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6 / Death

Terracotta Army (detail) from the Tomb Complex of Qin Shi Huangdi
Terracotta Army (detail) from the Tomb Complex of Qin Shi Huangdi
Artist / Origin Unknown artist(s), China
Region: East Asia
Date Qin Dynasty, ca. 210 BCE
Period: 500 BCE - 1 CE
Material Terracotta
Medium: Ceramics
Dimensions H: approx. 72 in. (182.8 cm.) (each)
Location Museum of Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shi Huangdi, Xi’an, China
Credit Courtesy of the Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, California

expert perspective

Chao-Hui Jenny LiuAssistant Professor of Chinese Art, New York University

Additional Resources

Clunas, Craig. Art in China (Oxford History of Art). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997 and 2009.

Kesner, Ladislav. “Likeness of No One: (Re)Presenting the First Emperor’s Army.” The Art Bulletin 77.1 (March, 1995): 115–132.

Man, J. The Terracotta Army. London: Bantam Press, 2007.

Portal, Jane. The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Sullivan, Michael. The Arts of China, 5th ed. Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.

Terracotta Army (detail) from the Tomb Complex of Qin Shi Huangdi

» Unknown artist(s), China

Qin Shi Huangdi (r. 246–210 BCE) is considered one the greatest military leaders of Chinese history.

Initially king of the feudal “Warring State” of Qin, he eventually conquered and consolidated the rival states to establish the Qin Empire in 221 BCE. As First Emperor of what became the Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huangdi unified the Chinese lands politically and culturally by imposing a centralized bureaucracy and strict standardization of written language, weights and measures, and other cultural systems. The powerful emperor was obsessed with his own mortality and spent many years searching for a way to achieve eternal life.

According to historical records, construction of Qin Shi Huangdi’s elaborate tomb began with his accession to the throne and likely was not completed by the time of his death. Although the emperor’s burial mound was visible above ground, the vast underground complex would not be rediscovered until 1974, when farmers attempted to dig a well at the site. Excavation of the compound has revealed several thousand life-sized terracotta soldiers, horses, and chariots.

These clay soldiers are one of the earliest and most elaborate examples of the use of tomb figures in early China. Ritual texts of the late Zhou period describe a category of items called mingqi (spirit vessels) that were placed in graves, believed to serve as surrogates for things from the “real,” living world. Some scholars believe that the use of mingqi, which often represented humans and animals, developed as an alternative to the practice of human and animal sacrifice. While it is not known whether living people or animals were sacrificed to be buried with Qin Shi Huangdi in his main tumulus, the terracotta army, interred east of the burial mound, might be seen as a stand-in for the emperor’s real army.

The terracotta figures are notable for the interplay between stylized form and strikingly realistic detail. The rigid, linear planes of the standing figures, shown in uniform military poses, are combined with naturalistic renderings of headgear, hairstyles, armor, garments, belts, shoes, and other accessories. Details such as the bending of limbs and folds in clothing lend a heightened sense of verisimilitude to the figures, which would have been even more striking when the figures had their original paint. Some of the clay warriors held actual bronze or iron weapons, suggesting that their protective function was understood as something beyond symbolic.

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