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qin shi huang’s terracotta army

Medium: Terracotta
Dimensions: 175-200 cm (average height of a terracotta soldier)
Date: c. 210 BC
Discovered: 1974
Location: Lintong, Xi’an, Shaanxi, province of China
Period: Qin dynasty, from 246 to 208 BC
Subject: Army
Theme: Tomb

brief summary

Created as commanded by Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, during the Qin dynasty, the Terracotta army is a key example of the Emperor’s outstanding accomplishments. A symbol of obsession with both immortality and worldly power, they represent the Emperor’s earthly power, and aimed to protect him in the afterlife. Built at the foot of Mount Li, China, there were uncovered more than 6,000 soldiers made out of terracotta, and, because only parts of this site have been excavated, suspicions remain that there is much more to be found.

general description

The terracotta army is a vast collection of well over 6,000 soldiers made out of terracotta which depict the emperor’s Qin Shi Huang (the first Emperor of China) armies. Built at the foot of Mount Li, 30 kilometers away from Xi’an, they sit to the east of the entrance of his monumental tomb. They are a form of funerary art, buried with the Emperor upon his death in 210–209 BCE. Recent excavations have uncovered numerous soldiers, chariots, horses and over 40,000 bronze weapons. It is believed, however, that the majority of the army is still buried, near the tomb and near Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum, a larger complex that defines the area. The large mausoleum has the shape of the capital Xianyang with an inner and outer city, each with 2.5 km and 6.3 km in radius. Other recent studies suggest that the mausoleum is immersed into a larger necropolis which spans an area of  roughly 98 square kilometers. The tomb sits at the centre of this large complex, where the actual coffin is located, as has the shape of a trunked pyramid, with over 76 meters in height. It appears to be sealed, and to have a base that spans approximately the size of a football stadium – about 100 × 75 m. Only parts of this site have been excavated, (the tomb and other main parts are still unopened) as most of the explorations, thus far, focus on the parts surrounding the actual tomb, where the terracotta army was found. With the labouring force of over 700,000 workers, over 38 years, the emperor’s tomb and mausoleum (of which the terracotta army is part of) was constructed to protect him in the afterlife. Numbers from 2007, claim that the three pits that contain the Terracotta Army totallize 8000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 individual horses.

A few figures of the army

Section of a row of the army

The terracotta army was discovered by accident by local villagers, in 1974, who were trying to build a local well. Not knowing what they had found, they began dismounting parts and selling them off commercially. It was only after a few months that archeologists were brought to the site, and began excavations. The first excavations uncovered an area of over 20,000 square meters, where about 6,000 statues of terracotta warriors and horses were found. They also began to find hundreds of wooden battle chariots and weapons, in what seemed to be a whole army made out of terracota.

Partial view of the Terracotta Army

Having become king of the Qin at the age of thirteen, Qin Shi Huangdi (259-210 BC), unified China winning countless battles against all other states, becoming the first emperor of China or the “First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty”, as he self entitled himself. Known to be a ruthless and repressive emperor, it was at this moment that he began the construction of his tomb. It took 38 years of construction to be complete, and it is said, in historical notes, that roughly 700,000 convicts, sent from all over China, were immersed in its development for the last 13 years of construction. Once the tomb was complete, it was covered in grass, making it completely hidden underground, merged within the landscape. Historical notes from the time, testify to the monumentality of the tomb and the brutality of its construction at the time. Written by the hands of Sima Qian (c. 145-86 BC), in chapter six of his book Records of the Grand Historian (91 BC), he accounts the biography of the Emperor. In one paragraph, he described in detail the construction of the monumental tomb, including how it was filled with rare artifacts and treasures, how it included replicas of palaces, and how after the burial, all workers that knew the secret passages of the tomb, were locked inside to die, then the whole tomb was covered in order to be completely hidden. However, Sima Qian never mentioned the terracotta army. 

“In the ninth month, the First Emperor was interred at Mount Li. Digging and preparation work at Mount Li began when the First Emperor first came to the throne. Later, after he had unified his empire, 700,000 men were sent there from all over his empire. They dug through three layers of groundwater, and poured in bronze for the outer coffin. Palaces and scenic towers for a hundred officials were constructed, and the tomb was filled with rare artifacts and wonderful treasure. Craftsmen were ordered to make crossbows and arrows primed to shoot at anyone who enters the tomb. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze, Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above were representations of the heavenly constellations, below, the features of the land. Candles were made from fat of “man-fish”, which is calculated to burn and not extinguish for a long time. The Second Emperor said: “It would be inappropriate for the concubines of the late emperor who have no sons to be out free”, ordered that they should accompany the dead, and a great many died. After the burial, it was suggested that it would be a serious breach if the craftsmen who constructed the mechanical devices and knew of its treasures were to divulge those secrets. Therefore after the funeral ceremonies had completed and the treasures hidden away, the inner passageway was blocked, and the outer gate lowered, immediately trapping all the workers and craftsmen inside. None could escape. Trees and vegetation were then planted on the tomb mound such that it resembles a hill.”

