Just east of Xi’an a contingent of solemn warriors forever guards the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor. As silent as the Emperor’s tomb itself, the Terracotta Army has kept well its secrets for more than two millennia. It is only within recent years that archaeologists have begun piecing together a curious narrative surrounding this exquisite collection of funerary art.
It is hard to look past the aesthetic glory of these terracotta soldiers. Behind the creation of each lifelike statue, however, there is a rich and colorful significance. They are nothing less than a final defiant statement by a warrior king in his determination to conquer man’s greatest enemy: death.
The Discovery of the Terracotta Army
In 1974 a group of local workers embarked upon the task of digging a well close to the city of Xi’an, China. They found something far more interesting than a water source. Fragments of terracotta began to emerge in the soil. It was soon apparent that what the workers discovered were parts of a lifelike warrior in full battle regalia. They notified Chinese authorities of the discovery and a large scale exploration of the area commenced.
Archaeologists found not only a vast number of terracotta warriors but also weaponry and chariots. There are even statues of horses deep within this enormous burial complex. Experts now agree that the area encompasses roughly twenty square miles. To date, scientists have unearthed some 1900 terracotta soldiers, but they estimate the total number of statues to exceed 7,000. Qin Shi Huang ordered the statues built to flank the east side of his mausoleum.
Despite the importance of this archaeological site, many parts of the compound remain relatively unexplored. The actual tomb of Qin Shi Huang rests untouched. Those in charge of the excavation believe that unearthing the tomb at this time would cause more harm than good. In the meantime, the world must speculate on why and how this army of terracotta soldiers was constructed.
The Art of the Terracotta Warriors Imitates Life
Archaeologists have been able to glean important information about the terracotta soldiers from their research. First and foremost, it is clear that the artists meticulously crafted these statues with realism in mind. They appear to be accurate to the smallest detail in their depiction of a military force.
Imagine for a moment the toy soldiers which are popular with children. These little miniatures often display several poses but the facial features and uniforms are the same. Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army includes figures which have various forms of battle dress. Their facial expressions differ from warrior to warrior. The rank of the soldiers is easily identifiable. When one considers the individual labor invested in the completion of each statue, it is easy to understand how building the Emperor’s mausoleum occupied more than three-fourths of Qin Shi Huang’s life.
An interesting study published in the March 2008 Journal of Cultural Heritage inspires even more awe in the relics. When scientists uncovered the terracotta warriors, they appeared to be grayish-brown in color. Archaeologists soon discovered, however, that each figure contained traces of paint. The artists originally painted the figures in vibrant colors. Given what is presently known, the logical conclusion is that these colors would have borne some significance to rank.
Researchers have been able to determine through chemical tests that the artists used eggs as a paint binder. This discovery has helped to shed light on how other ancient sculptures in China were painted. What is important in the context of the present discussion is how much time the painting of the Terracotta Army would have taken in addition to the time required to complete the sculptures.
Why Did Qin Shi Huang Build the Army?
The most reasonable explanation for the construction of the Terracotta Army is that the figures were designed to protect Qin Shi Huang from the dangers of the afterlife. This practice was not unique to Chinese culture. Many civilizations, most notably that of the ancient Egyptians, interred their royalty with various items to comfort and aid the deceased in their journey. The mausoleum of the First Emperor of China contains many items in addition to the terracotta warriors. The famous Chinese historian Sima Qian even wrote that the inside of the Emperor’s tomb contained rivers of mercury and jeweled constellations and stars.
What is different in this case is the consideration of Qin Shi Huang’s obsession with immortality. By all accounts, the Emperor had an irrational fear of death that compelled him to undertake searches for an Elixir of Life that would allow him to live forever on earth. His search was futile, and in 210 BC the Emperor died before the completion of his final resting place.
It is a common theory that the emperor built his Terracotta Army to hedge his bet. If his search for the Elixir of Life were to fail, the terracotta soldiers would be there to protect him against the thing he feared most. For this to work, however, the statues needed to be as lifelike as possible. In essence, Qin Shi Huang was attempting a form of sympathetic magic.
Symbolism of the Terracotta Soldiers
A belief in magic is common to most ancient civilizations. Many magical practices of ancient man were sympathetic in nature. Sympathetic magic is merely an attempt to achieve a desired outcome by fashioning ritual objects that relate to the task at hand. An example of this magical practice can be observed in the habit of ancient man to construct images of animals prior to hunting and then to symbolically “kill” the image. Such images have surfaced and experts dated them as far back as 40,000 BC.
There can be little doubt that Qin Shi Huang was familiar with the principles of sympathetic magic. It is no great leap of reason to suggest that the Emperor believed building the Terracotta Army in real life would infuse them with power in the beyond, but it is also possible that there was another motivation. Could it be that the Emperor believed the Terracotta Army had the power to resist death itself? Death, as understood by ancient peoples, was a spiritual entity just as much as it was a state of being. They believed that Death came for them at an appointed time. If the same can be said of Qin Shi Huang, it is possible he may have believed that his terracotta warriors would be able to shield him from Death.
Who Built the Terracotta Army?
In 2014 archaeologists mad an interesting discovery just about five kilometers away from the site of the mausoleum. They uncovered 45 tombs which they believe house the workers who built the Terracotta Army. They also unearthed crypts containing skeletal remains that had one leg twisted, a burial tradition of the Qin Dynasty.
The speculation of researchers is that these remains could belong to workers who built the terracotta soldiers. Sima Qian even references in his works that some builders of the mausoleum complex were sealed inside the tomb and prohibited from leaving. The fear was that the workers, many of whom may have been slaves, would reveal the secrets of the tomb. Therefore, it is possible that the graves found in 2014 hold the remains of individuals who needed silencing upon the completion of the terracotta warriors.
Scholars have also suggested that the Greeks influenced the builders of the Terracotta Army. History has documented the connection between East and West via trade routes like the Silk Road, and many European explorers such as Marco Polo have left records of their travels to Asia. Because nothing like the terracotta warriors ever existed in the history of China before these, some experts believe that ancient Greek sculptures may have provided their lifelike inspiration.
Given the reluctance of the Chinese government to fully explore the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, it may be many years before the Terracotta Army reveals the precise details of its eternal mission. Until then, these majestic guardians will continue their vigil guarding the eastern approach to the Emperor’s remains.