Construction of the Qin Tomb

The Qin tomb and its army of terra-cotta warriors were created to represent the power of the first emperor of unified China.

Summary of Event

Zheng (who became Shi Huangdi after becoming emperor) was born the son of the king of Qin state. After his father’s death, at the age of thirteen, Zheng became king and began a crusade to reform China. By 221 b.c.e., Qin’s armies had conquered the six other primary Chinese states, unifying China for the first time in its history. Zheng, now Shi Huangdi, emperor of the Qin Dynasty (Ch’in; 221-206 b.c.e.), further unified the country by deposing the remaining feudal warlords, establishing a system of prefectures administered by government officials appointed from the Qin capital, codified Chinese law, introduced standard weights and measures, issued a single national currency, and formulated a single written Chinese alphabet and language. To protect his newly unified nation, Shi Huangdi began the construction of a defensive barrier along the northern frontier, known as the Great Wall (some scholars believe that this wall is not the same as the Great Wall that stands today, which was constructed in the sixteenth century, during the Ming Dynasty). Shi Huangdi
Hu Hai

Aside from his achievements, Shi Huangdi exhibited a streak of paranoia, megalomania, and tyranny. Proud of his national achievements, Zheng had proclaimed himself a deity, calling himself Shi Huangdi (first emperor), signifying that he had surpassed the achievements and status of the three previous emperors (San Huang) and the five great emperors of Chinese mythology (Wudi). To fulfill this grand new title, Shi Huangdi pursued a quest for immortality to ensure his status as a living god, employing medicine men, prophets, and necromancers to achieve eternal life. Qin also became obsessed with death and the representation of his achievements after his passing. As a monument to his accomplishments, Qin began construction of his tomb the same year that he unified China, presumably knowing that the grand structure would take years to complete. He chose a site in his native province for his tomb, in what is now the modern province of Shaanxi. The tomb occupies a small valley with Lishan Mountain to the south and the Weihe River to the north. Ancient historical records indicate that royal officials assembled as many as 700,000 workers to work on the tomb complex. Although construction began early in Qin’s reign, the tomb was incomplete when Qin died at the age of fifty, in 210 b.c.e. Qin’s son, Hu Hai, continued construction on the tomb for an additional two years, but the unpopularity of his father soon led to Hu Hai’s assassination and the end of the Qin Dynasty.

The Qin tomb is the central structure in a massive funerary complex, surrounded by other facilities paying homage to the great emperor. Descriptions of the complex appear in Shiji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960, rev. ed. 1993), a history of China compiled by the historian Sima Qian a century after Shi Huangdi’s death. Sima Qian recorded that the tomb was the center of what represented an idealized Chinese city. The historian described the mausoleum as constructed of waterproof vermilion stone and flanked by large treasure rooms. The ceiling depicted celestial vistas, and the walls portrayed rural scenes on one side and views of the capital city of Qin on the other. The central chamber contained a large stone sarcophagus holding Shi Huangdi’s remains, surrounded by a stream of mercury representing a silvery river. In addition to Shi Huangdi’s remains, there may be bodies of others in this main chamber. According to legend, Hu Hai entombed many of the tomb’s workers alive within the chamber to protect its secrets. Another story states that Hu Hai had all of Qin’s concubines who had yet to bear a child entombed with the emperor. Protecting the mausoleum was a dirt mound, constructed with loess soil dredged from the Weihe River, 390 feet (120 meters) high (although erosion has reduced the mound to about 213 feet, or 65 meters), covered with trees and plants to resemble a small mountain. Historians are unclear about the purpose of the dirt mound. One theory is that the mound hid the tomb from prospective robbers; and another that the mound is consistent with the ancient concept of qi (ch’i), maintaining harmony by avoiding stark contrasts or disruptions with the natural world.

Surrounding the tomb are two rings of walls. The inner wall measures 1,482 yards (1,355 meters) along the east-west axis by 635 yards (580 meters) along the north-south axis. The outer wall extends 2,370 yards (2,165 meters) by 1,030 yards (940 meters). Within the walls were structures to support and emphasize the tomb structure, placed to indicate their importance and hierarchy. An imperial palace structure existed north of the tomb, intended to house royal visitors to the great mausoleum. Little of the structure remains, but fragments of hipped roofs, royal red tile, and a foundation atop an elaborate internal plumbing system indicate its purpose. The imperial gardens stretched to the west of the tomb. Covering dozens of acres, the gardens extended past the inner defensive wall and to the edge of the outer wall. Small temples to lesser deities dotted the imperial garden, but the largest structure, the Yue Fu, served as a conservatory to house the royal musicians and as an outdoor concert hall.

