How the Terracotta Army Works

Other Terracotta Armies

­Despite his desperate quest for immortality, Emperor Qin died in 210 B.C. His dynasty didn't last much longer following his burial, and the Han dynasty claimed power in 206 B.C. During that interim, historians think that vandals looted Qin's precious burial complex, due to evidence of fire in some of the excavation pits and the terracotta warriors found knocked over and broken in pieces.

Another royal tomb was discovered 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Qin's mausoleum in 1990. Emperor Han Ling Di, who took the throne 53 years after Qin, also commissioned a veritable terracotta city for his afterlife. In addition to pottery soldiers, women and eunuchs, the funerary relics also included hundreds of dogs, sheep and pigs in a pit identified as the royal kitchen [source: Hessler]. While the Han tomb doesn't match the scope of Qin's, its terracotta figures signify a distinct difference between the two dynasties. Han Ling Di's are about one-third the height of Qin's mannequin-sized statues. Historians explain this discrepancy as a reflection of the Han dynasty's more equitable ruling style. Consider, for instance, that Han Ling Di adhered to the motto "Do nothing in order to govern," and severely cut taxes and halted forced labor programs [source: Hessler].


South of Beijing in the Shandong province, yet another terracotta army turned up in 2002. Referred to as the Weishan site, it's either the grave of a Han emperor or royal family member. It contains hundreds of foot-tall terracotta soldiers, horses and chariots aligned in a specific military formation with cavalrymen leading the front [source: Wilford]. Experts have cited the Weishan army as the first evidence for Han battle formation, but it also could be an honor guard configuration [source: Lobell]. Though the Weishan site covers approximately 10,000 square feet (929 square meters), the diminutive statue size once again points to the Han dynasty's more benevolent hand.

With nearly 30 royal graves from the Han and Tang dynasties dotting the fields around the Emperor Qin's mausoleum, Chinese archeologists have decades of digging ahead of them. The Chinese government monitors the grounds above the fabled gold mountains and rivers of mercury within Qin's tomb chamber. As archeologists plow onward, countless tourists file through the ancient village for a glimpse at one of the most compelling relics of history. Though 7,000 terracotta warriors couldn't keep the prying masses away, Emperor Qin would be undoubtedly pleased that his legacy has endured so long.

Rela­ted HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Berger, Patricia. "Body Doubles: Sculpture for the Afterlife." Orientations Magazine. February 1998.
  • Goho, A. "The March of History." Science News. Nov. 29, 2003.
  • Hessler, Peter. 'Rising to Life." National Geographic. Vol. 200. Issue 4. October 2001. (Feb. 14, 2009)
  • Hoh, Erling. "China's Great Enigma." Archeology. Vol. 54. Issue 5. September/October 2001. (Feb. 13, 2009)
  • Lobell, Jarrett A. "Warriors of Clay." Archeology. Vol. 56. Issue 2. March/April 2003. (Feb. 13, 2009)
  • Loewe, Michael. "China's First Empire." History Today. Vol. 57. No. 9. September 2007.
  • "The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army." High Museum of Art. Atlanta. Feb. 12, 2009.
  • Viegas, Jennifer. "China's Terracotta Army Covered in Egg." Discovery News. April 18, 2008. (Feb. 13, 2009)
  • Viegas, Jennifer. "Terracotta army made in two batches." Discovery News. Feb. 6, 2007. (Feb. 13, 2009)