Terracotta Warriors – The Immortalized Army of Qi­n Shi Huang

Terracotta Warriors by Irene Butler

Published in “Surrey Now” and “Coquitlam Now” newspapers and Travellady online Magazine.


Our senses were juddered with the stunning magnitude of this memorial to one man; 6,000 life-size soldiers in battle formation facing the entrance of the enormous earthen vault. The terracotta warriors, created to guard the tomb of Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC), have been proclaimed the 8th wonder of the world and the most important archaeological find of the 20th century.

Intrigued by the rare artistry in a documentary seen several years previously, my husband Rick and I are now enraptured by the display before us. This ancient army fills three consecutive vaults (unromantically called Pit #1, 2 and 3) covering an area of 16,300 square meters, located 35 km east of Xian in Shaanxi Province. Excavating this national treasure began in 1974 after pieces of terra cotta were fortuitously discovered by peasants digging a well, and the site was opened to the public in 1979. The The power wielded by Qi­n, albeit mostly by oppression and brutality, was of titanic proportions. Born Ying Zhen, after uniting the six warring states for the first time in history, he proclaimed himself, Qi­n Shi Huang, the “First Emperor of China.” The building of the original Great Wall was another major feat attributed to his dictate. But his passion was executing plans for his splendid necropolis, which he started soon after succeeding his father at the age of 13. An estimated 720,000 labourers and artisans toiled during his 38-year rule, many of them dying during construction.

Tara Cotta Warriors Xian China

Proceeding slowly past the six-thousand-strong warriors in the first and largest pit, we marvelled at the unique countenance of each warrior. Some are proud or fierce; others are contemplative or have a sliver of a smile. They are also different ages, are a variety of girths; some have beards, and many have locks swept up into ornate top-knots. The speculation is that they were modelled after Qi­n Shi Huang’s own fighting men. Bulky belted knee-high tunics over short trousers, puttees winding from ankle to knee, and creases worn across the toes of curved shoes complete the clay-carved uniforms. The once flesh coloured skin, and brightly coloured garb have succumbed to the ravishment of time.

Moving on to Pit #2, we note the specialization of the 1,000 soldiers. Three hundred and thirty-four are archers. The front half are in a kneeling position and clad with heavy armour, the remainder stand behind poised to shoot over their heads. I became captivated by the numerous horses that followed, some beside charioteers primed to drive 64 chariots or with cavalrymen to the left of their bridles. The bulging muscular flanks of these steeds strained forward; their flaring nostrils belched streams of vapour that evaporated as I blinked away the trickery of the sculptor’s genius. In the last pit, along with a lone chariot drawn by another four equine beauties, sixty-eight special commanders were interestingly positioned randomly, rather than in military formation.

Many of the warriors originally held weapons of the day. Placards describe the crossbows, long bows, spears, and dagger axes that were among the 10,000 pieces removed and sorted to date. Arrowheads contained the lethal metal-alloy lead. Bronze swords were found in the hands of generals and senior officers. Surface treatment made these swords resistant to rust and corrosion and are said to be still sharp today.

The lengths of the pits are partitioned with thick brick walls, with corridors left between upon which the soldiers stand. Cresting the support walls, wooden roofs of stout timbers and crossbeams were topped with woven matting and clay to prevent water seepage, and hidden from sight by a deep covering of earth. Though plundering rebel troops, grave robbers and collapsed roof sections took their toll, this skillful construction made it possible for the fairly intact pieces of this venerable league to be reassembled and to once again stand on the 2,000-year-old floor of black brick.

The Emperor’s army is believed to comprise only one-fifth of the subterranean mortuary complex. In 1980 a pair of bronze chariots and horses in one-half real size was unearthed 20m east of the mausoleum. Eager archaeologists are hankering for the green light to be given by the Chinese government to excavate the 47m grass covered mound 1.5 km from where Rick and I now stand. Theorized from preliminary exploration, historical records and conjecture, a replica of the imperial palace still remains entombed with rivers of mercury to create the image of flowing water, satellite tombs for dignitaries, princes and princesses, pits of inhumed horses and rare birds, and the Emperor’s burial chamber.

The day dwindles; the tour groups leave. We have time before the last public bus arrives. In solitude we linger at the entrance; the figures becoming draped in an eerie twilight. Eventually in response to a waving attendant signalling closing time, we bid farewell to the warriors, yearning to know the story behind each pair of silent eyes.

Chronology Bits: Qi­n Dynasty Period  221-206 BC. Commencing with his father, King of Qi­n State in 221 BC,
the Dynasty began to crumble after Qi­n Shi Huang’s death in 210 BC finally overthrown by the Han Dynasty in 206 BC.


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