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Terracotta Army — Guarding Warriors of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

The Terracotta Army is the troop guarding the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC), who was the founder of the first unified feudal empire, the Qin Dynasty, and the first emperor of China.

Terracotta Warriors and Horses of the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang

Terracotta Warriors and Horses of the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, Photo by Zhao Zhen.

What Does Qin Shi Huang's Underground Realm Look Like?


The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor that the Terracotta Army has been protecting is a grand, exceptional underground realm.


When Qin Shi Huang, also respected as Shi Huangdi, ascended to the throne in 247 BC, he initiated the construction of his mausoleum.

In ancient Chinese culture, one's afterlife was considered as important as real life, leading people to strive for elaborate tombs filled with treasures and servants.

Emperors, therefore, constructed their mausoleums while alive to ensure their afterlife worlds matched their aspirations.

With Qin Shi Huang having achieved unprecedented accomplishments, including defeating other kingdoms, establishing the Qin Dynasty, unifying language and currency, and building the Great Wall, he invested significant resources in constructing his mausoleum.

Bronze Sword Unearthed from Terracotta Army Pit

Bronze Sword Unearthed from Burial Pit

Surrounded by Lishan Mountain to the north and the Wei River to the south, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor covers an area of 56.25 square kilometers.

The entire mausoleum is believed to replicate the capital city of the Qin Dynasty in the underground world.

In his underground palace, valuable pearls were inlaid in the copper top to represent stars in Chinese Astrology. A significant amount of mercury was used to create lakes and seas, and countless treasures were stored in various rooms of the enormous palace.

Simultaneously, intricately designed hazardous defensive mechanisms were placed throughout the mausoleum.

Around the palace, there are hundreds of funerary pits containing terracotta or bronze-made officials, warriors, performers, weapons, armor, horses, valuable animals, chariots, and more.

The excavated Terra Cotta Warriors in battle formation are in three of Qin Shi Huang's funerary pits. 

Bronze Crane Unearthed from one of Qin Shi Huang's Funerary Pits

Bronze Crane Unearthed from one of Qin Shi Huang's Funerary Pits

Why Does the Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum Remain Unexcavated?

The first description of The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor was by the historian Sima Qian (about 145 BC — ?). 


Throughout history, besides the Terracotta Army and a few funerary pits, the main mausoleum of the first emperor of China remains intact. It will not be excavated in the near future. 


According to detections, the mausoleum's main buildings are still strong, and there are no signs of leaking or seeping water.


Therefore, it should and will be well-preserved. 


Besides, today's technology is still insufficient to protect those large amounts of valuable relics and keep the exceptional underground palace its original looks. Any broken would cause huge irreversible losses. 

Guardian Warriors of the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang- The Terracotta Army

Guardian Warriors of the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huangdi - The Terra Cotta Army, Photo by Zhao Zhen.

Discovery of Terracotta Warriors


The Terracotta Army was officially found, researched, and protected in 1974 after some farmers found a few human-size terracotta figures when drilling wells and reported them to the local government. 


Then, some archeologists and reporters realized the great value of these terracotta soldiers and finally proved that they were part of the guardian army of the mausoleum of the first emperor of China. 

Bronze Chariot Unearthed from the Terracotta Army Pit.

Bronze Chariot Unearthed from the Terra Cotta Army Pit

Important Data and Facts About the Terracotta Army.


  • The Terracotta Army is located in Xi'an City of Shaanxi Province.


  • Their production started in 247 BC, buried and sealed in 208 BC.


  • There are four pits in the area, but only three pits have Terra Cotta Warriors and chariots, and the other one is empty.


  • There are over 8000 terracotta soldiers, horses, and chariots, according to detection, and around one-third of them have been unearthed and are in the exhibition.

Details of Terracotta Horse

Details of Terracotta Horse, Photo by Dongmaiying.

  • Terracotta Warriors weigh between 100 kg to 250 kg, with an average weight of 180 kg and an average height of 185 cm.


  • The unearthed Terra Cotta Warriors were originally colorful, fading away soon after they were unearthed.


Their original colors include red, green, pink, purple, blue, white, brown, and so on.


  • There are carved Chinese characters on each terracotta figurine, showing who and where a specific part of the figurine is produced.


This was a means for the empire to trace and control quality. 

Carved Characters on Terracotta Warriors.

Engraved Characters on A Terracotta Warrior.

Why Hasn't the Terracotta Army Been Discovered Earlier in History?


The Terracotta Army, constructed in 247 BC and buried in 208 BC, was only a few meters deep in the ground from the surface.

