The 6 Greatest Mysteries of the Terracotta Army

Written by Sally Guo Updated Apr. 28, 2022

Labeled the eighth wonder of the world, the Terracotta Army represents to a large extent the style and features of China's ancient Qin dynasty.

Current excavation of the Terracotta Army only accounts for 1% of the whole of Emperor Qin’s Mausoleum, just the tip of the iceberg. But even on this little “tip”, there are still many mysteries waiting to be uncovered.

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1. Why the Terracotta Army Was Colorful?

According to historical records, after unifying China, Qin Shihuang selected black as the most honorable color, so the Qin dynasty was supposed to promote black. When originally made, however, the Terracotta Army figures were painted in various bright colors.

Statistics show there are dozens of colors on the costumes of terracotta warriors, including red, pink, purple, blue, green, black, white, ocher, etc. This seems to be inconsistent with the fact that “the Qin people promote black”, but the reason is still unknown.

2. How Did They Make It?

Together with terracotta warriors and horses, many bronze weapons were also found and they are still shining as new as they were 2,000 years ago. Experts discovered that every bronze sword has a dense layer of chromium dioxide on the surface. However, this technology, the electroplating of chromium, did not appear until the 20th century. The reason for it is awaiting discovery.

3. The Legend of the Golden Goose

The precious funerary objects inside the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor led to many legends and tales over thousands of years. One of the most famous was that of the flying goose.

According to historical records, after Xiang Yu, autocratic King of the Chu, took over the central Shaanxi plain, he wantonly destroyed the mausoleum and all the ground buildings were burned up in a moment, which was most likely the first and greatest catastrophe suffered by the imperial site.

At the time, Xiang Yu had ordered more than 300,000 people to excavate the tomb of Qin Shihuang. When people opened the first gate of the mausoleum and were about to take away the rare treasures inside, a golden goose suddenly flew out southwards.

red face army
Red Face Terracotta Army

5. Who Burned the Terracotta Warriors and Horses?

When excavating the terracotta warriors and horses, archaeologists found almost all the wooden structures in pits 1 and 2 were burned to carbon or ash. The pits collapsed after being burned. The statues inside were smashed and few were completed. Who set the fire? There are three ideas:

1. The Qin people burned the objects and buildings around the tomb so that the souls of the deceased would take those things to the underworld. But if they were really burned because of ancient funeral customs, why was pit 3 not also burned?

2. According to historical records, Xiang Yu’s army set fire to Qin’s palaces and the fire lasted three months. But in the same records, not a single word mentioned the Qin Terracotta Army.

3. Organic matter such as funeral objects in the pits emitted biogas which led to spontaneous combustion. But why did the same not happen to pit 3, in the same kind of environment

6. Why Are There No Terracotta Commanders?

No commander has been excavated among the terracotta warriors and horses. Some people believe that according to Qin’s system, the king of Qin appointed a general as commander in chief every time the army went out to battle.

Some think that Qin Shihuang was the supreme commander of the Qin army. To maintain the absolute authority and sacred dignity of the emperor, the image of Qin Shihuang should not be molded into a terracotta statue. Both arguments are just speculation.

Terracotta Army Tour with Beijing and Shanghai

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