Top 5 Stories of the Terracotta Army

Written by Sally Guo Updated May. 26, 2022

In the Slave Society of China, people believed that they would go to the netherworld after death. The nobles would kill their servants as part of a ritual, for receiving the same service and treatment after they died, which was called human sacrifices.

When Qin Shihuang unified the Chinese empire at the age of 22, he ordered his subordinates to build a large-scale mausoleum to perfect his afterlife.

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1. Pottery Figures Replaced Human Sacrifices

Qin Shihuang ordered his prime minister Li Si to collect thousands of young boys and girls bury alive for him. This terrified Li because he knew it would certainly be strongly opposed by the people and might even lead to civil revolt. So he suggested substituting actual human sacrifices with pottery figures. The Emperor thought this made sense and changed his mind. He issued a plan to make a large-scale army with life-sized terracotta warriors and horses.

Come Up with An Idea for Making Parts Separately

Several days later, after a nationwide search, Li selected hundreds of craftsmen to complete the mission. None of the artisans, however, had ever made life-sized terracotta statues. More than a hundred of them were killed after failing many times.

One of the older craftsmen, before his death, told his son to kiln different parts of a body separately and then assemble them to make a complete warrior. This idea succeeded.

Using this technique, artisans worked day and night and finally made thousands of terracotta soldiers and horses on schedule. These were later arranged in neat formation and became the magnificent Terracotta Army.

It took over 720,000 people to work for 38 years to finish the elaborate construction of Emperor Qin's Mausoleum (including the Terracotta Army).

underground terracotta army
Underground Terracotta Army

2. Workers Buried Alive

After Qin Shihuang died, his son Qin Ershi inherited the throne. Qin Ershi was afraid that the artisans would reveal the secrets of the tomb. He secretly moved the coffin of Qin Shihuang into the mausoleum and held a celebration to reward all those who had participated in the construction for their hard work.

The poor workers, however, who had sweated to build the mausoleum, were all fooled by Qin Ershi. As soon as they stepped into the tomb, the entrance closed, and they were imprisoned alive, becoming funerary objects.

On excavation of the Terracotta Army, hundreds of skeletons were found in the pits where the terracotta soldiers stand guard.

terracotta army
Pit 1 Unearthed Terracotta Army

4. Searching for Immortality

After unifying China, Qin Shihuang hoped he would be able to rule the country for thousands of generations. Fearing death, however, he became obsessed with finding the “elixir of life”, which would enable him to live forever.

He spent enormous resources trying to find the elixir, but there was no such thing. Instead, he ordered thousands of workers to build a luxurious underground palace and the grand Terracotta Army, in order to take with him supreme power to the underworld and create an unrivaled empire in the afterlife.

visit terracotta museun
Terracotta Warriors Display

5. Flying Wild 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 (项羽, 232–202 BC), 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.

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