However, despite its long history, it remained undiscovered until 1974.

Had no one ever found any Terracotta Soldier before?

Cavalry and Horse in the Terracotta Army

Cavalry and Horse in the Terra Cotta Army

Terracotta figurines were the replacement for human sacrifice, which was once popular in ancient history. Alongside tri-colored glazed pottery, they were both exclusively used as funerary objects that were believed unlucky to keep.

According to locals, some had encountered pieces of terracotta figures many times, but they didn't know what those pottery pieces were.


Consequently, they ignored or broke them into pieces and threw them away to avoid bad luck.


For grave robbers, only gold and jade wares are valuable.

As a result, the terracotta figurines were well-preserved until 1974 when smart farmers and dedicated archaeologists discovered and recognized them.

Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses in Battle Formation

Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses in Battle Formation, Photo by Zhao Zhen. 

What Is the Formation and Layout of the Terracotta Army? 


The Terracotta Army is displayed in three pits:


  • Pit One is about 14260 square meters large, believed to be buried with over 6000 Terracotta Soldiers and Horses, and less than 2000 are unearthed and on display. 


The unearthed Terracotta Figures in Pit One are lined up in battle formation, holding weapons, divided by some load-bearing walls, and followed by some chariots behind. 

Terracotta Army Pit One

Terra Cotta Army Pit One, Photo by Zhao Zhen.

  • Pit Two is about 6000 square meters large, with over 1000 Terra Cotta Soldiers and Horses and over 80 chariots. 


The Terracotta Warriors in Pit Two formed a grand battle array, with the standing and kneeling archery, chariot, infantry, and cavalry units. 

  • Pit Three is around 520 square meters big, with a big chariot and 68 terra cotta soldiers.


It is the smallest but most important pit of all three, as the command post of the entire army. 

Bronze Chariot Unearthed from Terracotta Army Pit Two

Bronze Chariot Unearthed from Pit Two

Why Does the Terracotta Army Face East?


All unearthed Terracotta Warriors and Horses are lined up facing the east, and some major speculations are:


  • The six kingdoms that Qin Shi Huang defeated were located in the east of Qin, so his army underground still facing east, to threaten or show off to his former enemies.



  • Qin Shi Huang had sent people to pursue immortals eastward, where people believed deities were living. 

Part of Inscription on Mount Tai Recorded Qin Shi Huang's Feng Shan, Wrote by Li Si the Prime Minister of the Qin Dynasty.

Part of Inscription Recorded Qin Shi Huang's Feng Shan Ceremony, Written by Li Si the Chancellor of the Qin Dynasty.

How Do the Hairstyles and Ornaments of Terracotta Warriors Reflect Their Ranks and Duties?

The hairstyles and ornaments of Terracotta Soldiers are quite exquisite and can indicate their ranks, duties, and the customs of the Qin Dynasty:


  • Every low-rank soldier has a bun on the right side of their head because the right side was considered more respectful in the Qin Dynasty.


Those wearing fabric hats are heavily armed warriors and hold a higher rank.

Terracotta Soldiers with Right Side Buns

Terracotta Soldiers with Right Side Buns

  • Archers hold buns on their left sides to ensure that the bun won't affect their arrow shooting, as they primarily use their right hands.

Archer Warrior with Left Side Bun

Archer Warrior with Left Side Bun, Photo by Dongmaiying.

  • Military officials wear something to cover their tied-up hair; the higher the hat (known as Guan in Chinese), the higher the rank.

Middle and Lower Rank Officials in Terracotta Army

Middle and Lower Rank Officials in Terracotta Army

  • The highest-ranked official among the unearthed Terracotta Warriors, the general, wears the most sophisticated hat (known as Guan).

General of the Terracotta Army

General of the Terra Cotta Army, Photo by Dongmaiying.

  • Cavalrymen used for surprise attacks in wars are different, and they wear round hats on their heads. 

Cavalrymen of the Terracotta Army

Cavalrymen of the Terra Cotta Army

  • ​Qin's army had helmets, but most soldiers usually didn't wear them.


An important reason was that, according to Shang Yang's Reform, people could attain noble titles and promotions based on their performance on the battlefield.

Hence, most soldiers chose not to wear heavy helmets to increase their mobility in war.

Helmet Unearthed from one of Qin Shi Huang's Funerary Pits

Helmet Unearthed from one of Qin Shi Huang's Funerary Pits

Are Terracotta Warriors Made of Real Humans?


Since all Terracotta Warriors are life-size, incredibly lifelike, and everyone looks different, there have been suspects that they were made of real humans. 


