The Terracotta Army – The armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China

The Terracotta Army – The armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China

The man who first ruled over a unified China was born in 259 BC, during the Warring States period, into the royal family of the Qin state, which would rise to become one of the dominant powers in the region.

Little is known about King Zheng of Qin, the man who eventually became known as Qin Shihuangdi, China’s First Emperor. He ascended to the Qin throne at age 13, amid the chaos and conflict of the Warring States period (475-221 BC). Seven major states fought for regional dominance, resulting in centuries of bloody conflict.

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Before age 40, Qin Shihuangdi conquered the last of his rivals and brought the Warring States period to an end. He began to commission his own enormous defensive walls and worked to unite the peoples of his empire for the first time through a common writing system, standardized currency, and a unified system of measurements. These shared cultural bonds, forged by his empire, helped hold the country we now know as China together for more than 2,000 years.

Emperor Qin Shihuang’s tomb paid homage to his superior rank and position as the divine ruler of China. In addition to the magnificent treasures, the First Emperor’s tomb is also a hidden, underground empire. To guard it, Qin Shihuangdi commissioned a massive army of terracotta warriors.

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Archaeologists estimate that there are about 8,000 terracotta figures in the areas surrounding Qin Shihuang’s tomb, including horses, archers, charioteers, infantry, and generals. Most of the terracotta warriors are over six feet tall, substantially larger than the average citizen of the Qin empire at the time.

Each warrior is unique, with distinct faces that mirror the diversity of individuals who would have made up an actual army. The warriors were all painted by hand, enhancing the realism of the army as a whole. Each warrior was also stamped with the name of the foreman responsible for its creation, in order to track any mistakes.

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Emperor Qin Shihuang spent a significant portion of his life preparing for the afterlife, and began construction on his tomb even before becoming Emperor. Archaeologists estimate the creation of the terracotta warriors alone to have taken over 10 years, which represents only a portion of the massive effort that went into creating Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb complex. No contemporary written reports of the tomb’s creation exist; the earliest written stories coming from over a century after the First Emperor’s death. Despite the large size of the site and its place in Chinese history, the terracotta army faded from memory and was effectively lost for centuries.

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