Clay Soldiers Are Discovered in China

The excavation of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi’s buried army of life-size clay soldiers prompted a critical review of a decisive period in the history of ancient China, directly challenged conventional wisdom regarding early Chinese art, and illuminated modern understanding of military tactics and organization in the late third century b.c.e.

Summary of Event

In March, 1974, near the modern city of Xi’an in north-central China, Yang Zhifa and some fellow farmers made an astonishing discovery. While digging a well, they unearthed—about fifteen feet beneath the surface—a large human face made of clay. Chinese archaeologists were soon excavating the site, and then an ever-expanding area around it. The original find was part of an enormous underground pit that contained several thousand freestanding, life-size clay soldiers, many with weapons. This “spirit army” of buried warriors had been produced in the late third century b.c.e. by command of Qin Shihuangdi, the self-proclaimed “first emperor of China.” By examining the unique characteristics of these clay sculptures and tracing the techniques of their production, scholars were able to expand markedly the knowledge of early Chinese history. Archaeology;Chinese clay soldiers
[kw]Clay Soldiers Are Discovered in China (Mar., 1974)
[kw]Discovered in China, Clay Soldiers Are (Mar., 1974)
[kw]China, Clay Soldiers Are Discovered in (Mar., 1974)
Archaeology;Chinese clay soldiers
[g]East Asia;Mar., 1974: Clay Soldiers Are Discovered in China[01550]
[g]China;Mar., 1974: Clay Soldiers Are Discovered in China[01550]
[c]Archaeology;Mar., 1974: Clay Soldiers Are Discovered in China[01550]
[c]Anthropology;Mar., 1974: Clay Soldiers Are Discovered in China[01550]
[c]Arts;Mar., 1974: Clay Soldiers Are Discovered in China[01550]
Yang Zhifa
Qin Shihuangdi
Sima Qian

Ying Zheng, the future Emperor Qin Shihuangdi, was born approximately 259 b.c.e. in the feudal state of Qin in north-central China. His father, the prince of Qin, had waged constant war with the other Chinese feudal clans. Only twelve years old at his accession to power in 247 b.c.e., Prince Ying seemed driven from the outset to undertake great enterprises. Above all, he combined a ruthless determination with a fine army to vanquish his feudal rivals and then conquer virtually all of China. Then, having united the land by arms, Ying in 221 b.c.e. assumed the title Qin Shihuangdi, first emperor of China. From this point to his death in 210, he consolidated his power while suppressing the remnants of feudalism. He also standardized Chinese law, established a common currency, and ordered the construction across his northern frontier of some two thousand miles of walls and fortifications to deter marauders, originating the “great wall of China.”

Qin Shihuangdi did not stop there, however. As emperor, he intensified his efforts to complete as quickly as possible a massive mausoleum near his royal court at Xianyang. No expense was spared. Yearning for immortality, he wanted his remains preserved forever in a lavish setting befitting his station in life. The result by Qin’s passing in 210 b.c.e. was a structure fifteen stories high with a sumptuous palace nearby and many lesser tombs and palaces spread across three walled acres. Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb, lying at the base of a long vertical shaft beneath the mausoleum, formed the centerpiece of a necropolis.

Sima Qian, a near-contemporary Chinese historian, reported that Qin Shihuangdi’s burial chamber was intended to form a kind of microcosm of the environment the emperor had known in life. Precious gems embedded in the ceiling symbolized the Sun, Moon, and stars, and at floor level, mercury was pumped in mechanically to simulate a river flowing forever to the sea. Sima Qian noted further that the tomb held countless other treasures and amenities to make the imperial afterlife as enjoyable as possible. Qin Shihuangdi’s fixation with replicating his earthly existence in the hereafter became further evident in another major project, the creation of a large contingent of buried clay soldiers to defend him forever, as his palace guard had done during his life. Here again, Qin demonstrated his ability to mobilize enormous resources.

The clay army was completed between 221 and 210 b.c.e., then buried about two miles east of the imperial tomb. Between 1974 and 1977, four pits were found and excavated in the area. Nearly eight thousand figures had been found by the early years of the twenty-first century.

Pit I, chanced upon by the Chinese farmers in 1974, was the largest of the four. It covered nearly four acres and measured more than 250 yards long, nearly 100 wide, and 16 feet deep. Roughly six thousand clay soldier figures were recovered from this pit, along with a number of bronze weapons and wooden war chariots pulled by clay horses. The bulk of the soldiers were infantrymen arrayed four abreast at full attention along eleven parallel trenches. Other soldiers, victims of fire and pillage over the centuries, lay strewn about awaiting restoration. Pit II yielded nearly fourteen hundred clay soldiers, mostly cavalrymen, and their clay horses. Pit III, probably a command center, housed sixty-eight figures, mostly officers of various ranks, with their insignias carved into their uniforms. Pit IV, much shallower than the others, was found empty; it was likely never completed.

