Xi’an, renowned for its Terracotta Warriors, conceals a deeper historical tapestry beneath its surface. Having served as the capital for over 10 dynasties, including the Han, Xin, Tang, and Ming, the city is a treasure trove of history. For those unable to immerse themselves in the complexities of these dynasties all at once, a visit to Xi’an’s old town, specifically the Shaanxi History Museum, is a must.
Heralded as one of China’s premier museums, the Shaanxi History Museum exhibits artifacts unearthed in the province of Shaanxi. From ancient Dali skulls to the exquisite tri-coloured Tang dynasty pottery, this museum captivates even the most casual anthropologist. In just half a day, you can embark on a 3,000-year journey through Chinese history.
The museum provides an immersive stroll through Cháng’ān, the former name of Xi’an, with most exhibits accompanied by English labels and explanations. It’s an enticing journey through the ages, encompassing the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, and more.
My exploration began on the ground floor, dedicated to bronze wares from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, dating back to 1600-256 B.C. Among the array of bronze arrows and crossbows, one stern-looking tripod stood out—a “Wine Vessel” from the late Shang period, boasting intricate dragon designs and a boat-shaped form. It evoked memories of scenes from the epic film “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” where warlord Cao Cao sipped from a similar vessel. This wine vessel was undoubtedly designed for serious drinkers; a single Maotai-filled vessel could leave one on the floor within seconds.
Ascending to the upper floor, I encountered a hall dedicated to Han dynasty relics. Highlights included a collection of about 40 terracotta figurines from the tomb of the first Han emperor, Liu Bang. China’s ancient history is vast, with some drawn to the Han dynasty’s richness and innovation, while others are enchanted by the elegance and sophistication of the Tang dynasty, greatly influenced by the arrival of Buddhism in Xi’an and across China.
Personally, I was captivated by the Three Kingdoms dynasty—a turbulent era following the fall of the Han dynasty. China endured over 100 years of rule by various warlords, resulting in chaos. My fascination with this period isn’t unique. Luo Guanzhong’s “Sanguo Yanyi” or “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” has garnered millions of fans worldwide. This epic tale weaves love, betrayal, hatred, and corruption into the backdrop of a war-ravaged era.
I hoped to find artifacts related to the Three Kingdoms period in China’s premier museum—a glimpse of Guan Yu’s polearm, a portrait of Diaochan, one of China’s Four Great Beauties, or even Cao Cao’s wine bowl. Unfortunately, besides a few half-broken pottery pieces depicting mysterious unicorns, there was little to tell the tale of the Three Kingdoms. People struggled for survival during that time, leaving few documents and artifacts.
Yet, the true gem of the Shaanxi History Museum is its Tang dynasty exhibition, often hailed as one of China’s golden ages. For nearly 300 years, art, poetry, and religion flourished. Xuanzang, the Chinese monk, embarked on a pilgrimage to India, returning to Chang’an (Xi’an) with sacred Buddhist texts—a pivotal moment in spreading Buddhism in China. The Tang dynasty also introduced three-coloured pottery, a milestone in Chinese ceramics. A grand hall in the Shaanxi Museum pays homage to the Tang dynasty, showcasing pottery, gold, silver, jade works, and captivating murals.
‘One of the standout exhibits is the collection of tri-coloured pottery. Horses, camels, female figurines, dragon-headed mugs, enigmatic tomb guardians, and charming Chinese zodiac creatures unearthed from nearby villages. Among them, the tri-coloured camel carrying musicians on its back stole my heart. The label reads, “Tri-coloured camel carrying musicians on its back.” This piece exudes exoticism and adventure. The camel stands tall, head held high, back adorned with seven carefree musicians. Clad in tunics with tight sleeves and the typical top-knot hairstyle of ancient Chinese fashion, these figurines vividly evoke the image of travellers along the Silk Road, with camel bells tinkling.
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The museum also features sections showcasing precious Chinese treasures and artifacts. Don’t miss the Buddha from the Zhongshan Grottoes, a must-see for those interested in Chinese Buddhism. Situated at the foot of Zhongshan Mountain in Shaanxi, these historic grottoes, hewn in the 4th century, house over 10,000 Buddha sculptures, both large and small. A portion of the Zhongshan Grottoes has been meticulously chiselled by Chinese archaeologists and is now on display at the Shaanxi History Museum, occupying a substantial part of the exhibition hall.
For dedicated anthropologists, a week at the Shaanxi History Museum might barely scratch the surface. However, even a single day can offer a captivating glimpse into China’s rich history, with over 375,000 artifacts to explore. It’s a testament to the museum’s allure that even someone like me, not typically a museum enthusiast, contemplated skipping lunch for more time in this remarkable place.”
IF YOU GO
The Shaanxi History Museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday (8:30am to 6pm). Admission is free. The daily visitor limit is 4,000, so it’s advisable to arrive early and be prepared for a queue of at least 30 minutes. Ensure you have your passport with you to claim your free ticket.
AirAsia (www.airasia.com) operates daily flights between Xi’an and Bangkok.