Terracotta Army

The Story Behind The Clay Soldiers Of The First Chinese Emperor’s Terracotta Army

Published October 15, 2019
Updated October 16, 2019
Published October 15, 2019
Updated October 16, 2019

It took 700,000 men more than 36 years to complete the First Emperor's mausoleum, a 22-square-mile complex guarded by a massive Terracotta Army.

It might have been part of the rebel commander Xiang Yu’s plan from the beginning or it might have been a mere afterthought but either way, to loot the mausoleum of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, as the majestic city of Xianyang fell to ashes made good economic sense.

What Xiang Yu and his men found in that tomb was an army — though made of clay. The weapons of this Terracotta Army were real and precious. Many of those weapons appeared to have been used in battle and now, Xiang Yu plotted, many would be used again.

Qin Shi Huang Portrait

Wikimedia CommonsAn 18th-century imagining of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, for whom the Terracotta Army was assembled.

After breaking into the chambers filled with the motionless, Terracotta Warriors, Xiang Yu’s men set fire to the heavy wooden supports for the underground roof. The chambers collapsed, and the figures were crushed where they stood. And then they were forgotten for more than two millennia.

Discovering The Terracotta Army

The Grand Historian Sima Qian, writing several generations into China’s second dynasty, described the lavish tomb of the First Emperor: a palace equipped with a miniature version of the whole empire, containing rivers and lakes filled with many gallons of mercury so that they would never dry out.

But Sima Qian never mentioned the Terracotta Army. Nor did any other historian until its rediscovery by a group of farmers in 1974.

Broken Terracotta Warriors

FlickrUnrestored figures at the site may reflect the damage caused by the original looting.

In early 1974, Xi’an, China, was experiencing a drought and villagers outside the city were digging a well. One of the men, Yang Zhifa, hit something solid, which he would later joke he mistook for a jar.

In a way, it was, that is if you hold the head of a Terracotta Warrior upside-down. As more pieces emerged, children played with the giant, disassembled action figures. Enterprising villagers made off with arrowheads which they knew they could sell.

Zhao Kangmin, the curator of a small municipal museum and a self-taught scholar of archaeology, arrived soon after the find and recognized the profound importance of the artifacts.

Terracotta Soldiers In Museum

FlickrA view of the soldiers as seen from their new resting place in the museum.

Individual statues had turned up in the past; Zhao himself had already come across several. But now, here was their source. Zhao took the pieces back to his collection and reassembled them into warriors.

He was uneasy about publicizing the find, fearing for the safety of the artifacts. But the press had found out anyway and soon the first comprehensive excavation was underway.

Thus began the greatest dig in living memory.

Excavating The Terracotta Army

Daniele Darolle/Sygma/Getty ImagesArchaeologists excavate the Terracotta Army in 1980.

Since then, it has been estimated that an astounding 7,000 human figurines exist. Many have been reassembled from their fragments in the ruined pits into their original, imposing formation.

Pit One, the first and largest of the four main pits discovered, has 11 corridors, each with four infantry soldiers abreast for a total of 6,000 figurines. The pattern emulates the structure of a palace and the figures stand on a kind of ceremonial guard for the inner chamber where the emperor is laid.

Pit Two contains horses and chariots as well as more artillery and infantry figurines. Pit Three holds commanders and Pit Four is empty, an indication that work on this tomb was ongoing when the emperor died.

Queen Elizabeth II Observes Terracotta Soldiers

Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty ImagesQueen Elizabeth II observes a Terracotta Soldier in the Xi’an museum in 1986.

The ancient looters were far from thorough: 40,000 bronze weapons were left including swords, spear tips, halberd heads, and arrowheads.

Most of the wooden artifacts that didn’t burn have long since disintegrated. But the wooden components provided an unplanned benefit. A coating of lacquer applied to the wood ended up on the blades as well and, by chance, the lacquer also contained chromium which inhibited rust.

On the margins, soldiers face outwards in all cardinal directions in a protective front. The majority of these Terracotta Army men, however, face east towards Mount Li, the sacred geographic feature that inspired the tomb’s location.

About one mile to the west lies the tumulus with the emperor’s remains. The east-facing orientation may have been a defensive stance. The Qin state had been the westernmost of the seven former warring kingdoms, and any insurgency against Qin supremacy would come from the east.

Life Size Ancient Bronze Chariots

Wikimedia CommonsOne of two bronze chariots with its team of horses, all at half life-size.

It would have been prescient to guard against a rebellion, given how things turned out for the dynasty. But not everyone agrees that the soldiers were on the lookout for an onslaught.

Anatomy Of The Terracotta Army

The chemical makeup of the clay used in the Terracotta Army indicates that it was all extracted locally.

Local abundance probably affected the choice of material. Terracotta is also durable. Terracotta is clay that’s been hand-worked or molded rather than thrown on a wheel and it also serves well for mass production.

Masters who built clay tiles for the nearby city also signed their workshops’ name onto the warriors. The very structure of the leg segments is based upon that of water pipes used in the city. Several molds would combine to form the various parts of the anatomy: legs, arms, torso, head, and so on. Some of the combat poses would have been even more imposing with the weapons in hand.

Each body part of the Terracotta Soldier comes in several styles. Heads are the most diverse feature of which there are ten varieties.

The number of possible combinations to create each soldier was well into the thousands. Although some repeats exist, the effect is nonetheless one of noticeable variation across the well-ordered mass.

There is a widely circulated myth that each clay soldier was a portrait of a real person. The artisans didn’t go quite to that extreme, however, though features such as eyebrows or mustaches were applied by hand giving a touch of personality to the molded base.

