In 1974, workers digging a well near Xi’an, China, stumbled upon a remarkable find: a life-sized clay soldier ready for combat. The discovery was just the tip of the iceberg. As more excavation took place, a vast army comprising about 8,000 terracotta soldiers and horses emerged.
These soldiers stand in underground, trench-like corridors. In some passages, four clay horses stand side by side, with wooden chariots (which have now decayed) behind them. Each soldier boasts a distinct facial expression and stands based on their rank. Although their appearance now is predominantly gray, traces of paint suggest that their uniforms were once vividly colored. Swords, arrowheads, and numerous other weapons have also been found, many still in impeccable condition.
Recreated figures of an archer and an officer, showing how they would have looked when painted
This impressive terracotta army was part of a grand mausoleum crafted for the first emperor of China, ensuring he was well-guarded in his afterlife.
Qin Shi Huang, the man behind this massive project, lived from around 259 to 210 BCE. He became the first emperor of a united China and laid the foundation of the Qin dynasty. During his 35-year reign, he was a paradox. On one hand, he brought about rapid cultural and intellectual progress, introducing standardized coins, weights, and measures, and enhancing connectivity with roads and canals. Moreover, he kickstarted the construction of the Great Wall of China. On the other hand, his rule saw significant destruction and oppression.
Posthumous depiction of Qin Shi Huang, 19th century
As he aged, the fear of death consumed Qin Shi Huang. He became fixated on discovering the secret to eternal life. As a result, his courtiers, doctors, and alchemists developed various elixirs, many comprising mercury. Ironically, these may have accelerated his demise. Records from court historian Siam Qian mention that the emperor was advised he would only achieve immortality if he could move around unnoticed. This led him to construct hidden walkways between his palaces.
In 215 BCE, hedging his bets against the uncertainty of the elixirs, the emperor commanded the creation of a massive tomb for himself. The tomb’s design featured mercury rivers, booby traps with crossbows to deter grave robbers, and miniature versions of his palaces. This colossal project involved 700,000 laborers and was meant to safeguard the emperor in the afterlife. The tomb and its statues were still an ongoing project when the emperor passed away in 210 BCE.
This enormous burial site, spanning 20 square miles (50 square km), is still under excavation. Currently, four pits have been unearthed. Three contain terracotta soldiers, chariots, and weaponry, while the fourth remains empty, revealing the project’s incompletion. It’s believed that up to 8,000 figures could be buried here, but the exact number remains uncertain.
Terracotta Army General (Left), Mid-rank officer of the Terracotta Army in Xi’an (right)
Despite records from Siam Qian hinting at even more incredible treasures within Qin’s tomb, the burial chamber itself remains unexplored. The historian’s writings describe the tomb’s interior, complete with mercury-made rivers and mountains crafted from bronze. Pearls and other precious gems allegedly symbolize celestial bodies.
Surrounding the tomb, other pits have been found containing lively figures of dancers, musicians, and acrobats, contrasting the stoic military figures. Yet, the main tomb remains undisturbed.
Duan Qinbao, a researcher with the Shaanxi Provincial Archaeology Institute, stated in China Daily, “It is best to keep the ancient tomb untouched, because of the complex conditions inside.”
Words of wisdom
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” —Chinese Proverb
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” —Chinese Proverb
“Man cannot be judged by looks; seas cannot be measured by the cup.” —Chinese Proverb
“It’s better to be without a book than to believe a book entirely.” —Chinese Proverb