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The Terracotta Warriors

Posted by Susan Benford

Qin Shi Huang (259 BC - 210 BC), the first emperor of China, ascended the throne at age 13. He forged seven warring kingdoms into the empire he named China, an area that was roughly half the size of the country today.  

Qin Shi Huang is now best remembered for:

terra cotta warrior faces resized 6001. the Great Wall, which he solidified by connecting existing fortifications in northern China; 

2. his philosophy of legalism, a utilitarian, simplistic philosophy that ignored questions like the purpose of life -- and intolerance of any other belief system; and 

3. his Terracotta Warriors and Horses, a life-sized clay army that stood in military formation, prepped for battle, in his mausoleum.

Unlike his predecessors, who ritually killed their staff and servants so that they would continue to serve in the afterlife, Qin Shi Huang opted to create his afterlife court in earthenware and bronze.

According to the historian Sima Qian (136-85 BCE), the Emperor conscripted 700,000 laborers who started the mausoleum in 221 BC and required 11 years to complete it.

terracotta warriors resized 600

The Terracotta Warriors, found at Lintong in Shaanxi province, are arguably the most significant discovery in 20th century archeology.

Located near Qin Shi Huang's tomb, the Terracotta Warriors were discovered in 1974 by peasants who, while digging for a well, unearthed pieces of bronze weaponry and broken Warriors. Subsequently, archeologists linked them with the Qin Dynasty (211-206 BC).

terracotta warrior armor suit resized 600It is believed that the Terracotta Warriors entourage was comprised of:

  • over 8,000 soldiers,

  • 130 chariots with 520 horses -- and with suitcases made of fabric similar to silk;

  • 150 cavalry horses (1), all life-sized, and

  • an array of weaponry including bronze swords, armor, spears, crossbows and wugou, a sword with a curved edge.  

To create this exhaustive array of items, Chinese artists practiced mass production over two centuries before the birth of Christ (and many more centuries before Henry Ford "invented" the process!). 

The artists used eight different types of molds for torsos; eight for faces; two for faces and so on.

After each figure was assembled, the artists hand modeled the cast body parts to individualize them so that each soldier became unique.  The Terracotta Warriors are life-size and differ in height, hairstyle and uniform in accordance with rank.

Each Terracotta warrior was then handpainted pink, red, gray, white or lilac.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang died in 210 BC and his successor, Hu Hai, was overthrown in 206 BC.  During peasant uprisings in 209 BC, the pit holdling the Terracotta Warriors was burned.  

The Terracotta Warriors are indisputably one of the grandest achievements in Chinese art.  But also one of the most baffling.  

terracotta warriors shoes detail resized 600The height of the Warriors varies from 5' 11" to 6' 7", for instance. The lead researcher, Xu Weihong, commented,

"We're not certain whether people who lived in the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-207 B.C.) were actually that tall, or the craftsmen exaggerated their height."

Then there's the question of how the Terracotta Warriors could've been constructed and fired with the technology of 2200 years ago.

When looking at images of the Warriors, one wonders why such intricate detail was rendered for objects that wouldn't be seen by humans after the mausoleum was finished.

If you've insights, please provide!

(1)Jane Portal and Qingbo Duan, The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army, British Museum Press, 2007, p. 167.

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The Terracotta Warriors