The Terracotta Warriors of Qin Shi Huangdi

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"The Terracotta Warriors of Qin Shi Huangdi"
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In 1974, the world was stunned with the chance discovery of a garrison of terracotta warriors in battle-ready formation spread out amongst a number of pits in modern day Xi’an. They are the visual and organizational ingenuity of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, who managed to unite the country under his iron-fist in 221 BCE.

The tomb of the First Emperor has been identified for thousands of years. It resembles a square, flattened pyramid mound on the outskirts of Xi’an but archaeologists had not known the extent of its size. Indeed, the terracotta army came as such a surprise since there was no written record of it even though the eminent Han Dynasty historian, Sima Qian, went into great detail about the emperor’s tomb.

The terracotta warriors were found in a series of underground pits some 1.5km east of the tomb itself, emphasising the importance and magnificence of the tomb. The whole tomb complex is believed to be an estimated 50sq km, making it the largest tomb in China.

The Pits:

The terracotta army is spread out across four pits situated east of the tomb mound and outside the walls of the tomb complex itself. Pit 1 contains more than 6,000 warriors in an area measuring 1,230 meters long and is the main part of the army. Pit 2 is thought to represent a military guard, containing cavalry, infantry unites and war chariots. Pit 3 has one war chariot and high ranking officers, so this is the command post. Pit 4 is completely empty, never completed.

Adding the four pits together, they represent an army of soldiers and horses (a complete garrison) of around 8,000. They would have originally carried life sized weapons but these were looted in the rebellions which occurred after the First Emperor died.


With such a large army, the question of how they were built is a popular one. Before their construction, life sized realistic sculptures such as these had never been accomplished on this grand scale.

Some historians have described the warriors as individual warriors but archaeologists have proven that the warriors were a feat of mass production. Only a small amount of body parts were constructed using moulds, slab building and coiling. Bodily details were completed by hand before the statues were painted. What makes each statue different is the variety of hairstyles, costumes, facial characteristics and hand positioning.

The statues were brightly painted, using lacquer in the pigments and then applied after the statues had been fired. The statues remained colourful until excavation when the exposure to air caused the colour to fade almost instantaneously. Since 1974, archaeologists have used innovative new techniques to preserve what is left of the colour.


The generals are the highest ranking soldiers in the terracotta army. Only nine have been found, most near a command chariot, recognised by their long coats covered in armour. They all wear a beribboned costume and winged caps, some having a hole under their left arm (probably for a scabbard to draw their swords from).

Remaining traces of pigment show that their long coats were green, the inner coat was white and sleeves were purple. Hems of their coats had a purple diamond patterns and on the upper portion of the body, clothes would be decorated with birds, suns and geometric patterns.

Standing Archers:

Standing archers from Pit 2 are generally sculpture with them lowering their bows. They are all without armour, giving them increased flexibility and mobility. Their costumes consist of long robes held together with a belt.

Kneeling Archers:

This portion of the army shows archers kneeling on the ground wearing heavy panelled armour to protect their chests, stomach and shoulders. They would have held crossbows, allowing them to cause heavy losses to their enemies even though loading the bolts would have taken longer to do.

Chariots and Charioteers:

Around 130 chariots have been found in the pits with cavalry and horses. Chariots were made from wood with a door on the back and had bronze fixings. Charioteers would have stood in the middle, their bodies (including arms and hands) protected by heavy armour. Their weapons included halberds and dagger-axes.

Light Infantry:

Light infantry wore long tunics and long light trousers giving them greater speed than armoured infantry. They made up the advance guard, their weapons consisting o long range arsenal. Their statues show their hair was plaited and then formed into a top knot.

One statue of a light infantryman in Pit 2 shows a large nose with a full, heavy beard. This could be indicative of a non-Han Chinese warrior from the north of China.

Heavy Infantry:

The heavy infantrymen make up the bulk of the army, positioned in battle formation in the first Pit. Many hold halberds, poles, swords and crossbows. Numerous heavy infantrymen wear soft caps over top knots.

Civil Officers:

The fact that many civil officer statues were found indicates that the First Emperor wanted his afterlife empire run smoothly. Civil officers wear beautiful hats, secured by a ribbon tied under the chin. Their clothes indicate a non-fighting status even though they wear a knife on their belts. However, these knives would have been used to erase mistakes on documents.

The terracotta army of the First Emperor is one of the highlights of China that visitors flock to in droves. They continue to fascinate the world with their historical significance and ingenuity of their creator, making them the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century.

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