Terracotta Warriors: A Tale Of Two Men And Thousands Of Statues


Terracotta warriors uncovered. Picture by Aaron Zhu. Source: (Wikipedia).

In 246 B.C., a Chinese ruler named Yiren died, leaving his 13-year-old son Ying Zheng to ascend the throne. At the time, the governing principle of Qin rulers was the administration of punitive laws. Ying Zheng set out to conquer the world he knew; every time he conquered a rival state, he relocated the ruling families to Xianyang, where they lived in replicas of their former palaces. It is believed that Zheng erected more than 270 palaces, but only a single foundation is known to survive. Once he had completed his conquests, he renamed himself Qin Shi Huangdi which translates to “First Emperor of Qin.” His conquests were not all that distinguished him, however, and he was more than just a warmonger. As emperor, he created agricultural infrastructure with irrigation canals and storage granaries. He built a road system that may have exceeded 4,000 miles and which had 40-foot-wide speedways. He also built the precursor to the Great Wall. It appears that Qin Shi Huangdi conquered China with his army, but he used a civil administration to keep it together, and he had other accomplishments, which include a system of standardized weights and measures, as well as a uniform writing script to allow communication between speakers of different dialects.

An Obsession With The Afterlife

Huangdi, it seems, may have been obsessed with his afterlife. They have also found that Huangdi had also created what appears to be a facsimile of his court, which includes bronze waterfowl, musicians, officials, and troupes of acrobats made of terracotta. Current understanding is that he reconstructed his entire system. This system also included 8,000 soldiers, crafted to defend the emperor during the afterlife. In addition to the soldiers, there were horses and chariots. 

The backs of the warriors. Source: (Wikipedia).

The Fall Of The Dynasty

According to legends, Huangdi had the desire to extend his life and was told that there were magical herbs on three Islands of the Immortals in the East China Sea. He reportedly sent several thousand young people to look for the herbs, but they did not return. He then sent three alchemists; one returned, telling tales of giant fish guarding the island. According to legend, he then led the next search party, but he did not discover what he was looking for, instead contracting a fatal illness. Because of in-fighting after Huangdi’s death, the Qin dynasty fell within four years.

The Discovery

Centuries after the fall of the dynasty, in 1974, the Shaanxi province in northwest China was in the midst of a severe drought. Farmers, who were desperate for water, began to try dig a well in the bone-dry earth near the unexcavated tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi. The site is also the location of the ancient capital, Xianyang. They unearthed not water, but fragments of a clay figure.

Zhao Kangmin's Role

After this discovery, archaeologist Zhao Kangmin received a call from his boss to go to the site to investigate. Kangmin had personally dug up three kneeling crossbowmen a decade earlier, but at the time, was not certain that they were connected to the Qin dynasty. Zhao worked on uncovering the warriors for three days, uncovering two of the 1.78 meters tall terracotta warriors. In 1974, China was in the midst of the final stages of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution; at the time, the Red Guards were to destroy old traditions to “purify” society. Zhao, nervous about what would happen to the soldiers, decided to keep the discovery a secret. It didn’t stay secret for long, however, as a journalist took it upon himself to publicize the find. Fortunately, the Communist Party decided to go ahead with the dig, and after a few months, they had uncovered more than 500 warriors. 

Terracotta general, a mid-rank warrior. Picture by David Castor. Source: (Wikipedia).

They Have Since Uncovered About 600 Pits

Since the discovery, they continued the dig, uncovering about 600 pits, over a 22-square mile area. A museum which opened in 1979, was constructed around three of the pits. In this museum, which covers four acres, one pit holds columns of reconstructed warriors, standing in formation as if waiting orders from the emperor. In a second pit, the warriors were left as they were found, whether it be standing upright, lying on their backs, or partially buried.

The Warriors Are Individuals

There are thousands of warriors. They are in battle formation. They have detailed workmanship, and are not all the same, with dozens of different types of heads. They were also armed with tens of thousands of bronze weapons. Because of the individuality of the figures, it may be that they were crafted to represent the myriad people from across China.

Evidence Of Invasions

The damage to the terracotta army provides indications of the sudden collapse of Qin rule. Forces raided the pits and stole the warriors’ weapons. They set fires, evidence of which can be found on the walls of one pit. The wooden ceilings crashed in on the warriors, smashing them and leaving them to be discovered centuries later.


One important part of the site remains unexcavated for fear of damaging what lies inside: the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, whose secrets remain hidden. In 1987, the site received UNESCO World Heritage Status, although Zhao’s personal role was never fully recognized.