The incredible history of China’s terracotta warriors – Megan Campisi and Pen-Pen Chen


What happens after death? Is there a restful paradise? An eternal torment? A rebirth? Or maybe just nothingness? Well, one Chinese emperor thought
that whatever the hereafter was, he better bring an army. We know that because in 1974, farmers digging a well
near their small village stumbled upon one of the most important
finds in archeological history: vast underground chambers
surrounding that emperor’s tomb, and containing more than 8,000
life-size clay soldiers ready for battle. The story of the subterranean army
begins with Ying Zheng, who came to power as the king
of the Qin state at the age of 13 in 246 BCE. Ambitious and ruthless, he would go on to become
Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China
after uniting its seven warring kingdoms. His 36 year reign
saw many historic accomplishments, including a universal system
of weights and measures, a single standardized writing script
for all of China, and a defensive barrier that would
later come to be known as the Great Wall. But perhaps Qin Shi Huangdi
dedicated so much effort to securing his historical legacy because he was obsessed
with his mortality. He spent his last years
desperately employing alchemists and deploying expeditions
in search of elixirs of life that would help him achieve immortality. And as early as the first year
of his reign, he began the construction of a massive
underground necropolis filled with monuments, artifacts, and an army to accompany him
into the next world and continue his rule. This magnificent army is still standing
in precise battle formation and is split across several pits. One contains a main force
of 6,000 soldiers, each weighing several hundred pounds, a second has more than 130 war chariots
and over 600 horses, and a third houses the high command. An empty fourth pit suggests
that the grand project could not be finished
before the emperor’s death. In addition, nearby chambers contain
figures of musicians and acrobats, workers and government officials, and various exotic animals, indicating that Emperor Qin
had more plans for the afterlife than simply waging war. All the figurines are sculpted
from terracotta, or baked earth, a type of reddish brown clay. To construct them, multiple workshops
and reportedly over 720,000 laborers were commandeered by the emperor, including groups of artisans who molded
each body part separately to construct statues as individual as
the real warriors in the emperor’s army. They stand according to rank and feature different weapons
and uniforms, distinct hairstyles and expressions, and even unique ears. Originally, each warrior was painted
in bright colors, but their exposure to air
caused the paint to dry and flake, leaving only the terracotta base. It is for this very reason that another
chamber less than a mile away has not been excavated. This is the actual tomb of
Qin Shi Huangdi, reported to contain palaces,
precious stones and artifacts, and even rivers of mercury
flowing through mountains of bronze. But until a way can be found to expose it
without damaging the treasures inside, the tomb remains sealed. Emperor Qin was not alone in wanting
company for his final destination. Ancient Egyptian tombs contain clay models
representing the ideal afterlife, the dead of Japan’s Kofun
period were buried with sculptures of horses and houses, and the graves of the Jaina island
off the Mexican coast are full of ceramic figurines. Fortunately, as ruthless as he was, Emperor Qin chose to have servants
and soldiers built for this purpose, rather than sacrificing living ones
to accompany him, as had been practiced in Egypt,
West Africa, Anatolia, parts of North America and even China during
the previous Shang and Zhou dynasties. And today, people travel from all over
the world to see these stoic soldiers silently awaiting their battle orders
for centuries to come.

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