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

Terracotta Army of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, Photo by Zhao Zhen.

What is the Terracotta Army?


Terracotta Army is the troop guarding the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC), the founding emperor of the first unified feudal empire, the Qin Dynasty, in the history of China.


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

What does Qin Shi Huang's underground realm 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 ascended to the throne in 247 BC, he started to construct his mausoleum.


In ancient Chinese culture, one's afterlife was equally important as the real-life, and people would try their best to build a fancy tomb stuffed with treasures and servants.


Therefore, emperors would build their mausoleums when they were alive, to make sure their afterlife worlds are as great as they wished.


With Qin Shi Huang having achieved more unprecedented accomplishments, including defeated other kingdoms and established the Qin Dynasty, unifying language and currency, and built the Great Wall, he invested more resources in the construction of his mausoleum.  


Bronze Sword Unearthed from Terracotta Army Pit

Surrounded by Lishan Mountain on the north and Wei River on the south, The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor is 56.25 square kilometers large. 


The whole mausoleum is believed a copied capital city of the Qin Dynasty, in the underground world. 


In his underground palace, valuable pearls were inlaid in the copper top as stars in Chinese Astrology, a large amount of mercury was used to display as lakes and seas, countless treasures were stocked in different rooms of the big palace, while very dangerous defensive mechanisms were delicately set all over the mausoleum. 

Around the palace are hundreds of funerary pits, including terra cotta or bronze made officials, warriors, performers, weapons, armors, horses, valuable animals, chariots, and so on. 

The excavated Terracotta Warriors are in three of Qin Shi Huang's funerary pits. 

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

Why the Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum remains unexcavated?

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


Throughout long history, Besides the Terracotta Army and a few funerary pits, the main mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang remains intact, and will not be excavated in the near future. 


According to detections, the main buildings of the mausoleum are still standing strong, and there are no signs of leaking nor seeping of water. Therefore, it should and will be well-preserved. 


Besides, today's technology is still not good enough to keep those large amounts of valuable relics well protected, nor keep the exceptional underground palace remain their original looks. Any type of broken would cause huge irreversible losses.   


Guardian Warriors of the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang- The Terracotta Army, Photo by Zhao Zhen.

How did the Terracotta Warriors are found?


The Terracotta Army was officially found, researched, and put into protection in 1974 after some farmers found a few human-size terracotta figurines when they were drilling well 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 Qin Shi Huang. 


Bronze Chariot Unearthed from the Terracotta Army Pit

Why hasn't the Terracotta Army found earlier in history?


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


However, throughout such a long history, they were not discovered until 1974.


Did no one ever find the Terracotta Army before?


Cavalry and Horse in the Terracotta Army

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


Therefore, according to locals, some had seen pieces of terracotta figurines before many times, but they didn't know what those pottery pieces are, so they ignored or break them into pieces and throw them away to avoid bad luck. 


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


Hence, the Terracotta Army was luckily preserved until 1974, when those smart farmers and dedicated archeologists discovered and recognized them.

Terracotta Warriors and Horses in Shaanxi Province, Photo by Zhao Zhen. 

Important Data and facts of the Terracotta Army.


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


  • They were produced since  247 BC, buried and sealed in 208 BC;


  • There are four pits in the Terracotta Army area, but only three pits have Terracotta 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 unearthed and in the exhibition;


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 Terracotta Warriors were originally colorful, which faded away soon after having been 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 produced a certain part of the figurine.


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

Engraved Characters on Terracotta Warriors.

What are 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 buried with over 6000 Terracotta Soldiers and Horse, and less than 2000 of them are unearthed and on display. 


The unearthed Terracotta Warriors in Pit One are lined up, held weapons, divided by some load-bearing walls, and followed by some chariots behind. 


Terracotta Army Pit One, Photo by Zhao Zhen.

  • Pit Two is about 6000 square meters large, with over 1000 Terracotta Soldiers and Horse, 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 Terracotta Warriors.


It is the smallest but most important pit of all three, as the command center of the entire Terracotta Army. 

Bronze Chariot Unearthed from Terracotta Army 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 perished were located on 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 are living. 


How hairstyle and ornaments of Terracotta Warriors show their ranks and duties?


The hairstyles and ornaments of Terracotta Warriors are quite exquisite, and could show their ranks, duties, and customs of the Qin Dynasty:


  • Every low-rank soldiers have a bun on the right side of his head because the right side was more respectful in the Qin Dynasty. 


Those wearing a fabric hat are heavily armed warriors and are ranked higher.

The Hairstyle of Soldiers in the Terracotta Army

  • Archers have buns on their left sides, to make sure the bun won't affect them shooting arrows.

Archer of the Terracotta Army, Photo by Dongmaiying.

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

Middle and Lower Rank Officers in the Terracotta Army

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

General of the Terracotta Army, Photo by Dongmaiying.

  • Cavalrymen that were used for surprise attacks in wars are different, and they wear a round hat on head. 

Cavalrymen of the Terracotta Army

  • Qin's army has helmets, but most soldiers usually didn't wear that.


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


Hence, most soldiers would not wear heavy helmets, to increase their mobility in wars. 

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, extremely lifelike, and every one of them looks different, there have been suspects if they were made of real humans. 


It is possible that the Terracotta 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:


  • 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 Xiongnu cost large numbers of lives. His construction of the Great Wall, national highway, and his own mausoleum, all required large numbers of man forces as well. 


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

Hence, it was impossible for him to make thousands of strong soldiers into terracotta figurines. 


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

How the Terracotta Warriors were made and why their original colors went off?


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


Craftsmen made clay into the main parts of each figurine using some standardized models, then carve important sections individually one by one, such as heads, hands, sophisticated details on clothes, etc.


Details on Head of the Terracotta Warriors, Photo by Dongmaiying.

After assembling and firing, terracotta figurines would be painted. 


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


Some places were painted with several layers to make the terracotta warriors look more lifelike. 


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

Recovered Original Painting Colors of the General in Terracotta Army

What are unsolved mysteries about the Terracotta Army?


Though more researches regarding the Terracotta Army and The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor are going on and more technologies are used to detect this area, there are still many unsolved mysteries about this underground troop:


Missing Commander of the Terracotta Army


The highest rank of Terracotta Soldier is general, but there's no figurine of chief commander of this underground army. 


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

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


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

Burning Traces of the Terracotta Army


There are clear traces to show that the Terracotta 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 overthrown the Qin Dynasty, but later lost to Liu Bang (256 BC — 195 BC). 


  • Others believed that the people of Qin burnt Terracotta Army themselves because the burning has been a sacrificial ceremony, which believed a means to send funerary objects to the other world.


  • Another speculation was that some rotten objects in the pit produced combustible substances like methane and caused the fire. 

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

Disappeared Weapons of the Terracotta Warriors


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


  • King Xiang Yu was suspected to have taken those weapons away before setting them on fire, people believed that he needed those valuable bronze or iron made weapons to arm his army.


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

Terracotta Warriors Holding Disappeared Weapons

  • Another possibility was that when the rebellious war against Qin outburst, the construction of Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum was still haven't finished yet. 


When an uprising army was approaching in 208 BC, a general of Qin used those weapons to arm slaves that were 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 was ended in 207 BC. 

Bronze Arrows Unearthed from Terracotta Army Pits.

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


However, the Terracotta Army and other cultural relics are still impressing people today, and telling stories of the dynasty that they came from. 

Terracotta Warriors of the Qin Dynasty

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