It is possible that the Terra Cotta Warriors were modeled on one of Qin Shi Huang's troops or accomplished generals and soldiers, but for sure they are not made of real humans, because:


  • In the year 384 BC, the current king of Qin officially published a policy to forbid human sacrifice.

  • Qin Shi Huang's annexation and unification wars and defeating of the Xiongnu cost many lives. His construction of the Great Wall, national highway, and mausoleum all required large numbers of man forces. 

Terracotta Warriors of the Mausoleum of First Qin Emperor

Terra Cotta Warriors of the Mausoleum of First Qin Emperor, Photo by Zhao Zhen. 

Hence, he couldn't make thousands of strong soldiers into terracotta figures. 


Moreover, cracked ones and scientific scans proved that the Terracotta Warriors are hollow in the middle and not made of real humans. 

How Were the Terracotta Warriors Made, and Why Did Their Original Colors Fade?


The Terracotta Army was made of local clay to save transportation costs. 

Artisans shaped the clay into the main parts of each figurine using standardized models.


They then carved important sections individually, one by one, including heads, hands, and sophisticated details on clothes.

Details on Head of the Terracotta Warriors

Details on Head of the Terra Cotta Soldiers, Photo by Dongmaiying.

After assembling and firing, terracotta figurines would be painted. 


Artisans would first apply fine clay, raw lacquer, or colloidal material before using mineral pigments to smoothly and naturally paint those clay-made figurines.


Some places were painted with several layers to make them look more lifelike. 


Therefore, when the Terracotta Army was unearthed from the dark, humid underground to a bright, dry environment with oxidation, the original colors on the outer layers fell off quickly. 

Recovered Original Painting Colors of the General in Terracotta Warriors

Recovered Original Painting Colors of the General in Terra Cotta Army

What Are Unsolved Mysteries of the Terracotta Army?


While ongoing research on the Terracotta Army and The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, along with the use of advanced technologies, is providing more insights, there remain many unsolved mysteries about this underground troop:


Missing Commander

The highest rank among Terracotta Soldiers is the general, but there's no figure representing the chief commander of this underground army.


  • A possible speculation is that there wasn't a permanent commander during Qin's reign. During wartime, chief commanders were usually assigned by the emperor directly.

  • Another guess is that Qin Shi Huang was the commander of his underground army, so it's considered impolite and unnecessary to create a terracotta figurine of the emperor in a funerary pit.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Certificate (Hu Fu) to Deploy Forces Garrisoned in Yangling

Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Certificate (Hu Fu) to Deploy Forces — National Museum of China

Burning Traces


There are clear traces to show that the underground army had been burned before, but when and by whom are still unclear. 


  • Many people thought the fire was set on by King Xiang Yu (232 BC — 202 BC), who rebelled and overthrew the Qin Dynasty, but later lost to Liu Bang (256 BC — 195 BC). 


  • Others believed that the people of Qin burned the Terracotta Army because the burning was part of a sacrificial ceremony, believed to send funerary objects to the other world.


  • Another speculation was that some decomposed objects in the pit produced combustible substances like methane, causing the fire. 

Stone Armer Unearthed from one of Qin Shi Huang's Funerary Pits

Stone Armer Unearthed from one of Qin Shi Huang's Funerary Pits

Disappeared Weapons


Unearthed Terracotta Soldiers are in postures holding weapons, all of which have disappeared.


  • King Xiang Yu is suspected of having taken them away before setting the terracotta figures on fire; people believed he needed those valuable bronze or iron-made real weapons to arm his army.


  • It is also possible that the weapons of the Terracotta Warriors were made of wood and iron, which corroded over time. 

Terracotta Warriors Holding Disappeared Weapons

Terra Cotta Soldiers Holding Disappeared Weapons

  • Another possibility is that when the rebellious war against Qin erupted, the construction of Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum still hadn't finished. 


When an uprising army approached in 208 BC, a general of Qin used those real weapons to arm slaves working on building the Terracotta Army and commanded them to fight for Qin.

However, this newly armed army failed, Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum was finished and sealed in a hurry, and the Qin Dynasty ended in 207 BC. 

Bronze Arrows Unearthed from Terracotta Army Pits

Bronze Arrows Unearthed from Terra Cotta Army Pits.

Answers to these mysteries are probably gone for good, along with the Qin Empire.

However, the Terracotta Army and other relics, as magnificent cultural heritages, continue to impress people today and tell stories of the dynasty they came from.

Terracotta Warriors of the Qin Dynasty

Terracotta Warriors of the Qin Dynasty

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