An Incredible Army: The Chinese Terracotta Army - History Key

An Incredible Army: The Chinese Terracotta Army

When it comes to wars and armies, everything is pretty clear. Most of us know how an army looks like, know that it’s all about the biggest number of tanks, warplanes, and soldiers. But we are pretty sure that many of you never heard of a certain army.

An army has a combined role, defends and attacks at the same time. In both cases, one of the principal matters is simply death. Defending for avoiding death, attacking in order to cause the death of the enemy. No need to say that death has a front seat in these situations.

Now that we have somehow quickly defined a basic relation between armies and death, we must also state that since ancient times important figures, kings, and rulers, had the custom to take with them in the tomb all the necessary for their afterlife. Related to all that, History key will unlock for you the story of the first Chinese Emperor and his army. This is the story of Qin Shi Huang and the terracotta army.

Ancient terracotta soldiers march forward with hands empty of weapons
Ancient terracotta soldiers march forward with hands empty of weapons © NGS Picture ID: 1167208

What would you say if we tell you that an entire army was discovered underground? Yes, it is true and it happened in China.

The discovery

In 1974 the workers deployed around the city of Xi’an, made an incredible discovery while digging. Something so important that it was listed as one of the biggest archaeological discoveries in the world: an army of life-size clay soldier prepared for battle.

Once the specialists reached the site of the discovery, they managed to trace some incredible and unique features of the underground army. They realized that each clay soldier had a unique facial expression and that each one of them was positioned according to his rank. Keep in mind that we’re talking about more than 8,000 soldiers.


Detail of the clay army
Detail of the clay army ©

Along with the soldiers were found as follows: 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses. Interesting to note that besides the military figures, also other figures were found in separate pits, and they were clay figures representing musicians, acrobats or officials. The Chinese Emperor wanted to have in the afterlife everything he had during his life.

The Emperor’s tomb and his army were considered funerary statues having the role to protect and serve the Emperor in his afterlife. Qin Shi Huang was buried in 210-209 BCE.

We can spot some similarities with the Egyptian customs, not only regarding the custom to complete a tomb with all the necessary for the afterlife, but also regarding the fact that the construction of Qin Shi’s tomb was started when the Emperor was aged 13, immediately after he ascended the throne, in 246 BCE.

Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China
Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China ©

The Emperor’s mausoleum is located at Mount Li, which was declared suited for Qin Shi’s tomb for the following reasons:

“Famed for its jade mines, its northern side was rich in gold, and its southern side rich in beautiful jade. The First Emperor, covetous of its fine reputation, therefore chose to be buried there” – Li Daoyuan, geographer.

The construction (which involved around 700,000 workers) and all the related preparations, should have been something truly incredible and out of any proportions. It is reported that 100 flowing rivers were recreated using mercury, and above the mercury rivers the ceiling was ornate with heavenly bodies. These reports have some solid confirmations, considering that very high levels of mercury were recorded in the tomb’s perimeter.

The Terracotta Army was discovered by some farmers while digging a water well at around 1,5 km east of Mount Li. In fact, the Terracotta Army is part of a bigger necropolis, which was partially revealed when ground-penetrating sonars were deployed in the area, recording a used surface of around 98 square km.

Four main pits were excavated and explored, and it was reported that the clay soldier was positioned from the east, considering that at the east side were all the states conquered by the Emperor.

Unique facial expressions

Even if it is stated that every soldier has different facial expression, the specialists have identified a list of 10 face shapes, used for the majority of the army.

Detail of the clay army
Detail of the clay army © Khan

Unfortunately, there is an important aspect that has vanished over time. Initially, all the clay statues were painted with vivid pigments, also in order to obtain even more realistic figures. Today we can only imagine their initial condition, by knowing through chemical analysis that colors like pink, red or green were used on them.

It looks like realism was a very important factor in their plan, also considering that all the clay soldiers were equipped with real weapons. Unfortunately, many of the weapons have been stolen shortly after the tomb’s finalization, but the archaeologists were able to recover around 40,000 weaponry items made out of bronze. Spears, swords, lances, battle-axes, and tons of arrowheads were recovered from the tomb’s pits.


Bronze sword recovered from the Emperor's tomb
Bronze sword recovered from the Emperor’s tomb ©

Nowadays, some of the items coming from the mausoleum are exhibited in museums. A number of 120 objects and 12 terracotta soldiers were on display at the British Museum in London, while other artifacts and clay warriors were exhibited at the Forum in Barcelona. A large exhibition titled ”The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army” traveled many locations around the globe, such as Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Houston Museum of Natural Science, National Geographic Society or the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal.

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