Terra-cotta army, near Xi’an, China.


Archaeologists and military historians agree that the positioning of the clay warriors in Pit I mirrored closely the standard battle formation used by the emperor’s formidable armies as they swept across China. This pit contained depictions of a variety of military specialists, including officers, infantrymen, archers, crossbowmen, and charioteers with their horse-drawn chariots. The infantrymen were by far the most numerous.

The Pit I army was organized in five separate segments: a vanguard, a main body, two flanks, and a rear guard. The vanguard, which functioned as the shock troops of the unit, consisted of three lines of archers and crossbowmen, seventy men to a line, all facing east. Behind the vanguard, also facing east, was the main body of troops, virtually all infantrymen. Supporting these foot soldiers were a number of charioteers with their wooden chariots. The bulk of these troops were, or had been, armed with real bronze swords and spears. The two flanks, with much smaller contingents of foot soldiers, archers, and charioteers, faced north and south, respectively. Finally, a modest-sized rear guard, facing west, completed a self-contained rectangular pattern suitable for attack or defense. The troops in these various formations were rendered so realistically that they seemed poised to spring at once into action, awaiting only their general’s command. The use of authentic weapons enhanced the illusion of reality. The emperor believed that the closer to actual life these figures were, the more effectively they could defend him in the afterlife.

The warriors and their horses were made of terra-cotta, a thick, reddish clay found locally. Terra-cotta was heavy enough to support life-size sculptures, yet soft enough to allow individualizing detail to be etched into the clay bodies. In a well-organized mass-production operation, each figure was shaped in several stages from clay molds. First, a hollow torso was grafted onto legs of solid clay for greater stability. Smaller components such as heads, faces, ears, arms, and hands, as well as military clothing, were then attached to the torso.

Even the heights of the warriors varied, ranging from 5 feet, 7 inches, to 6 feet, 5 inches, with officers usually taller than men of lesser rank. The subtle stroke of a knife on a clay face could evoke emotions ranging from severity and anger to calmness and affability. Vegetable dyes of yellow, blue, green, and red, among others, distinguished the men’s clothing according to their military specialties and ranks. In short, no two statues were the same, and the terra-cotta soldiers became imposing, unique individuals. Through the great skill of gifted potters, these terra-cotta warriors were transformed from mass-produced ordinariness to genuine works of art. Finally, the prepared figures were permanently hardened through firing in clay kilns before they were buried.


Qin Shihuangdi’s dynasty barely survived the man himself. Shortly after his death in 210 b.c.e., a rebel army pillaged and burned much of the necropolis, although the royal burial chamber itself could not be reached. Feared and despised for his brutal, tyrannical regime, Qin Shihuangdi was not widely mourned, although his impact on the history of China would be immense. For the rest, the emperor’s outsized ego, his obsessive fear of death, and his longing for immortality found vivid expression in the construction of a grandiose imperial mausoleum and necropolis reminiscent of the Egyptian pyramids.

Not even the pyramids, however, could rival Qin’s army of clay soldiers. Forgotten with the collapse of the Qin Dynasty, they would remain as silent sentinels posted in utter darkness until their accidental rediscovery deep into the modern age. At the end of the twentieth century, examination of these highly naturalistic terra-cotta warriors transformed the study of early Chinese art and military history and opened many promising new perspectives on the dawn of China’s imperial age. The degree of realism shown in these works was unprecedented in Chinese art. The dramatic purpose of the terra-cotta army, coupled with the extraordinary craftsmanship evident in its production and the sheer magnitude of the enterprise, led many to designate the army, twenty-two centuries after its creation, as the eighth wonder of the ancient world. Archaeology;Chinese clay soldiers

Further Reading

  • Ciaria, Roberto, ed. The Eternal Army: The Terracotta Soldiers of the Chinese Emperor. Vercelli, Italy: White Star, 2005. Collection of essays by noted archaeologists and historians discuss the latest discoveries and speculations about the topic. Includes many large close-up photographs of individual figures.
  • Clements, Jonathan. The First Emperor of China. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2006. Places the phenomenon of the clay army within the broader historical context of its time. Includes map, photographs, and genealogical tables.
  • Yang, Xiaoneng, ed. The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries of the People’s Republic of China. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Lavishly illustrated volume features full-page color reproductions of the terra-cotta soldiers, chariots, and horses in their original settings.

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