Following baking, layers of lacquer, first clear, then tinted with paint, would be applied. Then costumes of bright green, blue, red, and white faces with rosy cheeks would be painted. The purple dye was synthetic which was an innovation thousands of years ahead of its time.

There are kneeling figures but they are much less common than standing ones. These are archers. The infantrymen have leather armor modeled on their chest segments. Moreover, the height of a warrior corresponded to his rank, and the upper echelons were larger than life.

In an ancillary pit closer to the central tumulus, Terracotta grooms tend to the skeletal remains of real horses that had been sacrificed.

Closeup View Of Terracotta Archer

Wikimedia CommonsThe topknot remained a characteristic style in China until its ban under the last dynasty.

Despite the fire damage during the ancient looting, the first pieces of warriors still had a coating of lacquer-based paint when they were discovered. But exposure to oxygen destroyed the paint almost instantly.

Techniques pioneered around the start of this century have allowed for the preservation of paint on more recently unearthed warriors.

It’s also largely believed that besides being accessible, Terracotta is hardy. The army was meant to guard the mausoleum for ten thousand years, so wood wouldn’t do and for that matter, neither would actual human corpses.

Plenty of human sacrifices were still slaughtered for the tomb, but the clay warriors themselves needed to resist decay. Just in case, extra armor carved from limestone was on hand should the faux leather ever wear out.

Also, to kill one’s empire’s own soldiers in order to guard a tomb is obviously unwise. There was no such hesitation in regard to the lives of the tomb’s builders, however: they were murdered and interred en masse after finishing the mausoleum’s construction.

Each Terracotta Warrior Is A Singular Achievement

Emperors of the succeeding Han Dynasty also had elaborate tombs constructed complete with Terracotta Warriors. But there’s a difference: the later tombs used miniatures. Only the First Emperor had the audacity to make a life-sized army.

And as far as anyone knows, there were no Terracotta Armies before Qin Shihuang’s. Certainly, rulers in the various Chinese states had elaborate tombs, complete with human and animal sacrifices and rich stores of grave goods like bronze rice wine vessels, jade ornaments, pottery, weapons, bells, and chariot wheels.

But the unique opulence of Qin Shihuang’s mausoleum reflects not only his own purported grandiosity but also the greater resources at his disposal.

Closeup Terracotta Warrior Armor

Geoff Steven/UNESCOA closeup on the detail of one of the Terracotta Warrior’s armor.

First among these resources was the pool of laborers.

Sima Qian estimates that a workforce of 700,000 constructed the mausoleum. Of these, many were prisoners, including debtors. Some 30,000 families were relocated to the capital for the project which would have required woodworkers, metalsmiths, and of course, experts in the manufacture of baked clay.

There would also have been a secondary force to provide food and other services to the workers. A DNA analysis of workers’ remains shows them to be ethnically diverse, likely a cross-section of the different peoples of the newly-forged Chinese realm.

Construction crews were organized according to a model also used in both the real Qin army and in its civil society. Small cohorts would assume mutual responsibility for their output, with each cell capable of quickly constructing entire figurines for the impressive Terracotta Army.

In all, it would take around 36 years for the mausoleum of some 22 miles to be completed.

More Discoveries At The Mausoleum To Come

Excavation and reconstruction of the Terracotta Army continue.

The same local clay serves as a binder for the fragments and new finds continue to emerge decades into the dig.

Away from the four original pits, the death complex has yielded sculptures of civilian Qin subjects as well, including government officials, musicians, and a cache of acrobats.

The acrobat figurines are particularly intriguing. Unlike the warriors, these athletes are hand-worked in their entirety rather than assembled from stereotyped parts.

Terracotta Acrobat Behind Glass

FlickrThe Terracotta Acrobats, buried closer to the central tomb than the Terracotta Warriors, display realistic anatomy.

They display some of the world’s earliest realistic depictions of bone and muscle anatomy. It’s controversial, but some researchers assert that these were influenced by the art of the Greek-speaking world. Other researchers remain skeptical that traveling art teachers found their way to the Qin capital by this time. But no one disputes that the artists themselves would have been subjects from the Qin realm.

But the look of the Terracotta Army demonstrates a different foreign import, although one from a region much closer to the Middle Kingdom. Their soldiers’ uniform–a short tunic over loose trousers–was borrowed from the clothing of nomadic warriors beyond the frontiers of the Chinese states. Such garments work well for horse riding.

In their origins, the rulers of the Qin state — the First Emperor’s ancestors — were horse breeders for the ruling Zhou kingdom. Despite their rise to dominance, their astonishing civil engineering, their legal codes, and their military discipline, the Qin never quite shook their reputation as “semi-barbarians” — at least among their rivals.

China’s first empire had fallen to chaos within four years of its founder’s death. Xiang Yu wouldn’t establish a dynasty of his own, but he would help to clear the way for his rival, the founder of the Han Empire.

Perhaps the most incredible fact about the Terracotta Warriors is that they only represent the outer edge of a complex that encompasses over 38 square miles. Much of this complex cannot be explored simply because there’s too much built on top of it. Besides, archaeologists must bear in mind that the First Emperor is an ancestor deserving of respect, even if his policies may have been problematic.

But given the unexpected richness of his Terracotta Army, one has to wonder what remains buried.


After this look at the exquisite Terracotta Army, check out more impressive pieces of burial art in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. Then, read up another mythically lavish ruler of ancient times, Emperor Caligula.

James Burch
Jim Burch is a writer and video producer who has worked with National Geographic's news and digital teams, and created educational media for publishers including Cengage and Wiley.