, as rulers of China.

The Great Wall of China visible today largely dates from the Ming dynasty, as they rebuilt much of the wall in stone and brick, often extending its line through challenging terrain. Some sections remain in relatively good condition or have been renovated, while others have been damaged or destroyed for ideological reasons, deconstructed for their building materials, or lost due to the ravages of time. Long an object of fascination for foreigners, the wall is now a revered national symbol and a popular tourist destination.

Other purposes of the Great Wall have included border controls, allowing the imposition of duties on goods transported along the Silk Road, regulation or encouragement of trade and the control of immigration and emigration. Furthermore, the defensive characteristics of the Great Wall were enhanced by the construction of watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations, signaling capabilities through the means of smoke or fire, and the fact that the path of the Great Wall also served as a transportation corridor.

Watch towers and garrisons such as these were strategically positioned so that they could communicate with the next station along the wall through smoke signals, flags, or drums. (Badaling, China, 2015.)


Before the use of bricks, the Great Wall was mainly built from rammed earth, stones, and wood. During the Ming, however, bricks were heavily used in many areas of the wall, as were materials such as tiles, lime, and stone. The size and weight of the bricks made them easier to work with than earth and stone, so construction quickened. Additionally, bricks could bear more weight and endure better than rammed earth. Stone can hold under its own weight better than brick, but is more difficult to use. Consequently, stones cut in rectangular shapes were used for the foundation, inner and outer brims, and gateways of the wall.

Battlements line the uppermost portion of the vast majority of the wall, with defensive gaps a little over 30 cm (12 in) tall, and about 23 cm (9.1 in) wide. From the parapets, guards could survey the surrounding land. Communication between the army units along the length of the Great Wall, including the ability to call reinforcements and warn garrisons of enemy movements, was of high importance. Signal towers were built upon hill tops or other high points along the wall for their visibility. Wooden gates could be used as a trap against those going through. Barracks, stables, and armories were built near the wall’s inner surface.

The wall stretches along the crest of the mountains – a strategic decision, meaning that any potential attackers would have to dismount and attack while climbing up hill – literally as far as the eye can see. (Badaling, China, 2015.)


While some portions north of Beijing and near tourist centers have been preserved and even extensively renovated, in many locations the Wall is in disrepair. Those parts might serve as a village playground or a source of stones to rebuild houses and roads. Sections of the Wall are also prone to graffiti and vandalism, while inscribed bricks were pilfered and sold on the market for up to 50 renminbi. Parts have been destroyed because the Wall is in the way of construction. A 2012 report by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage states that 22% of the Ming Great Wall has disappeared, while 1,219 miles of wall have vanished.More than 37 mile of the wall in Gansu province may disappear in the next 20 years, due to erosion from sandstorms.

In its original construction, this section of the wall was narrower than the more impressive section at Badaling.  In addition, many of its bricks have disappeared over the centuries, leaving the modern explorer little choice but to pass on the dry clay along the wall. (Jinshanling, China, 2010.)

The Great Firewall

Modern China is a one party state – a country ruled by one authoritarian Communist Party that carefully limits dissent, protest, and alternative points of view.  In fact, the Chinese government has a tradition of keeping its watchful eye on all media. Since the rapid growth of the World Wide Web in the 1990s it has constantly invented new ways of censorship to control the world’s most democratic medium, the Internet, as well. Not everything on the Internet can be accessed from within China.  The sophisticated tools used by the government to block websites that might embarrass or weaken the party are referred to as the Great Firewall of China.

It is estimated that some 30,000 Chinese civil servants are monitoring Internet traffic and blocking content that is deemed undesirable. Typing in sensitive keywords such as “democracy”, “Dalai Lama” or “Tiananmen 1989” in a search engine results in an error message. Repeated attempts by a user to search for such a sensitive topic can result in temporary disconnection of internet service.  Websites of a sensitive nature are blocked. Internet service providers also (self) censor, as do individuals: many people do not express their real thoughts because they know these will be censored anyway.

Sites Blocked in China

Chinese Equivalents to American Web Sites. Most of these familiar American sites and apps are blocked by the Great Firewall.
Chinese Equivalents to American Web Sites. Most of these familiar American sites and apps are blocked by the Great Firewall.

For Discussion: In what ways is the Great Firewall similar in function to the Great Wall?  In your opinion, do you think this strategy will work in the long term?

Huashan is the western mountain of the Five Great Mountains of China and has a long history of religious significance. Since as early as the 2nd century BC, Daoists have believed that the god of the underworld lives inside the mountain. Pilgrims have been coming here since that time in search of blessings, immortality, and plants used in traditional Chinese medicine. The route up the mountain has been called one of the most dangerous hikes in the world.
What is striking about this map, which hangs in classrooms all over China?