The Terracotta Army: China’s First Emperor’s Afterlife Guardians

The Terracotta Army: China’s First Emperor’s Afterlife Guardians

The Terracotta Army is one of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries in the world, serving as an enduring testament to China’s illustrious past and the grandiosity of its first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Unearthed in 1974 by local farmers near Xi’an in the Shaanxi province, this monumental group of sculptures has been captivating imaginations and contributing to historical knowledge ever since. Here we delve into the story behind these ancient clay soldiers who were meant to protect the emperor in his afterlife.

Historical Background

Qin Shi Huang was the founder of the Qin dynasty and became China’s first emperor after the unification of the warring states in 221 BC. He is well-known for numerous historical feats, including the creation of a centralized state, standardizing weights, measures, currency, and the script, and initiating great construction projects such as the first iteration of the Great Wall of China.

His legacy, however, is most visually captured by the Terracotta Army, a grand mausoleum complex that demonstrates both his power and his belief in an afterlife—a common notion in Chinese funerary culture. The First Emperor commissioned this massive project soon after taking the throne, with the labor of hundreds of thousands of workers. It is believed to serve as a form of protection and as a replication of his worldly imperial guard, prepared to accompany and defend him in the next realm.

Discovery and Excavation

The Terracotta Army lay buried for over two millennia until the 1974 discovery. Since then, multiple pits have been uncovered, revealing different types of figures, including soldiers, chariots, horses, and even non-military figures like musicians, acrobats, and officials, suggesting that the emperor wanted the same civil structures in the afterlife as he had enjoyed during his rule.

The excavation has been painstaking and complex, with restoration and preservation work continuing up to the present day. Techniques have evolved over the years to prevent issues like the fading of paint once the figures are exposed to air.

Composition and Craftsmanship

The Terracotta Warriors are a marvel not only for their number—estimated to be over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses—but also for their detailed craftsmanship. Each figure was created with a high degree of individuality, with distinct facial features that hint at different ethnic backgrounds, unique hairstyles, and varied postures. They were equipped with real weapons, which were often looted shortly after the mausoleum’s completion.

The figures were produced in workshops by government laborers and craftspeople, who used local clay, and an assembly line-like process. The parts of the warriors were fired separately and then assembled, followed by intricate hand-finished work. Evidence shows that their original finish included bright and vibrant colors, which have largely faded or peeled away.

Significance and Interpretation

The site of the Terracotta Army is much more than a tourist attraction; it is an active archaeological site that has provided valuable insight into the Qin dynasty’s military practices, artistic expression, and spiritual beliefs. It sheds light on the degree of control and resources at the emperor’s disposal to undertake such an extravagant posthumous project.

Additionally, the Terracotta Army illustrates an ancient Chinese approach to the afterlife, where the dead were believed to carry on in a parallel existence that required similar provisions to those needed in the mortal world. This has been a significant discovery that has shaped our understanding of ancient funerary rituals and the concept of the afterlife in early Chinese culture.

Conservation and Tourism

The ongoing preservation of the Terracotta Army is crucial for both maintaining this cultural heritage and facilitating public engagement. Advances in conservation allow visitors to view this amazing historical site while minimizing damage due to exposure. The site has become one of China’s major tourist attractions, bringing in millions of visitors each year who can witness first-hand the grandeur of this ancient imperial guard.


How old is the Terracotta Army?

The Terracotta Army dates back to around 210 BC, making it over 2,200 years old.

Why was the Terracotta Army built?

The Terracotta Army was built to protect Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife, reflecting his belief in immortality and the practices surrounding burial and the afterlife in ancient China.

Can you visit the Terracotta Army?

Yes, the Terracotta Army is part of a museum complex that is open to the public. It is a major tourist attraction in Xi’an, China.

How many Terracotta soldiers have been discovered?

Over 8,000 Terracotta soldiers have been discovered, along with hundreds of horses and chariots. It is speculated that many more remain buried and undiscovered.

What happened to the real weapons that were buried with the Terracotta Army?

The real weapons that were once held by the Terracotta soldiers were stolen, presumably shortly after the emperor’s death, likely by Xiang Yu, a contender for the throne during the fall of the Qin dynasty.

Are the Terracotta Warriors all the same?

No, the figures vary in height, uniform, and hairstyle according to rank, and they have distinct facial features suggesting individuality among the soldiers.

Overall, the Terracotta Army remains an archaeological wonder that continues to inform and inspire, bridging a gap of thousands of years to connect the modern world to ancient China’s first and most formidable emperor.

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