How the Terracotta Army Works

Significance of the Terracotta Army

An inscription Emperor Qin commissioned on the side of Mount Yi in eastern China described him as "the August and Divine Emperor [who] has unified all under one lineage [source: High Museum]." While Qin reveled in his imperial might, he also had good reason to obsess over death. Thousands had perished in the brutal wars to expand his empire, and he dreaded getting his just desserts in the afterlife [source: High Museum]. This explains why the terracotta army is stationed on the eastern side of his tomb. Qin, who hailed from the west, overthrew the kingdoms in the east; the army would block any of those revenge seekers.

By the time of the Qin dynasty, the question of life after death had been discredited by notable philosophers, such as Confucius, but it was still common to bury someone with a symbolic token from his or her life [source: Berger]. For Qin, that token was a scale model replica of his domain. Fancying himself as the ruler of the cosmos, he certainly didn't wish for death to draw the final curtain on his reign.


In perfecting a burial complex that rivals the size of Manhattan, Qin didn't stop at his 7,000-strong army. According to "Records of the Historian" by Han dynasty historian Sima Qian, laborers booby-trapped the room containing Qin's tomb with crossbows. Inside, the historian claimed that mountains chiseled from gold and constellations of pearls embellished the chamber. The text also mentions rivers of mercury, and tests have verified abnormally high mercury levels in the ground above the burial site [source: Hoh].

Out of the 600 pits archaeologists have unearthed across the complex, one relic in particular marks a milestone in Chinese art history. Separated from the terracotta army, a group of 11 acrobats and entertainers sharply contrast the design of the soldiers in their level of anatomical detail. The craftsmen sculpted a strongman with visible biceps and muscle striations in his back. Remarkably, that figure is the earliest example in China of human sculpture with that degree of realism [source: Hessler].

Indeed, Emperor Qin set a high bar for other dynastic rulers' tombs. Some made impressive efforts, but none came close to matching the magnitude of the first emperor's complex.