Skip to main content

An Informative Essay on the Terracotta Army

Rhylee Suyom has hopped in three different worlds: the academe, the corporate, and the media. He enjoys being with nature and his family.

The Terracotta Warriors

An Informative Essay on the Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army or also known as the Terracotta Warriors and Horses is a collection of life-size sculptures in battle formation. It is a reproduction of the imperial guards of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. He was recognized in history as the first emperor who was able to unify the dynasties of Imperial China. The sculptures are known in China as “兵马俑 (Bīng Mǎ Yǒng)”. The groups of sculptures were discovered in pits containing around 8,000 pieces of exquisite figures and horses. The figures consist of soldiers in varied ranks from generals to resolute military officers and vivid soldiers.

The Army in Details

The sculptures are believed to be about 2,200 years old; they were built according to the order of Emperor Qin Shi Huang which is meant to protect him in his afterlife. The large number of sculptures and their size is proof of the immense power of the Qin dynasty and the wealth of China at that time. Building the cost of the sculpture is around 2,000 kilograms of silver. The strong military force and economy of China enabled the construction of these sculptures.

The army is found in troop formation with the soldiers and chariots positioned strategically in a defensive stance. The total composition of the sculptures is 8,000 warriors, 100 chariots, 400 horses, and more than 100,000 weapons. The front row consists of three rows of crossbowmen positioned to launch a long-range attack, followed by the main force of infantry and chariots. On the sides were the cavalry troops strategically placed to outflank the enemies (China Highlights, 2018).

The sculptures were found in three pits, the first one is about 230 meters long and 62 meters wide which is equal to two football fields, here were found the 6, 0000 figures and 50 chariots in military formation; the second pit measures half the first pit but contains the most number of crossbowmen, infantry, cavalry, and chariots; while the third pit represents the headquarters and inside were only 68 figures, four horses, one chariot and 34 weapons.

How Was the ‘Army’ Discovered?

The pits were discovered by farmers in the land which was also believed to be a former royal burial place. As observed from the excavation the size of the sculptures is bigger than the average height of warriors. The shortest of the figures measures 1.78 meters while the tallest was 2 meters. On average the height of the warriors is about 1.90 meters which is still taller than any modern Chinese man. The reason given why the soldiers were made to be taller is close combat is one of the major forms of battle during those times and having a bigger soldier is needed, second, having a taller army is more impressive and represented the strength of the emperor.

Unique Features per Character

Given a large number of soldiers made, it was noticeable that each has different facial features from others, which makes the Terracotta Army more interesting. With only eight molds use to create the profile of each soldier’s head, it was an excellent task for the craftsmen to make each soldier look like a different individual. This craftsmanship is reflected in the vivid facial expressions created by each of the soldiers.

Originally the sculptures’ hair, beard, and eyebrows were painted in black to make them look like real people. The uniforms of the warriors were in colorful designs painted in purple, scarlet, orange, black, and green. The paint on the sculptures has been preserved because of the moist temperature underground where they had been kept for years. But after the sculptures have been excavated and exposed to a more humid environment, the surface showed more cracks and the colors faded. Aside from the sculptures made from clay, there is also an inclusion of bronze chariots and horses in the army. These were also part of the excavated army but have been worn into pieces. The renovation was done in order to restore the figures to their original appearance. And these remained to be the largest and best-preserved bronze artifacts in China (Age of Sage, 2018).

The purpose behind the Sculptures

The terracotta army was built to secure and serve the emperor after his death, this was also to retain his status of military power the same way he enjoyed it while he was still alive. The life-size sculptures and a large number of which were built also show Emperor Qin’s glory as he led his army in wars against other states and eventually united China. The terracotta army was also built for the purpose of replacing human sacrifices. In the tradition of rulers from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, when the emperor dies, their soldiers, officials, and other attendants are also buried along with the dead emperor. In the case of Emperor Qin instead of burying his actual people, the terracotta figures were used as replacements.

What makes the terracotta army more fascinating is the way each has been built. There are no modern tools yet available then which means then all the warriors and horses were built by hand. There are more than 700, 000 artisans and laborers who were commissioned to build the terracotta army and the tomb complex. The body parts of the warriors were made separately and later assembled together. Molds were used for the hollow torso, solid head, arms, and legs. It took the artisans and workers forty years to complete the warriors. And to ensure the quality of each sculpture, the foreman responsible for creating it puts a stamp or mark in order to track down any mistakes.

Some of the warriors do not have heads and yet their bodies are complete when these were studied further it was proven that each part has been made separately and had just been put together. After the heads and arms were created in separate modules clay was applied on the surface of each sculpture to help the artists do the faces and hairdo of each warrior. After this, the figures were placed in the kiln to make the clay hard and durable. The painting was done as a final touch on the sculptures. This was the reason why every figure looked unique from the others.

