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Emperor Qin's Terracotta Army: The Story of Their Production

An Army of Terracotta for the Afterlife


Terracotta Army, part of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, located in Shaanxi, China

Terracotta Army, part of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, located in Shaanxi, China, Photograph, 2005

Imagno / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Line of Terracotta Horses from the Tomb of Shi Huangdi

Line of Terracotta Horses from the Tomb of Shi Huangdi

Paul Souders / The Image Bank / Getty Images
Terra Cotta Warriors at Qin Shihuangdi's Tomb

SHAANXI, CHINA - CIRCA 1990: Terracotta army warriors at tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi at Lingtong in Xian, China

Tim Graham / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The exquisite terracotta army of the first Qin Dynasty ruler Shihuangdi represents the emperor’s ability to control the resources of the newly unified China, and his attempt to recreate and maintain that empire in the afterlife. The soldiers are part of Shihuangdi's tomb, located near the modern town of Xi'an, Shaanxi province in China. That, scholars believe, is why he built them, or rather had them built, and the story of the Qin and his army is a great tale. 

The Emperor Qin

The first emperor of all China was a fellow named Ying Zheng, born in 260 BC during the "Warring States Period", a chaotic, fierce, and dangerous time in Chinese history. He was a member of the Qin dynasty, and ascended to the throne in 247 BC at the age of twelve and a half. In 221 BC King Zheng united all of what is now China and renamed himself Qin Shihuangdi ("First Emperor of Qin"), although ‘united’ is rather a tranquil word to be using for the bloody conquest of the region’s small polities. According to the Shiji records of the Han dynasty court historian Sima Qian, Qin Shihuangdi was a phenomenal leader, who began connecting existing walls to create the first version of the Great Wall of China, constructed an extensive network of roads and canals throughout his empire, standardized written language and money, and abolished feudalism, establishing in its place provinces run by civilian governors. Qin Shihuangdi died in 210 BC, and the Qin dynasty was quickly extinguished within a few years by the early members of the Han dynasty. But, during the brief period of Shihuangdi’s rule, a remarkable testament to his control of the countryside and its resources was constructed: a semi-subterranean mausoleum complex and an army of 7,000 life-size sculpted clay terracotta soldiers, chariots, and horses.

Shihuangdi's Necropolis: Not Just Soldiers

Shihuangdi’s necropolis was surely large enough to merit the name of city of death. The outer wall of the mausoleum precinct measured 2100 x 975 meters and enclosed administrative buildings, horse stables and cemeteries; the heart of the precinct was the 500x500 meter tomb for Shihuangdi. Found in the precinct were ceramic and bronze sculptures, including cranes, horses, chariots, stone carved armor for humans and horses, and human sculptures that archaeologists have interpreted as representing officials and acrobats. The three pits containing the now-famous terracotta army are located 600 meters east of the mausoleum precinct, in a farm field where they were re-discovered by a well-digger in the 1920s.

The mausoleum precinct was built beginning shortly after Zheng became king, in 246 BC, and construction continued until about 209 BC. Four pits were excavated to hold the terracotta army, although only three were filled by the time construction ceased. The construction of the pits included excavation, placement of a brick floor, and construction of a sequence of rammed earth partitions and tunnels. The floors of the tunnels were covered with mats, the life-sized statuary was placed erect on the mats and the tunnels were covered with logs. Finally each pit was buried. In the largest pit (14,000 square meters), the infantry was placed in rows four deep. Pit 2 includes a U-shaped layout of chariots, cavalry and infantry; and Pit 3 contains a command headquarters. Only about 1,000 soldiers have been excavated so far; archaeologists estimate that there are over 7,000 soldiers (infantry to generals), 130 chariots with horses, and 110 cavalry horses.

Continuing Excavations

The statues of the infantry soldiers range between 5 foot 8 inches and 6 foot 2 inches; the commanders are 6 and half feet tall. The lower half of the kiln-fired ceramic bodies were made of solid terracotta clay, the upper half hollow. It is evident that the statues were vividly painted including a color called Chinese purple; although most of that paint has flown, traces of it may be seen on some of the statues.

Chinese excavations have been conducted at Shihuangdi’s mausoleum complex since 1974, and have included excavations in and around the mausoleum complex; they continue to reveal astonishing findings. As Xiaoneng Yang describes Shihuangdi’s mausoleum complex, “Ample evidence demonstrates the First Emperor’s ambition: not only to control all aspects of the empire during his lifetime but to recreate the entire empire in microcosm for his after life.”


Hu, Ya-Qin, et al. 2007 What can pollen grains from the Terracotta Army tell us? Journal of Archaeological Science 341153-1157.

Liu, Z., et al. 2007 Influence of Taoism on the invention of the purple pigment used on the Qin terracotta warriors. Journal of Archaeological Science 34(11):1878-1883.

Xiaoneng Yang. 2004. “Mausoleum of the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty and its Terracotta Army Pits at Lishan and Xiyang, Lintong, Shaanxi Province.” In Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: New Perspectives on China's Past, Volume 2, pp 225-229. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

More on the Terracotta Army

Stan Parchin, Senior Museum Correspondent for Art History, reports that replicas of the terracotta soldiers currently reside in the public lobby of an office building on Fifth Avenue and East 53rd Street in Manhattan. England just executed a cultural agreement with China, and some of the terracotta figures will be featured soon as part of a special exhibition in London.

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