Imagine the shock a group of simple Chinese farmers quietly digging a well in a field one day experienced when they stumbled upon an upright life-size terracotta figure of a warrior.
The discovery was uncovered in March 1974, and the site was soon identified as Emperor Qin’s place of burial.
Who was Qin?
Born Ying Zheng in 259 BC, he succeeded his father as king when only 13 years old. Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty, ruled as China’s first emperor from 221-207 BC. More importantly, Qin was responsible for China’s unification, initiating groundbreaking reforms during his reign.
In 230 BC he began his campaign to conquer China’s remaining six kingdoms, thus unifying the country for the first time in its existence. History indicates Zheng accomplished this feat in less than 10 years, and proclaimed himself the first emperor of a unified China.
It was then that Zheng took the title Qin Shi Huang, which means “first emperor of Qin”. Consequently, Qin Dynasty became the first imperial dynasty of China.
One of Qin’s most important reforms was abolishing the old political system and dividing his empire into 36 districts. He instituted this to avoid political chaos.
He then appointed officials based on merit rather than following hereditary lines, as had been the custom. Military officers who distinguished themselves in battle were rewarded with important military positions.
Two other reforms under his rule were the unification of the law and standardizing the Chinese units of measurement and currency.
His most significant act, however, was to unify the Chinese written language by creating a novel, and more simplified, script that became the standard.
Nevertheless, Qin was an unpopular ruler and considered inhumane through much of China’s history. Ruling with an iron hand, he had more than 450 scholars, whose views he disagreed with, killed and ordered most existing books to be burned. Because of this, Confucian scholars portrayed him as a brutal tyrant and upon his death publicly undervalued his achievements.
Qin is credited with commissioning the original version of China’s Great Wall, designed to protect against barbarian invasions. Showing little regard for human life, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of men died during the construction of the famous defensive wall. While little of this wall remains today, it was the precursor to the Great Wall of China.
Now, however, the massive mausoleum complex he had constructed for himself near the ancient city of Xi’an reflects his legacy despite the untold numbers who died during construction and the artisans he ordered killed in order to preserve the secrecy of the tomb’s location and the treasures buried within.
Perception of Death
“Treat death as life” was the ancient Chinese traditional perception of death. According to information in the Chinese exhibit that is on display at Doha, Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art, “they considered death another form of living, believing that the afterlife one enters after death is an exact copy of the present one.” That is why personal objects used during their lifetime, such as clothes, daily necessities and status symbols, can usually be found in their tombs or mausoleums.
Terrified of death, Qin was obsessed with acquiring immortality. Later in his life he ordered his court physicians and alchemists to create a tonic or medicine that would grant him eternal life. What they came up with were mercury pills, which would supposedly make him immortal. He died on September 10, 210 BC allegedly due to mercury poisoning.
The Terracotta Army Mausoleum
In early China societies, the custom of human sacrifice was followed as part of a funeral ritual. During the Zhou Dynasty that preceded the Qin Dynasty, this philosophy changed to using clay and wooden figures rather than humans. The Qin terracotta warriors exemplify this philosophical shift.
Qin ordered work to begin on the famous mausoleum soon after he became king. Historians believe it took 700,000 men and 38 years to construct the mausoleum, which was larger than any city of the world at that time. His burial chamber was to be enclosed within the structure.
The life-size warriors in military formation – more than 6,000 of them – “guarded and protected” Qin’s tomb in the afterlife from evil spirits for more than 2,200 years after his death. In addition to this large pit the farmers discovered in 1974 were three other pits. A second pit contained cavalry and infantry unit sculptures, a third consisted of high-ranking officers and chariots, and a fourth was empty, suggesting that the burial pit was left unfinished following the emperor’s death.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this discovery is that the pits were designed with a sophisticated layout, as load-bearing walls were discovered every 10 feet between where the warriors and horses stand.
Chinese Sculpture vs. Western Sculpture
Within China’s art history circles, the Qin terracotta warriors rank extremely high in artistic value. Every detail of the figures was modeled on real persons from their height and proportion to their facial features resulting in a life-like sculptural style. What makes these terracotta figures so unique is that they all differ from one another not only in facial features and expressions, but also clothing, hairstyle and even their gestures. Every terracotta warrior was originally painted in bright colors, which is believed to have added immensely to their vividness.
Western sculpture places its focus on form and muscle. “It uses light and shadow to create a sense of depth, and applies the principles of human anatomy to express the human body’s muscular and dynamic beauty,” according to art historians. Chinese sculpture, however, focuses more on portraying a subject’s temperament, which is why the sculptures show a strong realistic feel with artistic exaggeration of facial detail. Rarely does Chinese sculpture indicate a subject’s muscles or detailed body form.
The Terracotta Army and Their Weapons
The soldiers, archers, horses and chariots discovered during restoration work indicate they were created using molds and an early assembly line-type construction. It is believed that only eight molds were used to shape their heads, while distinctive clay surface features were added after they were assembled indicating a high level of craftsmanship and artistry. This explains why each soldier appears to be unique in its facial features yet most of the figures’ hands are identical.
Archaeologists found more than 40,000 bronze weapons during excavation, including battle axes, crossbows, arrowheads and spears, all of which were astonishingly well preserved given the more than 2,000 years they laid undiscovered. They credit the preservation to protective chrome plating, which reveals the sophistication of ancient Chinese metallurgy given that Germany first used this technique in 1937 and the U.S. not until 1950.
Qin’s Unexcavated Tomb
Since the tomb was discovered 40 years ago, less than one percent of it has been excavated. At first archaeologists were concerned about damaging Qin’s corpse and tomb artifacts, but that gave way to concerns about the excavation’s potential safety hazards. In 2005 a team led by Chinese archaeologist Duan Chingbo tested 4,000 samples of the burial mound earth for mercury, and all came back highly positive. Given this chemical evidence, the debate continues over whether to excavate, how to protect people working at the site, and what methods should be utilized to best protect the artifacts.
Proclaimed one of the greatest archeological discoveries in the world, the Terracotta Army Mausoleum is now unofficially hailed as the eighth Wonder of the World. Four of the unearthed terracotta structures, three warriors and a horse, are currently part of the traveling Chinese exhibit at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.