The Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang and the Projection of Power

What makes a great leader?  How do we know when a government is powerful? Can these words “great” and “powerful” mean different things?

This lesson was reported from:

Lintong, Xi’an, Shaanxi, China.

Adapted in part from open sources.

The Terracotta Warriors of Qin Shi Huang are arranged much the same way that they were upon the emperor’s death some 2000 years ago.  Today, they are housed in three large pits, shielded from the elements by a modern roof. (Xian, China, 2015.)

The First Emperor

Qin Shi Huang (260–210 BC) was the King of the state of Qin (r. 246–221 BC) who conquered all other Warring States and united China in 221 BC. Rather than maintain the title of king borne by the earlier Shang and Zhou rulers, he ruled as the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty from 220 to 210 BC. The title emperor (huangdi) would continue to be borne by Chinese rulers for the next two millennia.

Qin Shi Huang enacted major economic and political reforms aimed at the standardization of the diverse practices of the earlier Chinese states. This process also led to the banning and burning of many books and the execution of recalcitrant scholars. His public works projects included the unification of diverse state walls into a single Great Wall of China and a massive new national road system, as well as the city-sized mausoleum guarded by the life-sized Terracotta Army. He ruled until his death in 210 BC after a futile search for an elixir of immortality.

Qin Shi Huang
Qin Shi Huang

The Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army or the “Terracotta Warriors and Horses” is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife.  It can also be regarded as a form of power projection – the means by which a government displays its authority, wealth, and overall strength, often sending a message to others about its priorities, goals, and values.

Each warrior was handcrafted – not from a mold – and displays subtle differences. They look like individual soldiers. (Xian, China, 2015.)

The figures, dating from approximately the late third century BCE, were rediscovered in 1974 by local farmers in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province. The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots and horses.

Estimates from 2007 were that the three pits containing the Terracotta Army held more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which remained buried in the pits nearby Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. Other terracotta non-military figures were found in other pits, including officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians.

The Mausoleum

In addition to the warriors, an entire necropolis built for the emperor was found surrounding the first emperor’s tomb mound. The earthen tomb mound is located at the foot of Mount Li and built in a pyramidal shape with Qin Shi Huang’s necropolis complex constructed as a microcosm of his imperial palace or compound.

According to the writings of historian Sima Qian (145–90 BCE), work on the mausoleum began in 246 BCE soon after Emperor Qin (then aged 13) ascended the throne. The project eventually involved 700,000 workers.

The exterior of the Emperor's mausoleum as it appears today.
The exterior of the Emperor’s mausoleum as it appears today.

The First Emperor was buried with palaces, towers, officials, valuable artifacts and wondrous objects. According to one account, 100 rivers had their flow simulated by mercury, and above them the ceiling was decorated with heavenly bodies below which were the features of the land.

High levels of mercury were found in the soil of the tomb mound, giving credence to Sima Qian’s account.


The terracotta army figures were manufactured in workshops by government laborers and local craftsmen using local materials. Heads, arms, legs, and torsos were created separately and then assembled.  Eight face molds were most likely used, with clay added after assembly to provide individual facial features. It is believed that the warriors’ legs were made in much the same way that terracotta drainage pipes were manufactured at the time. This would classify the process as assembly line production, with specific parts manufactured and assembled after being fired, as opposed to crafting one solid piece and subsequently firing it.

In those times of tight imperial control, each workshop was required to inscribe its name on items produced to ensure quality control. This has aided modern historians in verifying which workshops were commandeered to make tiles and other mundane items for the terracotta army. Upon completion, the terracotta figures were placed in the pits in precise military formation according to rank and duty.

The terracotta figures are life-sized. They vary in height, uniform, and hairstyle in accordance with rank. Most originally held real weapons such as spears, swords, or crossbows. Originally, the figures were also painted with bright pigments, variously colored pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white and lilac.  The colored lacquer finish, individual facial features, and weapons used in producing these figures increased the figures’ realism. Most of the original weapons were looted shortly after the creation of the army, or have rotted away, while the color coating flaked off or greatly faded.
(Click to expand)


Weapons such as swords, spears, battle-axes, scimitars, shields, crossbows, and arrowheads were found in the pits. Some of these weapons, such as the swords are sharp and were coated with a 10–15 micrometre layer of chromium dioxide and kept the swords rust-free for 2,000 years. The swords contain an alloy of copper, tin, and other elements including nickel, magnesium, and cobalt. Some carry inscriptions that date manufacture between 245 and 228 BCE, indicating they were used as weapons before their burials.

An important element of the army is the chariot, of which four types were found. In battle the fighting chariots form pairs at the head of a unit of infantry. The principal weapon of the charioteers was the ge or dagger-axe, an L-shaped bronze blade mounted on a long shaft used for sweeping and hooking at the enemy. Infantrymen also carried ge on shorter shafts, ji or halberds and spears and lances. For close fighting and defense, both charioteers and infantrymen carried double-edged straight swords. The archers carried crossbows, with sophisticated trigger mechanisms, capable of firing arrows farther than 800 meters (2,600 ft).


(Click to expand)
(Click to expand)

The Bottom Line

1. Could a weak emperor create the terracotta warriors?  In support of your answer, describe the process of the creation of the terracotta army.

2. Analyze the ways in which Qin Shi Huang’s burial complex serves as a figurative and literal projection of imperial power – what does this demonstrate about his empire’s levels of prosperity and technology, as well as its power relative to its rivals?  How does the emperor want to be perceived?  In the modern day, do you think we are impressed by his greatness in the ways he would have wanted?

3. Analyze the following modern projections of Chinese power – what message is China trying to send to its people and to the world at large with these grand projects?

4. In what ways does your nation project its power?  What messages does it send to the people of your country and to the nations of the world?  Do you agree or disagree with these national priorities?


Notice the subtle variations in armor, pose, and facial features. (Xian, China, 2015.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

Scenes from China, 2015 – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.

Transmissions from the Emperor’s Heavenly Ford Volume One – A diary of my time teaching English in China, originally published as a zine in 2011.

Transmissions from the Emperor’s Heavenly Ford Volume Two – A diary of my time teaching English in China, originally published as a zine in 2011.



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