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date: 22 May 2018

Terracotta Soldiers

Berkshire Encyclopedia of China
Catherine PaganiCatherine PAGANI

Terracotta Soldiers Bīngmǎyǒng 兵马俑‎ 

One of the most spectacular archaeological finds of the twentieth century is the army of nearly eight thousand life-size terracotta soldiers and horses that guards the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (d. 210 bce), whose name means First (Shi) Emperor (Huangdi) of the Qin dynasty (221–206 bce), a short-lived and authoritarian dynasty.

The army was discovered beginning in 1974 by peasants digging a well, and is located twenty-two miles east of Xi’an (formerly Ch’ang-an) in Shaanxi Province and about one mile east of the unexcavated mausoleum of the ruler. The figures are distributed over three pits (a fourth was found to be empty) built of rammed earth. The buried army yields more complete and detailed information on Qin military science than the fragmentary texts from the period can provide.

Today, the soldiers are part of a large complex known as the Museum of the Terracotta Army, which opened in 1979 outside of Xi’an. More recently, the burial army was made accessible to an audience outside of China when the British Museum mounted a ground-breaking exhibition in London in 2007. Among the 120 objects on display—the largest number of material related to China’s First Emperor ever to be shown outside China—were twelve complete soldiers and artifacts excavated from around his tomb, which highlighted the achievements of this short but important period in China’s history.

At about 14,300 square meters, Pit 1 is the largest of the pits and contains nearly six thousand figures, primarily armored and unarmored infantry, including archers and charioteers. The pit also contains terracotta horses, the remains of six chariots, and bronze weaponry such as swords, crossbows, halberds, and long and short daggers. Rectangular in form and dug to a depth of five meters, Pit 1 arranges the soldiers in precise military formation in eleven corridors separated by earthen walls. The extreme left and right corridors consist of archers who face outward as if anticipating a flank attack. In the nine wider corridors soldiers stand four abreast with a chariot and four horses at the head of six corridors. Three corridors of unarmored soldiers with bows and crossbows take up the front and the rear. Each corridor is paved with bricks, and has wooden rafters and crossbeams above. Woven matting was used to absorb any moisture that seeped in; on top of the matting the builders put a layer of clay. The pit was originally covered with a mound of earth.

At about six thousand square meters, Pit 2 is smaller than Pit 1, and held the cavalry. It contains around a thousand figures that include cavalry men and their horses, eighty-nine chariots each drawn by four horses, and some archers and foot soldiers. Pit 3 is 520 square meters in area and most likely represents the command unit. It contains sixty-eight officers, four horses, and one chariot. Together, these three pits represent a single army composed of an infantry unit, a smaller and more mobile mounted unit, and a command post to oversee operations.

Realistic, Colorful, and Armored Soldiers

The figures were made with local clay and fired in kilns that would have been set up close to the mausoleum. It was generally thought that these kilns were made in an upright pit, but research suggests that the process was much more complicated. The figures were hand built and had solid legs for stability but hollow torsos. The heads were made with molds, but facial features and details such as hair and headgear were added by hand.

Terracotta SoldiersClick to view larger

Terracota soldier from the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi (d. 210 bce). Each terracotta soldier was sculpted with individual features and armor suited to their position in the army.

photo by yixuan shuke.

The realism of each soldier’s face, individually modeled to show age as well as the multicultural backgrounds of the emperor’s soldiers, and the meticulous detail paid to the clothing are remarkable. Originally, the figures were brightly painted, but much of the pigment has flaked off. The colors were used to distinguish between the different units of the army. For example, Pit 1 had two color schemes. One group had green robes with lavender collars and cuffs, dark blue trousers, and black shoes with red laces; its armor was black with white rivets, purple cords, and gold buttons. The other group had red tunics with pale blue collars and cuffs; its armor was dark brown with red or light green rivets and orange cords.

The terracotta army yields valuable information on armor and weaponry in early China. Eight different styles of armor were used, falling into two categories: armor made by fastening rectangular scales to a base layer and armor constructed by stringing scales together without a support layer. These scales were probably made of lacquered leather—no metal plates from this period have yet been found—and were probably attached to one another by knotted leather strips to allow movement with the body. The armor was slipped over the head and buckled with a right front closure.

The armor in both categories ranges from simple to complex. In all cases the armor was adapted to the rank and weaponry of the individual warrior. The most basic armor of the first type covered only the front of the wearer and was held in place by straps crossed in back. In contrast, the commanding officers wore the most distinctive and complex protection: the front portion of each piece of their waist-length armor had a flexible triangular extension in front that covered the lower abdomen. The wide-sleeved undergarment and the intricate threading of the armor plates signified the overall high rank of the wearer. In addition to the armor, some wore a bright, tasseled cape at the shoulders.

Cavalry, infantry, and charioteers wore armor of the second type. Cavalry wore a short vest, which was suitable for riding because it was trim and efficient. Charioteers wore more substantial and complex armor than any other soldier. Covering more of the body, it included a neck guard and articulated sleeves, which covered the arm to the wrist. More than three hundred intricately arranged plates allowed for freedom of movement while protecting the wearer.

Terracotta SoldiersClick to view larger

An excavated section of the archaeological site where the terracotta soldiers were discovered. A cover has been built over the site to protect the soldiers from the elements.

photo by yixuan shuke.

Technical Know-How

The pits also indicate that the Qin metalworkers had a high degree of technical know-how and produced a wide range of bronze weaponry, including swords, daggers, halberds, crossbow mechanisms, and arrows. More than ten thousand finely made weapons were found, and many of them were inscribed, indicating where and when they were cast. Even after two thousand years underground, many of the weapons showed little signs of corrosion.

The terracotta soldiers and the mausoleum they were to protect were designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1987 as a World Heritage Site. A museum established at the site covers approximately 16,300 square meters and includes Pits 1, 2, and 3, each covered by large hangar-like structures. Visitors to Pit 1, for example, can view nearly 1,000 restored soldiers and horses arranged in battle formation as well as watch the on-going excavations at the site.

Catherine PAGANI

Further Reading

Cotterell, A. (1981). The First Emperor of China: The greatest archaeological find of our time. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.Find this resource:

Guisso, R. W. L., & Pagani, C. (1989). The First Emperor of China. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing.Find this resource:

Li Xueqin. (1985). Eastern Zhou and Qin civilizations. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

Portal, J. (Ed.) (2007). The First Emperor: China’s terracotta army. London: The British Museum Press.Find this resource:

Wood, F. (2007). China’s First Emperor and his terracotta warriors. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Find this resource: