Learn about Emperor Qin's Terra Cotta Army

Learn about Emperor Qin's Terra Cotta Army
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What Lies Beneath

The ruins of an ancient palace lay near the grounds of the Wei River. A huge burial mound overlooks the surrounding fields. Generations of farmers worked this land and many people climbed the steep sides of the mausoleum to get a view from the top.

Locals knew only their same small world. Most were superstitious. When they occasionally found objects buried in the fields they were wary about disturbing them. Many who stumbled over small statutes were worried about dead spirits. Life in rural China was difficult and growing food for hungry people seemed more important.

In the spring of 1974, the province of Shaanxi was stricken by drought. Mount Li normally had water flowing down its steep flanks keeping the rocky ravine flowing and nourishing wells and orchards. This was different.

The six Yang brothers worried about water and were sitting on their haunches and smoking, deciding they needed to dig a new well. All their lives were spent in service to family and farm—they lived in simple mud-brick houses near their village—and they were used to relying on themselves.

After spading out spring shoots, their hole became a big one. By noon, they were 4 meters across (a little more than 12 feet) and over a meter down when they hit iron. Unexpectedly the layer of red dirt seemed impenetrable. Soon they began unearthing pottery, then a clay jar (a real find) and finally “an earth god.” It drew a crowd and a collective gasp of horror. Sticking out of the earth was a head with two eyes, long hair tied-in-a-bun and a moustache.

The First Emperor

Farmers in northwestern China had heard stories about ghosts and spirits living beneath the earth. This was the cradle of a great dynasty of epic scale—the tomb and terra cotta army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor. What should be one of the Eight Wonders of the World, the site the farmers found is over 2,200 years old. It is a vast complex of 21-square miles of ancient Chinese history holding currently: 8,000 clay warriors, chariots and animals, as well as real mass graves and hundreds of subterranean tombs created 200 years before the birth of Christ.

According to the Father of Chinese History, Sima Qian, born around 145 B.C. (during the previous Han Dynasty), in his momentous work, Shi Ji, Records of the Grand Historian, he illustrates history in the form of imperial biographies, timelines of events and tells tales of Emperor Qin Shi Huang and his life.

Cruel Ruler

Before Qin Shi Huang became emperor of China, he was born (259-210 B.C.) as Prince Zheng—and became a king of the state of Qin (Ch’in) at the tender age of thirteen years old. He felt he was the greatest ruler and created a powerful Ch’in army. At the time, the lands were divided into seven states, each ruled by someone else. The warring kingdoms fought for control for over 250 years. Zheng’s great army defeated the other six states and conquered the land until there was no one left to oppose him. He then became Qin Shi Huang Di, “the first emperor” of a unified Chinese empire.

He took tours of China—with most of his government in tow—to unify the people by instituting a standardized written language, a common currency, weights and measures—and to look for omens and magi to lengthen his life, or to find the elixir of immortality.

Huang also worked on infrastructure by building roads and canals to increase trade and travel. Paranoid about his safety he began building massive construction projects: the Great Wall of China, which linked all existing walls and protected China from invaders to the north, and placing huge palaces throughout his lands. (Urban legend has it that the wall can be seen from the moon, but it’s more like low orbit and the sameness of color make it hard to be discernable.)

So as not to create a hagiography of his life, Huang was also a tyrant. He wanted no competing religions to conflict with his laws and he had the books of Confucius—a set of beliefs that taught harmony and justice—banned and burned, and its 460 Confucian scholars killed by burying them alive.

Armies, Real and Imagined

Qin Shi Huang Di (also referred to as Qin Shi Huang that we use here) ruled millions, roughly the size of the Roman Empire at its height. As his 37-year reign progressed, Huang became quite fearful about living—there were threats and attempts on taking his life—and he developed an obsession with immortality.

His real army was created using a path of resolve known as Legalism, a forceful expression from a scholar named Shang Yang. This philosophy was that ‘might is right,’ ‘power the only virtue’ and the only way to rule was to entice, terrify, reward and punish. Because, after all, Shang wrote that human beings are idle, greedy, cowardly and treacherous. State control was everything.