The details of making the sculptures may be put in a six-step process commencing with the gathering of the clay. The gathered clay was placed in molds that were meant to form the legs, torso, head, short tunic, arms, and hands of the warriors. When the parts were finished, the parts were put together and then the details on the faces were carved. When the carving is finished each sculpture is placed in the kiln and then painted (China Highlights, 2018).

The timeline in building the sculptures began in 246 BC, the terracotta army was constructed to protect Emperor Qin. In 210 BC Emperor Qin died, and in 206 BC the construction of the army has been completed. The succeeding years went by until the first batch of the army was discovered by the farmers who are doing well. After which the other pits were discovered too. But it was only in 1979 that the collection of the terracotta army was presented to the public. And in 1987 the terracotta army was declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site and three auxiliary museums were opened.

The terracotta army is considered one of the best archaeological discoveries. The life-size sculptures not only stand for the artistic skills of the artisans and laborers who worked for forty years but the army was also a reflection of the tradition and culture of China. The way the warriors are positioned in each of the pits, the unique facial expression, and the ranks including the swords, arrow tips, and weapons were all made with the finest artistic skills.

The warriors appeared to be positioned in trench-like underground corridors where clay horses are also aligned four abreast and the chariots behind them.

Scroll to Continue

The Terracotta Army and the Emperor

When Ying Zheng assumed the throne, he had already the vision of uniting the warring kingdoms of China. He had imposed changes in order to attain this such as the use of standardized coins, weights, and measures and opening canals and roads to link the states. He was the one who initiated the first Great Wall. While he was still alive, historians have written, that Emperor Qin already ordered the construction of a mausoleum. This project has been shortly interrupted by a small uprising but was still pursued. There were three pits discovered all filled with warriors but there was also the fourth one, but it is still empty. This was proof of the construction that has been interrupted leaving the project unfinished.

The pits that were filled with the army reflect the models of palaces, pavilions, and offices including the fine vessels, precious stones, and rarities enjoyed by China during Qin’s rule. The tombs or pits are a replication of the rivers and streams area that was filled with mercury going through the hills and mountains of bronze. There were also precious stones like pearls which represent the moon, the stars, and the sun. When the area has been tested it was revealed that there is a high level of concentration of mercury. The stair-like underground chamber design of the pit shows that the mausoleum was designed to be the chamber that will hold the soul of the emperor after his death. There were only three pits filled with the terracotta army but the other pits excavated around the area showed dancers, musicians, and acrobats that seem to show what life was when caught in the middle of a performance giving a contrasting effect to the terracotta sculptures (National Geographic, 2018).

The accidental discovery of the life-size clay sculpture has motivated the government to continue the excavation because of the extraordinary insights into the history of China and its evolution through time under different leaders. So far, the terracotta army remains the most outstanding sculpture discovered. The astounding positions of each piece and the facial hair, position of the arms; arms raised, at the sides and folded plus the headgear differentiated every piece.

The details included in the pit when the terracotta army was discovered added to the artistic and cultural value of the sculptures. The vast landscape of the area with the tomb of the emperor at its center presents the mercury-rich underground palaces that lead to a bronze landscape, the artificial birds which symbolize the vibrant and natural world, and the imperial architecture of life after death. There is also the chamber which contains skeletons believed to be those of the craftsmen who built the sculptures and those of the murdered princes, animals sacrificed, and the convicts who were still bound to chains.

The overall condition of the tomb illuminates the life during the reign of Emperor Qin, though his dynasty did not last after his death. Scholars look at the terracotta army as a model of how Emperor Qin would like to prepare for his death. The military organization of warriors of different ranks, the terracotta army is also the legacy of Qin being the first emperor of China. The portrayal in the sculpture of himself riding on a chariot and the structures of the entire tomb reflects the life Qin had in the palace.

The terracotta army is also a reflection of the craft practices that have been prevalent during the reign of Emperor Qin. As early as the onset of his reign as an emperor Qin already know what he wants and even at the young age of 13 he already ordered the sculptures to be made. All the workers and artisans contributed to the project despite its massive size. Each sculpture required the craftsmen to do the individual pieces separately. The chariots were the most delicate to create, as fragile as they are to be built and the complexity of the process they were kept in China. And without modern technology to help the workers, it was indeed amazing to build the army. The swords of the warriors were coated with chromium oxide in order to preserve them and prevent corrosion and to strengthen the metal too. It is a method that has some similarities to modern technologies now.

It was one of the wonders the craftsmen applied to the sculptures because the method of chromium oxide coating has not been popular until the 1920s when George Sargent used it to keep silverware and bathroom fixtures from rusting. The workers during the time of Qin has already some knowledge about chemical conservation, there is no explanation yet as to how they have learned it but the way the weapons have been remarkably preserved is a piece of evidence.

