Xian, China — We leaned over the metal railing inside this dimly lighted metal cavern and stared down into trenches, raw gashes in the hard-packed red earth. Hundreds of shadowy figures stared back - and through us. Outside, the temperature hovered around 90 degrees F., a normal springtime afternoon in central China, yet we felt an unaccountable chill at the sight.
It was hard to believe these men were only clay. We had seen a few of their brothers, recently exported to American museums, and had read of their astonishing provenance; but nothing had prepared us for the impact of their physical presence, en masse. Fierce, proud, and calm, each ancient soldier seemed a distinct personality in and of himself. Alert, confident, each was still utterly one with his comrades, depicting quintessential discipline and commitment to the common purpose, guarding the legendary Emperor Ch'in Shih Huang Ti. At regular intervals in the columns of soldiers, clay figures of powerful horses, fashioned to pull the royal war chariots, leaned four abreast against invisible harness. Their mouths gaped open, champing at the bit; ears pricked forward and muscles straining, they were ready to charge.
As we moved along the rough plank walkways that follow the perimeter of the excavation, we began to see what a Herculean labor archaeologists faced in restoring these few ranks of soldiers, and what an equally arduous task awaits them. Warriors, their faces just as proud as their upright comrades ahead of them, lie toppled against each other, some shattered completely. A few create a mood of unintentional pathos, their heads resting as if in exhaustion upon the shoulders of those nearest them. Others rise out of the stony red earth, buried to the neck, or chest or waist - and they lean at eerie, tortured angles, as if struggling to free themselves from their muddy prison. They have been there two millenniums - an estimated 8,000 figures in all, lying in this vault and two others on which excavation has not even begun.
Our pretty young guide was frank about the local villagers' reaction when the now-world-famous Ch'in Shih warriors were first unearthed. ''We were all terrified - we thought they were spirits, or ghosts in human form, living in the earth. Or that there were real people buried there, from a time long past.''
In May, 1974, some workers of the Hsiyang Village People's Commune, 30 kilometers (18 miles) east of Xian in the Shaanxi Province, were digging a well for irrigation. A few feet below the surface, they struck, then hauled up the pottery head of a human figure, then the hands and the body. More terra cotta figures were found, all modeled in ancient warriors' battle dress. They were indeed ''real people'' in a way: life-size models of the actual men - individual portrait by individual portrait - who guarded the Emperor Ch'in Shih Huan Ti, 2, 200 years ago.
Ch'in was the man who united China's warring kingdoms into one great empire. Succeeding to the throne of his own relatively small kingdom at the age of 13, he spent the next 25 years conquering his neighbors. Then he instituted sweeping reforms; he abolished the feudal system, codified all laws, and unified the written language, as well as all weights, measures, and coinage; he created a network of roads and canals throughout the country (which he then traveled obsessively on inspection tours, and for fear of assassins if he remained too long in one place), and he built the Great Wall to protect his conquests. He also executed a host of Confucian scholars who resisted his wrenching innovations, and let thousands perish of cold and starvation in his ambitious construction projects.
Proclaiming himself China's first sovereign emperor (and, incidentally, naming his empire after himself), Ch'in reigned until his death in 210 BC, and was buried in a colossal mausoleum he had begun building for himself at the time of his succession. An earth mound 15 stories high, it was constructed in three layers, symbolizing the harmonious cosmos. Called Mt. Li, it hid an enormous subterranean palace, which held his sarcophagus at the center.
Outside the ''sacred courtyards,'' his vast Army stood guard: pottery men and horses, fully armed, buried in wood-lined halls under 15 feet of earth.
Alas for vainglory. It had taken 36 years to plan and build, yet only four years after his burial, an enemy who would found the succeeding Han Dynasty looted Ch'in's tomb, probably destroying the sarcophagus. His soldiers also set fire to the underground wooden vault housing Ch'in's clay army; the ground caved in, shattering many of the statues, yet preserving the site from further vandalism. Twenty-two centuries passed before those commune workers sank their fateful well.
Our guide was a local girl in her early teens when the strange news spread through her commune (''like fire'') and beyond - around the world, in fact. Now she is a poised young woman and, after three years as a museum guide, is matter-of-fact about one of the modern era's greatest archaeological finds. ''When we discovered what they really were,'' she concluded, ''we realized they were just symbols, symbolic figures guarding the emperor's tomb, and that they were a precious part of our past.''