Surrounding the garden and tomb were a series of sacrificial trenches. To the west, the trenches generally contained the largest and most expensive offerings, such as luxury goods, weapons, armor, and chariots. Within the inner wall on the east side of the tomb were trenches for animal sacrifices. Because of their importance, horses represent the most common sacrifice, with artifact fragments indicating the animal’s place of sacrifice. Attendants slaughtered the offerings in the “middle stable,” “palace stable,” or “left stable” depending on the status of the donor. Figurines of stable boys flanked each of the “stable” trenches, ceremoniously accepting the gift to the emperor. Outside of the inner wall, other trenches served as sacrificial sites for the lower classes. The contents of these trenches contained a variety of smaller animals, some in figurine form but others real animals encased in small earthen caskets.

These terra-cotta warriors were buried in rows to guard the Qin emperor after death.


Filling the remaining space within the inner wall were many auxiliary tombs for lesser members of the royal family. The largest cluster of tombs existed to the east of the main tomb and housed the remains of twenty-eight members of the royal family. According to legend, these twenty-eight represent Hu Hai’s siblings, who he had killed and buried along with their father to ensure his claim to the throne. The largest auxiliary tomb houses the remains of Gao, Hu’s brother and main competitor for the throne. Outside of the inner wall, tombs of the upper class surround the inner complex, while large primitive tomb pits outside the outer wall contain the remains of slaves and the lower class.

The most famous element of the Qin tomb, however, existed beyond the eastern walls. In 1974, workers digging a well uncovered a buried army of terra-cotta warriors in combat formation silently protecting the tomb. Since then, archaeologists have found two other buried formations. Excavations have revealed more than eight thousand figures, and more may remain undiscovered. The life-size warriors represent all ranks, social classes, and branches of service, including horses for the cavalry. Artisans could mass produce the figures by using a standardized mold for the limbs and torso, attaching the parts with a ceramic glaze. The heads, however, are unique to each figure, leading to speculation that the terra-cotta army represented real soldiers from the Qin era. The Chinese practice of burying symbolic figures with an emperor had the practical application of honoring the emperor without destroying those vital to the next ruler. The Records of the Grand Historian of China recorded that when Duke Mu died in 621 b.c.e., his successor entombed 177 of Mu’s ministers and civil servants with him, severely damaging the efficiency of the Chinese government. Hence, the symbolic burial of servants and protectors became a more practical alternative.


The construction of the Qin tomb represented a physical manifestation of not only the majesty of the Qin court but also of the new China. By surpassing the construction efforts of earlier rulers, the Qin emperor’s tomb created a statement in stone that a new China existed, united under his rule, which surpassed the greatness of that of any previous Chinese ruler. After the construction of the complex, the symbolism of the tomb, along with its mythology, provided a central reference point for Chinese history. Although the political capitals of China may change and the dynasties come and go, the first centralized Chinese government, symbolized by the Qin tomb, marked the beginning of China as a nation, rather than China as a divided people. As a physical structure, the Qin tomb is a notable achievement. However, as a symbol, the Qin tomb marked a milestone in Chinese history.

Further Reading

  • Capon, Edmund. Qin Shi Huang: Terracotta Warriors and Horses. Sydney, Australia: International Cultural Corporation, 1983. A basic study of the terra-cotta army defending the Qin tomb.
  • Cotterell, Arthur. Qin: The First Emperor of China. New York: Penguin, 1989. A history of China’s first emperor concentrating on his personality and rise to power.
  • Guiso, R. W. L. The First Emperor of China. New York: Birch Lane, 1989. A history of the first Chinese emperor from a broad Chinese cultural viewpoint.
  • Lazo, Caroline E. The Terra Cotta Army of Emperor Qin. Toronto: New Discovery Books, 1993. An advanced archaeological study of the terra-cotta army written from a more scientific and technical approach.

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