Sima Qian, Shiji, Chapter 6, Records of the Grand Historian (91 BC)

Portrait of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China (18th century)

Portrait of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China (19th century)

Today, four main pits have been excavated. The larger pit, pit 1, measures 230 metres in length and contains the majority of the army, totalizing over 6,000 figures. In pit number 2, cavalry, infantry and war chariots added up to what seems to be a large and complex military guard. Other secondary pits have been excavated, where no army figures have been found, and instead include acrobats and entertainers. Over the larger pit (number 1), a massive roofed structure protects some of the uncovered army, and a large museum complex has been constructed in the area.

View of Pit 1 in the museum of Xi’an, with the covered structure

Army Figures

The terracotta army represents a fundamental archeological site for humanity. It is also a main icon of China, representing its founding history. The army is then a representation of the armies that carried out the unification of China, under the command of the Emperor, and thus acting as a symbolic reference to China’s history, and as an ever present reminder of The First Emperor’s legacy to China. Known for great innovations during his reign, (including introducing writing, standardization of currency and overall modernization), the army represents one of his most significant and ambitious accomplishments. Widely known as a military genius, the army is also a testament to his military feats. In addition, the method applied to the construction of the army is believed to have been the first assembly line type of creation, adding another layer of significance to this remarkable masterpiece, a key example of the Emperor’s outstanding accomplishments. Representing his obsession with immortality, while at the same time reflecting his worldly power, the complex is also a legacy of this founding belief.

Representation of the Power of the Emperor and the unification of China

Representation of the Power of the Emperor and the unification of China

With the purpose of protecting the emperor in his afterlife, the terracotta army aimed to protect the soul of the Emperor against any evil spirits or negative circumstances that could arise in life after death. It is part of a funerary art, where royalty, pharaohs and/emperors, would create large tombs, and fill it with objects and references they might need in the afterlife. This is found, dating roughly the same period or earlier, all over Egypt and the Mesopotamia area (aggregating parts of  Iraq, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey), once occupied by the Sumerian (c. 4500-1900 BC), the Akkadian (c. 2334-2154 BC) and the Babylon (1895-539 BC) Empires. The large complex aimed to parallel his worldly life in the afterlife, thus replicating his power, nobility, strength, palaces, armies, and all other sorts of luxuries such as jewelry. With this objective, details and accuracy were profoundly important and of priority.

A burial site of the Tomb of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di (CC BY-SA 3.0, Aaron Zhu)

aesthetic analysis

The terracotta figures are about life-sized, from 175 cm to about 200 cm. Their height is granted according to ranking and station of the officer, making the generals taller than soldiers, for example. They are organized by rank and duty in rows, in trench-like, underground corridors. The warriors all have individual and specific facial expressions (changing styles of facial formats, hairstyle, mustaches, and expressions). Some current historian studies believe that these depictions were based on people of the army, while others claim they are abstractions. They all stand in similar poses, and seem to be a testament to the power of the collective. Emphasizing repetition, order, and symmetry, these figures act as one collective force, all showing some form of movement and weight. Although the figures are all intricately carved with exquisite details, such as clothing, muscles or hair motions (even shoelaces or shirt collars were depicted accurately), it is the general presence of the army and the massive amount of soldiers that convey most of its strength. The figures are standardized, yet individualized, echoing a universal principle of life. Addin to all these ideas, the anatomical correctness and the profound sense of naturalism and realism, grants them a very unique aesthetic sense, especially for their time.

Detail of the horses’ heads

Detail of the horses’ heads

Detail of a soldier where the intricacy of the garment’s carving is visible

They were manufactured in workshops by laborers and craftsmen, in what is believed to have been an assembly line type of creation, making the process faster and more precise. It is believed that they were created with large clay molds, and mixed and matched parts. Once these were created, they further added details and individualized each figure specifically, by adding more layers of clay. In addition, studies have identified 10 basic facial shapes. It is believed that pigments were added as well, adding colour, depth and importance to some or all of the figures. Theories suggest that they used iron oxide (dark red), cinnabar (red), malachite (green), azurite (blue), charcoal (black) among other pigments, and used other colours, including pink and lilac.

Recreation in colour (CC BY-SA 4.0, Charlie)

The Terracotta Army
By John Man (2007)

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