We had glimpsed the blurred tumulus of Ch'in's burial mound, now a rough hill overgrown by pomegranates, pines, and shrubbery, as we drove out from Xian over dusty roads shaded by miles of yang (poplar) trees. Planted in 1976, 40 million of them to combat erosion, the poplars' thin, pale trunks and bushy foliage created a distinctly subterranean tunnel effect - an appropriate prelude to the underground vaults we were about to see.
Ch'in Shih Huang had himself buried in one massive, complex symbol of his empire. Deep within the three-level ''harmonious cosmos'' earth ramparts, according to historians of the era, was a palace throne room. A great wooden dragon, beast of good fortune, bore his copper coffin across a miniature China strewn with models of his palaces and cities; it asserted for all ages Ch'in's all-powerful hold over his dominions. ''The Yellow River and the Yangtze were reproduced in quicksilver and by some mechanical means made to flow into a miniature ocean,'' a Han Dynasty account read. In the ceiling, clusters of bright pearls created the heavenly constellations, and the tomb was sealed by a great jade door. Other palace rooms held seats for civil and military officials and were further enriched by treasures from his kingdom. Outside the palace walls, his full Army stood eternal guard in a three-acre flat-roofed vault.
Ch'in did not bury the living - his family, ministers, Army - with the dead. That practice had been halted some centuries before him, but he revived it symbolically by commissioning sculptors and artists to re-create each man, down to the last facial feature. The rougher outline was fashioned in heavy clay, then a finer paste added to create details such as beards and the ornate topknots. They were painted in lifelike colors, and real weapons were placed in their hands: wood bows, bronze spears, and swords that remain bright and sharp 2 ,200 years later - a sophisticated alloy of copper and tin.
Stunning artistic triumphs in themselves, the figures also illuminate a dark gap in the history of China's ancient art and sociology. Until this discovery, the Ch'in Dynasty was reflected only in miscellaneous bronzes, cal-ligraphic art on some stone carvings, tiles, and a few artifacts found in the ruins of Ch'in's capital, Hsien-yang, and near his tomb.
These clay warriors - the earliest life-size sculpture in China - stunned art historians with their stark realism; experts had pegged such naturalism to a much later era. And the sinewy power of these finely chiseled horses presaged by a thousand years the distinctive lines of the famous T'ang Dynasty horses (AD 618-907).
Clues to Ch'in Dynasty politics, economics, science, and technology also abound; the battle formation of the warriors in the pits is an entire subject for study; chemical analysis of the bronze alloy weapons reveals advanced metallurgical skills. Iron farming implements and artifacts of bone, linen, bamboo, bronze, and pottery have been unearthed, as well as precious jade and gold.
About 700 figures were visible the day we saw them, nine years after the excavation began; so there are still 7,300, give or take a few, still to be raised from the thick soil that crushed and protected these would-be guardians. Archaeologists estimate it will take at least another decade to complete even the basic project, and actual excavation is not constant. Researchers dig, then restore, in stages; they must then reorganize the information and work on conservation of special pieces at their labs.
They have also created a small museum at the site, with selected figures behind glass for closer viewing. And of course there is the considerable time and effort it has taken over the past few years to prepare even a few of these masterpieces for museum exhibition abroad. Hang Dezhou, head of the restoration project, was in Australia at the time we visited, helping to prepare an exhibit of figures.
Still, the great question remains: If the plain wooden vaults of Ch'in's clay soldiers hold such splendors, what will the imperial tomb reveal?
As we drove back toward Xian through groves of persimmon and pomegranate trees, we stared out of the car windows again at Mt. Li - this time with an archaeological itch in our hands, wishing for a trowel and the chance to dig. And we talked, too, of Chairman Mao and his life - and his rather stark, air-conditioned mausoleum in Peking; along with 13 small pine trees in memory of his years in Yenan, there are 13 pomegranate trees from this area, marking his 13 years in Shaanxi Province. It is said that he always identified himself with Ch'in, this first, forceful unifier of China.
For good or ill, that association and the interlocking symbolism linger in the mind.
Beijing Tours International Inc. has a variety of tours that lead through Xian, with land arrangements in China by China International Travel Service, air transport via Japan Air Lines. Air fares run $1,200 to $1,300, and land costs are about $2,000 for a 20-day, eight-city tour in peak season (April-November), slightly lower in winter. If you want to range even farther afield, there is a 25-day tour that includes Xian and takes you on to Tibet, for about $4,200.
China Passage excursions has an eclectic 26-day adventure by bicycle, boat, and train which includes Xian; land costs run $2,300, air transport $1,193, West Coast departure, price subject to change by air carrier.