For armies who were assigned the overtaking of others, Qin soldiers were only mobilized when both halves of tiger-shaped tallies (one held by the ruler and the other by the commanding general) were brought together.

Mark Lewis, Professor of Chinese Culture at Stanford University says that all social rank and status depended entirely on the killing of enemies. King Zheng, now Emperor over all of physical China, had conquered all his rivals in 11 years. His army used stealth, crossbows, arrows, halberds, swords and armor.

Incompetence was also a crime and fostered the idea that perfection is achieved through fear. The slave workers under Qin had to tell on others and stupidity or ineptitude was met with maiming, torture and executions.

Something more was needed for Emperor Huang: an afterlife and an army of vast proportions to protect him.

Treat Death like Birth

Emperor Huang believed that in death that “you can take it all with you” and your spirit soul lives on. That is why today Qin Shi Huang is famous for his tomb—that great mound reaching to the sky. In addition, he had over 700,000 workers constructing his mausoleum and its surroundings throughout his reign. A tremendous terra cotta army of 8,000 infantry soldiers, cavalry, horses and chariots that he believed would protect him in the afterlife, were created on the backs of slave labor and the deaths of thousands of peasants.

Dr. Victor Mair, a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that the ancient Chinese had a very strong belief in the afterlife.

“When you die, that’s not the end of you,” says Dr. Mair. “The army was meant to protect [Emperor Qin] in death, down in the underworld. That’s why there were such incredible efforts to be realistic.” The more lifelike the soldiers looked, Mair says, the more effective they would be in guarding the Emperor against his enemies in the afterlife.

During the excavation of the pits, archeologists have found some 40,000 bronze weapons, including battle-axes, crossbows, arrowheads and spears. These weapons represent the feats of great artisans as the metallurgy—properties of metals and refining them together—are advanced and the crossbow technology extremely sophisticated, accurate and lethal. Not to mention, but these 2,000-year-old weapons remain well preserved with chrome plating and based on a composite of bronze.

Clay Soldiers

By the time of the First Emperor, it was widely believed that there were men who had freed themselves from mortality and would live forever. Hard to understand, but these were commonly held and complex ancient beliefs.

The emperor’s “living tomb” would hold favorite objects, even ancestors, animals, artifacts—bells, spears, lamps, seals, pots, carts—and anything that would confer longevity. Even childless women from his court were buried there. The tomb area is surrounded by 81 satellite pits, each one representing a government department and identified by a seal. The entire region is as big as 10,000 football fields!

Today the clay warriors have been under re-establishment since their discovery and they are the subject of many archeological discussions; and held inside a complex are carefully restored artifacts you can visit today.

Interesting facts about the Terra Cotta Warriors

  • They weigh approximately 200 kilos (over 400 lbs.) and are life-sized
  • Scientists have compared their ears to determine individuality
  • Their faces are different as well as their hair style, facial hair, and expressions
  • The generals are taller than the rank-and-file soldiers are
  • They were brightly painted
  • The body is a mixture of clay and white quartz and baked at temperatures between 1,500 to 1,800-degrees Fahrenheit (816 to 982° Celsius)
  • They are arranged in battle formation
  • After analyzing the soil, scientists believe small replicas of rivers of mercury were dug into the tomb floor
  • Gold and gems are set into the chariots

Final Note

To protect Qin Shi Huang’s tomb from grave robbers and looters, mechanical crossbows were set up to shoot arrows at the perpetrators. The men who positioned the crossbows were buried with the emperor to keep the secret of their placement.

Currently, the emperor’s burial mound remains untouched. Scientists fear delicate art and historical relics could be damaged using current archaeological methods. One day we will see the treasures.


  • Capek, Michael. Emperor’s Qin’s Terra Cotta Army: Unearthing Ancient Worlds. Minneapolis, Twenty-First Century Books, 2008. Book.
  • Dean, Arlan. Terra-cotta Soldiers: army of stone. New York: Scholastic, Children’s Press, 2005. Book.
  • Man, John. The Terra Cotta Army: China’s First Emperor and the Birth of a Nation. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books: Da Capo Press, 2008. Book.
  • Emperor’s Ghost Army, @2014 Lion Television, PBS Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Nova 6293. DVD.
  • Terracotta warriors museum” by Charlie - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons