The Discovery of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Warriors

China enjoys an incredibly rich and interesting history. Yet, when in March 1974 the Chinese farmer Yang Zhifa dug water well, in rural Shaanxi, he probably didn’t expect that he would find any remnants of that history. Let alone anything that was over 2000 years old. But he did, he dug up some ancient terracotta shards and initially thought it was an old oven. He figured he could use the pieces to create some free pots for food storage. Yet Yang Zhifa didn’t dig up an old oven. The pieces he dug up were parts of one of the greatest archaeological discoveries ever to be found on this earth. They were pieces of the Terracotta Army, an over 2200-year-old massive army of human-sized soldiers, made of clay, and showed incredible attention to detail. When the extent of the discovery finally dawned on the archaeologists that worked on the site, it exceeded any comprehension of ancient China at that time. Still, even nowadays the excavation of the massive archaeological treasure is not finished. As a matter of fact, Chinese archaeologists and scientists are still developing a method to look into the tomb of the Emperor, which has not yet been opened, despite its discovery nearly 50 years ago.

The Discovery

When a rural farmer production unit dug a water-well on the northern foot of Lishan Mountain, and stumbled upon several clay shards, they didn’t think much of it. But when Yang Zhifa, one of the farmers, kept digging, he found a neck, shoulder and torso of one of the statues protruding from the ground. He thought an ancient temple could be buried underground and continued to dig. This turned up several bronze items. Over 40 years after the discovery Yang recalled that he, together with other farmer’s, discussed swapping the items to trade for tobacco. By this point, they still had no idea what they were standing on top of. Yang, knowing of tales that told of an Emperor’s grave supposedly buried somewhere in the area and never found, called the women from the village. He returned with them and several carts. They loaded up some of the body-pieces and bronze items, and brought them to a museum in a nearby district. 

The mound where the tomb is located. By 申威隆 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

At the museum, experts realised they were dealing with a significant archaeological find. They paid the peasants an annual salary for each cart and contacted Chinese authorities. They sent government archaeologists. These hurried from large cities to the location, between Mount Li and Xi’an. 

Archaeologist Zhao Kangmin was the first to lay eyes on fragments of the warriors. They reconstructed them, one-by-one, piece-by-piece. And at that time he had no idea they just discovered an army of warriors, thousands of them, that had been forgotten for over 2000 years. As more archaeologists were sent and joined the excavation, it dawned on them what an incredible discovery this was.

Each life-size clay statue had unique facial features and detail that was unheard of, all the way to the shape of fingernails. Most of the statues were in relatively pristine condition. They were all positioned in a hierarchical order in terms of ranks and apparently, when they were buried they had all been painted in fitting colours. Even their height differed: some warriors were shorter, taller, more muscular or more filled. Even facial hair differed from soldier to soldier. The army consisted of normal warriors, crossbow archers and cavalrymen, including their horses, and sometimes even with chariots. Some archers are positioned kneeling, ready for battle, some wear armour, some wore cloth uniforms. The harness of the horses was made of bronze, and all soldiers were armed with real bronze weaponry. Hundreds of fragments of arrow tips, swords and other weaponry were found on and around the site.

Archaeologists didn’t have to wonder too long who ordered this army to be built. Thanks to the so-called ‘father of Chinese historiography’ that lived during the second century BC, Sima Qian. Qian’s surviving work recounts how China’s first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, ordered a gigantic mausoleum for him to be built as soon as he declared himself Emperor in 221 BC. The rest of his life hundreds of thousands of slaves, Qian estimated approximately 700.000 men, worked on the mausoleum and toiled to build the Emperor’s final resting place. According to Sima Qian, following the ceremonies of the burial of the emperor his wives who had no sons were locked in the tomb, together with the craftsmen that constructed it so they could not reveal its secrets. Soldiers blocked the exit, and it is estimated dozens of artisans, workers and wives remained inside, unable to escape.

So basically, there is an entire necropolis surrounding Qin’s mausoleum. It, quite literally, is a subterranean city with a gigantic mound. At the centre is a tomb that supposedly is decorated like a small universe and the terracotta warriors were meant to protect him in the afterlife. In total, there are over 600 sites within an area of 56 km2. The extent of the entire area is so large that even today excavations are still going on, and Qin’s actual tomb has not yet been opened. Besides warriors, statues have been found that represent civil servants, acrobats and even singers, not to mention the gems and gold found spread around the territory. 

The burial mound Qin ordered to be built was constructed akin to a palace. The burial mound reaches a height of 51.3 meters and is surrounded between a double-walled enclosure that is over ten metres in height. Within the walls lays an approximately 2.5km2 area. It is surrounded by several pits, each containing deep corridors filled with terra cotta soldiers, horses, bronze chariots and weapons. When the corridors were built they were probably separated from each other with wood. Yet, archaeological evidence indicates that at some time in history, the grave has been partially plundered and set aflame. However, five meters of soil and sand accumulated over the centuries, showing that the plundering must have happened centuries ago.

Considering the destruction, the time of its discovery is somewhat ironic. It was near the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and archaeologists worried about the destruction of the statues by radical Red Guards. John Man, in his book the Terra Cotta Army, recounts how Zhao was forced to denounce himself years before for being ‘involved with old things and therefore encouraging the revival of feudalism.’  

By Zossolino – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Yet Chinese authorities too understood the value of this discovery. It also led to a wealth of information about the Chinese Qin dynasty, China’s first imperial dynasty, that lasted from 221 to 206 BC.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BCE)

So who was this first Emperor? Ying Zheng was born in 259 BC, during the Chinese Period of the Warring States, which lasted from around 475 to 221 BC. Actually, it would be Ying to unite the warring states into the Chinese Empire finally. In 246 BC Ying became king of the state Qin at the age of 13. Over the years he waged war against the warring kingdoms around his territory. After a years-long campaign, and emerging victorious, he unified the entire country under his own reign in 221 BC. He declared himself to be China’s First Great Emperor and took Qin Shi Huang as his name.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC)

During his reign he wielded unprecedented political, military and economic power. Emperor Qin established his capital in Xian-yang, current-day Xi’an, about 35 kilometres west of where the terracotta army would be found well over 2000 years after his death. 

During his reign, Emperor Qin did much more than just create this gigantic clay army. He improved his Empire’s transport network, built roads, bridges and dug canals. He standardised Chinese writing, currency and the measuring system. He is also considered to be the father of the Chinese Wall. Laying the foundation for the eventual enormous wall, Qin built multiple defensive walls in and around his territories.

Emperor Qin passed away in 210 BC, and was buried in his mausoleum. But even though construction had been going on for decades, with an exorbitant amount of manpower dedicated to this tomb, the construction wasn’t completely finished. After his death, Qin’s people continued construction around his final resting place, yet one year later his empire suffered multiple uprisings. As such, the work was abandoned and throughout the centuries it was largely forgotten about. The fact archaeologists unearthed four pits, with three filled with soldiers, horses and chariots, but the fourth empty, proves that it was unfinished.

Following Qin’s death unrest broke out in China and his successor, his second son Qin Er Shi, ruled over the empire until 207 BC. One year later the Qin dynasty fell and the Chu-Han Contention broke out, a civil war between rebel leaders. Eventually, Liu Bang, one of those rebel-leaders, emerged victorious in 202 BC, declared himself emperor and thus founded the Han-dynasty, the second Imperial dynasty that ruled over China until 220 AD, with a brief intermezzo.

Cultural Significance 

The excavation gives us a unique look into the military organisation of China during the Warring Kingdoms Period, and the subsequent short-lived Qin Dynasty. Because of the attention to detail and the real weaponry found with the statues, lots of new information emerged about the period. Not to mention the bronze items, cultural relics, and pots, pans and other metal items reveal a lot about metallurgy during this time. Upon inspection, it turned out the bronze weapons the statues held were actually used in battle, due to scratches found on them.

By Holger.Ellgaard – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Terracotta Warriors are an incredible discovery that still boggles the mind when you think about the effort and skill that went into it, especially because we’re talking well over 2000 years ago. But what’s perhaps even more interesting is that Qian’s writings describe the actual tomb of Emperor Qin…

Qian’s writings acknowledge that Qin’s tomb is filled with even more riches, gems, jewels and what have you not. The tomb supposedly resembles the universe, with on the floor a map of the Chinese Empire. Mercury is used to portray the Yellow River, the Yangtze and the ocean. Pearls in the ceiling depict the sun, moon and stars. The walls are covered in bronze to keep water out. The tomb was built with enormous attention to detail, because Emperor Qin believed he had to spend in there for eternity. Its entrance is guarded by automated crossbows, to kill anyone who tries to enter the tomb. 

The tomb probably is filled with other treasure rooms as well. Emperor Qin believed these would feed his soul, and protect him in the afterlife. So far, over 100 secret treasuries have been found, but just a few have been opened. It is estimated thousands of terracotta soldiers are still hidden beneath the surface. Not to mention other burial mounds that are now discovered and excavated, often unrelated to Emperor Qin.

For example, in 1990, another terracotta army was discovered. They were buried with Emperor Jingdi in 153 BC. Over 50.000 miniature terracotta figures were buried with him, imitating daily life of Jingdi. The construction of his tomb lasted 28 years, a little bit shorter than that of Emperor Qin. These statues are more dynamic and lively. Whereas the terracotta army of Qin stood guard, those of Jingdi take poses of walking or running. The horses too show peculiar differences, with long, thin legs, whereas the horses of Qin had short legs and hooves. Now, the tomb of Jingdi wasn’t the only one where other terracotta soldiers were found. Qin’s army must have been an inspiration to the subsequent Han dynasty rulers, because as recently as 2002 in Shandong, the so-called Weishan site was uncovered with hundreds of terracotta soldiers, horses and chariots. They were a bit smaller than Qin’s army, but still.

The Museum Complex

And so far Qin’s tomb has not been excavated, and it will be a mystery for future generations to uncover what secrets it holds. Archaeologist Zhao Kangmin, the first archaeologist on the scene, passed away in May 2018. The farmer Yang Zhifa is still alive today, and he worked in the souvenir shop of the museum on the site six days a week until his retirement. 


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