It took so much time, monetary investment, and a tremendous workforce of skilled laborers to finish this funerary art. As it was intended for life after the death of the emperor it was not really meant to be for the living. The belief in life after death is part of the Chinese tradition and the relics around the tomb of the emperor when he was buried shows all the experiences and the things he had enjoyed in his lifetime. As the emperor reigned and enjoyed festivities so was his leadership also laced with wars and battles that is why Qin also believed that he needed to retain his military protection until his afterlife. The entertainers, clay musicians, acrobats, animals, and other things are included as well to keep him entertained and cure his boredom (Cohen, 2018).

Why Build Such Wonder?

The significance of the Terracotta Army is not just limited to its archaeological value, it is also important in providing insights to the world about the artistic practices and burial rituals of ancient China. The sculptures show the distinct funerary art and the unequaled scale of the sculptures not only in terms of the individual size but of the entire collection itself. The construction of the necropolis illustrates the region of China that has been filled with jade mines and gold and immortalizes the triumphs and life of its first emperor. The rare jewels and architectural models used in the necropolis and the thousands of specially crafted terracotta soldiers indicate the high level of artistry that the people already possess during that time.

Building terracotta sculptures is not an easy task. The forty years of construction required consistency of the skills of the craftsmen and a good eye for details for the artisans who prepared the molded pieces. The assemblage of each warrior, horse, chariot, and their weapons and the finishing with colorful paint draw the attention of observers to the creativity of the Chinese that despite using the same molds for the pieces, each of the thousands of warriors made has been accorded its own distinct features, not only in terms of the position they exhibit but also on their facial expressions. This is a manifestation of the artisanship of the workers (Richman-Abdou, 2018).

Materials Used and Science Behind the Build

The choice of material for the terracotta army is also proof of the keen artistic skills and knowledge of the craftsmen. The “yellow material” or clay has been taken from the sources also found around the burial area. It was easily obtained and was chosen for its adhesive quality and plasticity. This enables the men to mold the clay into the desired shapes of the body parts and use it also to glue together the pieces during the assemblage. The yellow material has been screened thoroughly to remove any impurities and the workers made sure that before it was used it was perfectly fine and pure. A reasonable amount of white grit that contains quarts of sand, mica, and feldspar was also added to the clay. The grit was meant to strengthen the mechanical properties of the material allowing easier manipulation in shaping the figures. Mud was also used by the artisan to prepare the roughcast which molded the sections from top to bottom. The foot plate was made from a square pattern; the feet were made from two legs and short pants. The muscle and bone structures were made to look lifelike by the artisans who took care of the sculpting. The short pants were made with a carving of a circle cord pattern that was glued on prefabricated pieces of mud that has been molded like short pants. For the upper body winding strips of clay were placed upwards and to keep the clay strips bound together tight and strong the artisans put sackcloth underneath. This was then pounded outside until the desired shaped and size were achieved.

The arms were also in corresponding molds, bent arms were separately done where the elbow is divided and just glued later. The hands were molded the same way the straight arms were done. When these have been dried under the sun the artisans attached the hollow arms to the torso and then the hands were put and glued on the arms. Making the head is the most difficult task and most complicated too. The artisans must prepare a front and back mold of the head which was glued together and then layers of mud were applied in order to achieve the desired facial shapes. Using alternately kneading, carving, scraping, and pasting techniques the craftsmen were able to put in perfectly the eyebrows, eyes, noses, mouths, ears, hair buns, and hats with decorations for the warriors. The facial expression on each of the sculpture was reproductions of the individual Qin warriors.

The terracotta warriors are made to look life-like, and this was achieved because of the careful carving of the body parts and the technical details added for the finishing. The workers made sure that the sculptures would really look like the real warriors of the emperor. During the process of heating, the workers put small holes in selected places on each sculpture to facilitate the flames to enter the cavity of the body and dry it perfectly. The temperature was also maintained at 1,000 C to keep the sculpture perfectly done and prevent them from burning. The figures were also placed upside down during the kilning process because the head part is heavier than the lower part. This was to ensure the stability of the figures based on the knowledge of Chinese on finding the center of gravity.

Glazed and coloring was the last step in the process. Though they may have seemed to be all gray in color now but has just been the effect of exposure to humidity. The artisans also made sure that until the process of painting the warriors will still look splendid and majestic (Travel China Guide, 2018).


Age of the Sage. n.d. 23 November 2018 <>.

China Highlights. n.d. 23 November 2018 <>.

Cohen, Alina. "Artsy." 7 August 2018. 23 November 2018 <>.

National Geographic. n.d. 23 November 2018 <>.

Richman-Abdou, Kelly. My Modern Met. 22 April 2018. 23 November 2018 <>.

Travel China Guide. n.d. 23 November 2018 <>.

Related Articles