China’s Terracotta Warriors


Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China, was known for his military campaigns because of his aggressive nature.  It is of little wonder that the Qin Dynasty emperor would also aspire to be a warrior in death.  Analyzing the Terracotta Warriors will show that Shihuang developed each piece in order to protect his tomb and possessions in the afterlife, but it is also likely that he wanted to memorialize his dynasty in displaying his army and his wealth.  The Asian Art Museum writes, “In order to achieve immortality, he built himself a tomb—a vast underground city guarded by a life-size terracotta army including warriors, infantrymen, horses, chariots and all their attendant armor and weaponry” (2015).  While immortality in the afterlife may or may not exist, one could argue that the excavation project that began in 1974 helped to immortalize his important role in introducing the Qin dynasty to modern society.

The collection, which includes 7,000 figures, 10,000 weapons, and chariots drawn by bronze horses helped to protect the priceless artifacts in Shihuang’s tomb.   More than 700,000 laborers worked to build the Terracotta Warriors between 221-209 BCE.  Of the four pits dug, only three were filled with warriors, horses, chariots, and weapons.  The fourth lay empty which signifies the project was not complete.  The pit also infers that Shihuang did not anticipate his untimely death so early in life.  The evidence supports that Shihuang wanted to protect in death what he so aggressively achieved in life.  The amount of laborers also suggests that the Qin dynasty population was significant in size.  Qin may have decided to bring in immigrant farmers in order to feed the laborers to keep his project going.

The clay figures may signify the importance of being a soldier to the Chinese men during that period. Research shows, “Every figure differs in facial features and expression, clothing, hairstyle, and gestures, providing abundant and detailed artifacts for the study of the military, cultural, and economic history of that period” (Chinese Highlights 1998). The different faces and other features may represent the many emotions a warrior might endure during a military campaign.  The representations also help to teach modern society about the living conditions of the earliest period in China, but also of the soldiers on the Qin dynasty.


Every great warrior required an equally great horse and weapon.  The Terracotta chariot and horses are a magnificent display. Research shows, “The carriages have about 3,400 parts each and were driven by four horses. Each weighs 1,234 kg in total. They were mainly made of bronze, but there were 1,720 pieces of golden and silver ornaments, weighting 7 kg, on each carriage” (Chinese Highlights 1998).  The metals used to produce the artifacts reflect great wealth. The types of metals also show the Qin Dynasty either mined or acquired the materials on campaigns.  However, it also signifies that Shihuang had respect for his army because of the great care and detail he added to each piece.  His emulation of his army in life shows that he wanted the same army in death.  The belief could indicate that his army was a respected group who achieved great success in military campaigns.  The fact that laborers continued to work a year after his death may also signify that society had a great respect for this army, but it may also show they feared Qin’s belief in immortality.



Research shows, “Qin was a paranoid tyrant, and feared that grave robbers would loot the treasures in his tomb after he died” (OConner 2002).  Inside the tomb is said to hold Shihuang’s greatest treasures.  Artifacts made of gold, jade, silver, and bronze materials are said to be but a few of the great possessions Qin brought into the afterlife.  The Asian Art Museum believes that the collection will define four main beliefs of the Qin dynasty: immortality, archaeology, innovation, and unification.  The ideas collectively express the emperor’s desire to dominate, as well as a vision to contribute to society the great Terracotta Warriors to represent Chinese history.


The collection in its entirety represents a man who set out to defy death by developing an army as great as that in life.  Upon examination, one could understand the vision Shihuang had.  However, the collection also represents the very ideology of the earliest Chinese people because war and wealth from military expansions were synonymous with the Qin Dynasty. Qin was thought to be a tyrant, and it infers that the people may have feared him even in death.  With such great riches near, one might have believed that the warriors would continue to protect him in death.  The fear of his vengeance allowed his tomb to lay untouched until 1974.  Even today, mercury levels prevent his tomb from being excavated.  One might argue that the Terracotta Warriors have in fact stopped anyone from entering and stealing the artifacts in the tomb.  In so doing, it has created a great debate about whether the tomb should remain closed.  Qin Shihuang’s vision for future societies included the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors, but interestingly, it may not have included the contents of his tomb.  While society may never know the artifacts inside the tomb, the Terracotta Warrior collection provides great insight into the people of the Qin Dynasty.




Works Cited

Asian Art Museum.  China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy.  2015.  Retrieved on March 19, 2015 from website http://www.asianart.org/exhibitions/terracotta-warriors

China Highlights.  The Terracotta Army.  1998.  Retrieved on March 20, 2015 from website http://www.chinahighlights.com/xian/terracotta-army/

Cotterell, Maurice. The terracotta warriors: the secret codes of the emperor’s army. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co, 2004.

National Geographic.  Terra-Cotta Army Protects First Emperor’s Tomb.  National Geographic Society. 2015.  Retrieved on March 20, 2015 from website http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/archaeology/emperor-qin/

O’Connor, Jane. The Emperor’s Silent Army: Terracotta Warriors of Ancient China. New York: Viking, 2002.





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