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The Terracotta Army

A trend that’s common throughout history is that rich, powerful people make big monuments to show off how rich and powerful they are. Commonly, those monuments last long after a person dies, such as the Egyptian pyramids. But crucially, those monuments also don’t have to be tall or visible.

This brings us to the date of March 29th, 1974, when a group of farmers near the Chinese city of Xi’an were digging a well and discovered something strange – pieces of clay pottery, belonging to a set of terracotta sculptures. What they found would become one of the most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century, the burial site of China’s first emperor. This is the story of the Terracotta Army, the army of sculptures buried with the first Emperor of China.

The Beginning of a History

The story of the Terracotta Army begins with the Emperor who it was built for. Qin Shi Huang, roughly translated to “Qin the First Emperor”, was the founder of the Qin Dynasty, the first dynasty to rule a fully unified China and what historians consider to be one of the most consequential dynasties in Chinese history. To give you an idea of how important this guy is, his Wikipedia article has an entire section dedicated solely to his name. If that doesn’t mean you’re important, I don’t know what does.

Qin Shi Huang was born in 259 BCE with the name Zhao Zheng, and he grew up in a China that was quite different from the one we imagine today, during a time called the Warring States period. Multiple independent Chinese kingdoms were vying for dominance in what is today mainland China, and for his part, Zhao Zheng succeeded his father on the throne of one of these states at the ripe old age of 13. King Zheng assumed full control of the government after a nine year regency, during which he supposedly had a plotting official executed by having five horses rip him apart. We only mention that to give you an idea of what kind of character we’re dealing with here; Chinese emperors have something of a reputation for being rather strict, and Emperor Qin fits basically every stereotype for Chinese emperors.

King Zheng immediately set about conquering the other Chinese states, which he accomplished by 221 BCE. At this point, Zheng changed his name to Qin Shi Huang, declaring himself the “First Emperor” and setting him apart from previous rulers and dynasties in terms of what he’d accomplished. He introduced legal and administrative reforms which we’ll refrain from going into great detail about, before according to legend he died in the year 210 BCE after a long search for immortality led to him to drink an elixir made of mercury. Yes, mercury. Remember to give thanks to modern medicine, everyone.

To summarize, Qin Shi Huang was a hugely important historical figure, setting the stage for thousands of years of Imperial rule in China and commanding a great deal of respect and fear from the people around him. It’s no surprise, then, that when he ordered construction of a huge mausoleum for his eventual (inevitable) demise, complete with an army constructed of terracotta warriors, no one dared questioned him.

Necropolis of the First Emperor

The Terracotta Army is just one part of the First Emperor’s mausoleum, so let’s go into detail. As we said at the start of this video, the burial site is located near the city of Xi’an, which is only a few kilometers away from the city of Xianyang, where Qin Shi Huang ruled his empire.

Partial view of the Mausoleum.
Partial view of the Mausoleum. By Bairuilong, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Construction of the tomb began shortly after Qin succeeded his father in 247 BCE, when he was still Zhao Zheng. It’s said as many as 700,000 people were working on it after Qin declared himself emperor, but the real number is probably a lot smaller than that; still, it was no doubt a massive undertaking, requiring thousands of skilled laborers from across the Emperor’s lands.

Building of the mausoleum continued until 208 BCE, two years after the emperor died – a four-decade process. According to legend (again), the son of Emperor Qin ordered that all of the First Emperor’s concubines and all the craftsmen who had built the supposed traps in the mausoleum were to be sealed inside of it after its completion. Again, Chinese emperors were hardasses, it’s just what they did.

The mausoleum itself is a microcosm of the Emperor’s court, including a palace with inner and outer walls, as well as numerous pits surrounding the tomb where the famous Terracotta Army is located. The site is centered around a large burial mound, around 175 meters from one end to the other and 50 meters at the top, and that burial mound is surrounded by the pits and walls beyond. All of this was buried after it was done, by the way – none of it was above ground when it was discovered.

And then, of course, there’s the famous Terracotta Warriors. These are a collection of statues, all made of hardened clay, representing the various parts of Emperor Qin’s armies. These include foot soldiers complete with real armor and weapons as well as chariots and cavalry; there’s even a select few statues that represent non-military figures, such as musicians and bureaucrats. Today, these statues are bare clay, but when they were buried in the pits surrounding the Emperor’s tomb, they would have been painted with bright colors to make them look significantly more lifelike. And there’s a lot of them – over six thousand in total, most of them infantry.

The vast majority of these statues remain buried; in fact, one of the most enthralling parts of the emperor’s mausoleum and the Terracotta Army is how relatively little of it has been excavated over the last fifty years. The actual tomb of the emperor, interestingly enough, remains unexplored to this day. There’s a number of reasons for that, from wanting to be as delicate with it as possible to ancient sources literally saying that there’s booby traps inside so… don’t just waltz in there. But anyway, supposedly the emperor was buried with a great deal of riches, befitting his status in life. Whether that’s actually true remains unknown, as well as whether the tomb was looted shortly after the emperor’s death, but perhaps we’ll know for sure sometime in the future as the archaeological work continues.

A Cultural Revolution

When that group of farmers discovered the Terracotta Army in 1974, they brought the pieces to the attention of local officials, where it was suggested that they bring the fragments to the local cultural agency. They received, for two cartloads of fragments, a whole 10 yuan, which even at the time was an insultingly small amount of money. Communism in action, I suppose.

Speaking of communism, it’s probably a good thing that the Terracotta Army was discovered when it was, because Mao Zedong was on his way out the door and the “destroying ancient cultural artifacts” phase of his Cultural Revolution was winding down. If the Terracotta Army had been discovered some years earlier, it’s possible that they could’ve been destroyed by Mao’s Red Guards. Imagine that – buried for thousands of years, only to be dug up and smashed in the name of modernity.

The Terracotta Warriors
The Terracotta Warriors. By BrokenSphere, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Thankfully, that isn’t what happened, and the site has been subject to numerous archaeological studies since its discovery. Various projects looking at everything from magnetic anomalies to metal content have indicated that the complex is as large as 170,000 square meters, which would be a quarter of the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Indeed, one study found that the burial mound contained an unnaturally high level of mercury, which would seem to fit into an ancient Chinese scholar’s claim that mercury was used in the tomb to simulate “the hundred waterways”, including the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. But the counter to that story is that it might just be due to nearby industrial pollution, so who’s to say, really.

And that’s most of what there is to say about the Terracotta Army. A collection of thousands of clay statues, buried for the First Emperor of China to accompany him in the afterlife, and which today survives as one of China’s most world famous archaeological sites. And it truly is world famous – soldiers from the Terracotta Army have been sent across the globe in travelling museum exhibits, where they routinely attract tens or hundreds of thousands of visitors, often selling out tickets. Maybe that’s another reason why it’s a good thing Mao never got his hands on them, they’d probably make too much money for his liking.

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