The Terra-Cotta Army of Emperor Qin

By Barbara Gotthelf
Photos courtesy of the author

The Terra-Cotta Army of Emperor Qin

For more than two thousand years, Chinese children have heard fantastic stories about China's first great ruler, Emperor Qin Shihuangdi (chin sure-hwang-dee). The stories told about a great army made up of terra-cotta soldiers and of a burial tomb filled with jewels and magical rivers that flowed to the sea.

In 1974, the Chinese made an amazing discovery--the stories about Emperor Qin and his great army are not fantastic at all; they're true. An army of more than eight thousand soldiers made of terra cotta, a baked reddish clay, is buried fifteen to twenty feet beneath the earth not far from the tomb pyramid where Emperor Qin is believed to be buried along with riches of his dynasty.

People learned by accident that the stories about Emperor Qin were true. Farmers digging a well in a field struck the head of a terra-cotta soldier. News of the discovery quickly spread, and archeologists swarmed to the site in the central Chinese province of Xian (she-ahn). After much effort was spent drilling core samples from the earth, archeologists learned that about eight thousand terra-cotta warriors were buried in chambers beneath the ground.

So far, archeologists have dug up and pieced together about one thousand of the soldiers. The soldiers were damaged by raiding rebel armies shortly after their creation and also by the collapse of heavy roof timbers over time. Also uncovered were about one hundred wooden war chariots, about six hundred life-size terra-cotta horses, and thousands of weapons. The soldiers stand about six feet tall, and each appears to have his own individual personality.

"They're all different, every single one of them," says Dr. Donald Wood, the curator of Asian Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama. "Each soldier has his own characteristics. Some are almost smiling; some look very stern. Some look like they are middle aged, and some are very young. Each has his own little mustache and little changes to his hairstyle."

The terra-cotta soldiers uncovered near the tomb are very lifelike in appearance.

Dr. Wood says that the workers who made the soldiers may have modeled them after the real soldiers of Emperor Qin's army. The terra-cotta horses buried alongside the soldiers also have their own facial expressions. The weapons the soldiers carry don't just look real--they are real. The arrows, swords, and crossbows are made up of special combinations of metals. They are as sharp today as they were twenty-two centuries ago.

Emperor Qin's terra-cotta army had at least two purposes. The army was designed to protect Qin after he died. Dr. Victor Mair, a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that the ancient Chinese had a very strong belief in the afterlife. "When you die, that's not the end of you," says Dr. Mair. "The army was meant to protect [Emperor Qin] in death, down in the underworld. That's why there were such incredible efforts to be realistic." The more lifelike the soldiers looked, Mair says, the more effective they would be in guarding the Emperor against his enemies in the afterlife.

The army was also created to demonstrate Emperor Qin's power while he was still alive. Qin, who was born in 259 B.C., began construction of the army and tomb when he became ruler at the age of thirteen. Archeologists estimate that it took as many as seven hundred thousand people more than thirty years to complete the project. "Any emperor worth his salt needs a bunch of soldiers to guard him. It shows how great you are," says Dr. Mair. "If you can mobilize seven hundred thousand people, that's some kind of indication of your power in life."

Emperor Qin was powerful, indeed. In 221 B.C. Qin declared himself emperor. He ended hundreds of years of fighting among the different states in China, and he unified the country. Under Qin's rule, people in China used the same form of money, the same system of measurement, and the same written language. Qin even had all of the axle widths in China made the same size so that all wheels would fit in the same ruts in the roads.

While Qin made many positive changes in the country, he was also a ruthless leader who ordered people to work on his huge projects. Historians believe that during Qin's rule, one out of every ten Chinese was put to work creating not only Qin's terra-cotta army but also 270 magnificent palaces. They also worked at connecting one of the greatest wonders of the world--the two-thousand-mile-long Great Wall of China.

Despite his strength, Qin was ruled by his own fear of death. Later in life, he slept in a different palace every night because he feared that people might try to kill him. Qin also spent most of his life looking for the secret of eternal life. It was his own attempts to avoid death that may have killed him. Some people believe that at the age of forty-nine Qin drank a magic potion that was supposed to keep him alive forever. Instead, the potion contained poisonous mercury.

Archeologists are convinced that Qin is buried in a spectacular tomb located inside a tomb pyramid in the center of the field where the terra-cotta army was found. In ancient Chinese history books, the tomb is called Mount Li, and is said to contain fabulous jewels, miniature cities, and rivers of mercury that flow to a man-made sea.

There is reason to believe that the story of Emperor Qin's tomb is true. Tests done on the soil near Mount Li have shown unusually high levels of mercury. But archeologists have no plans to excavate Mount Li. Dr. Wood says that before any serious digging begins, scientists would have to set up at the site special chemical laboratories and climate-controlled storage facilities to preserve what they find. Otherwise, he says, the treasure of Mount Li might crumble before their eyes.

In the meantime, digging continues in the area near Mount Li. More and more soldiers, chariots, horses, and weapons are being found. Visitors to China can see the terra-cotta army in three special museums built above the site. And they can look to the tree-covered Mount Li nearby and reflect on all the spectacular discoveries that are yet to be uncovered.

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