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Art Through Time: A Global View

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

» Unknown artist(s), China

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

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.

Expert Perspective:
Chao-Hui Jenny Liu, Assistant Professor of Chinese Art, New York University

“The first Chinese empire came about with the young princeling. His name was Ying Zheng. He was the crown prince of the western kingdom of Qin during the Warring States period in China. At the time, there were all these states which were vying for power in China, and China had never been unified before. And Ying Zheng was a fourteen-year-old sort of hostage prince at a foreign court. Eventually, he returned home and took up the mantle of kingship command—built up a mighty army with very strict legal codes, and with that army, he conquered the rest of the warring states, one by one, and became the first emperor of China. He wanted to be immortal actually towards the end of his life, and he sought all sorts of Taoist concoctions and possible remedies to cure old age, but he didn’t quite succeed. So death was on his mind, and he spent more than a decade building his final resting place, the tomb.

The tomb has an entire world that would show the magnificence of the emperor. The famous terracotta soldiers everyone knows is only actually three pits on the east side of the main mound. The main mound has never been excavated, but there are slightly later textual descriptions which talks about rivers of mercury inside a complete palace. These soldiers are just about life size. So it was an enormous production to make over 7,000, even if they were constructed in the tomb over ten years. Each soldier looks like an individual portrait of actually a soldier from that time. Of course this is not true. They actually pieced together the figures on an assembly line, so they would make perhaps twenty different kinds of molds for the hair, for the face, for the arms, for the feet, and then they would piece them together in different ways. And so it gives the appearance of having individual human beings.

In the West you have ideas of portraiture, a portrait being the likeness of someone. Now a portrait could look realistic, but doesn’t look like the person. For the first emperor, his tomb is sort of his portrait that he would like to present to the underworld. The fact that it was hidden actually wasn’t so important, because the idea of kingship in China was hidden in a way that is not common in the West. In the West, kingship is all about splendor and putting on a show, and people could see, you know, the king’s face is actually on a coin or something like that, very public. Now power in China is largely hidden and it derives its power mostly from being hidden. This is the first emperor’s bid to pass his portrait on to posterity, or show to the world who he was—the most important man of the times. The scale of the tomb of the first emperor is unprecedented, and we never see a tomb of this scale after.”

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.

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2