Emperor Qin’s Terracotta Army Art
The Terracotta Army art refers to a collection of sculptures, which are thought to represent armies of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (February 18, 259 BC – September 10, 210 BC). According to Agnew (2010, 214), the Terracotta Army was accidentally discovered on March 29, 1974, as farmers dug water well in Lintong, which is located approximately 1.5 kilometers from Shi Huang’s tomb. The Terracotta Army was made up of over 8,000 soldiers, chariots, and cavalry horses, and they were buried in a tomb in Mount Li. This specific location was allegedly chosen for the tomb due to its geology, “famed for its jade mines, its northern side was rich in gold, and its southern side rich in beautiful jade; the first emperor, covetous of its fine reputation, therefore chose to be buried there” (Clements 2007, 157). This paper seeks to discuss the Terracotta Army art, which provides an insight into the third century when it was produced, specifically concerning superstitious beliefs of the time.
The Terracotta Army
The artist of the Terracotta Army is unknown, but it is believed that its construction started after Qin Shi Huang established the Qin Empire in 221 BCE, and it was most likely completed after his death. Each of the thousands of soldiers in this clay army has unique facial characteristics, and they are arranged according to rank to mimic the usual positioning of officers in a normal army. In the present time, the sculptures have turned gray, but patches of paint in different parts indicate that the soldiers probably wore brightly colored clothes (Bonaduce et al. 2008, 103). The Terracotta Army represents the 3rd-century civilization, specifically the period between 246 BC and 210 BC when Emperor Qin Shi Huang ruled the Qin Empire. One of the controversial debates surrounding this art is the reasons behind its creation. Therefore, different theories have emerged to explain why this piece of art was made, but three major ones stand out.
The first argument is that the Terracotta Army was created to protect the Emperor’s military power and rule after his death. Emperor Qin was allegedly obsessed with his immortality, and after ascending to power at a young age of 13 years, he wanted to ensure that his rule was protected even in the afterlife (Kesner 1995, 115). This theory is supported by the fact that during the 3rd century, wars between states were a common occurrence. Additionally, after becoming an emperor, Qin consolidated different warring states to establish the Qin Empire. For the first time, Chinese lands were unified politically and culturally through a centralized bureaucracy. In other words, Emperor Qin was a pioneer in the unification of China, and, thus, it made sense that he would want to protect this accomplishment even in the afterlife.
Additionally, as noted earlier, Emperor Qin was convinced that he was immortal, and even after his death, he would continue living based on feudalistic superstition. The underlying belief of this superstitious notion was that people continued to enjoy life even after they died. Therefore, it will suffice to argue that Emperor Qin wanted an army that could protect him in the afterlife as a continuation of what he had started during his earthly life.
The second theory holds that the Terracotta Army was made to display the power and glory of Emperor Qin. As argued earlier, Emperor Qin was a pioneer in unifying different warring states in China at the time to consolidate power and form the first Chinese Empire. This achievement was to be celebrated and presented to the world to acknowledge Qin’s rare abilities. Therefore, the Emperor commissioned the creation of the Terracotta Army for the world to see his power and for Chinese descendants to remember him as a legend. However, this theory has some weaknesses because Emperor Qin could easily portray the power of his army by engaging in wars as opposed to creating a clay army.
The third theory concerning this army is that these statutes were meant to substitute human sacrifices. In feudal societies, kings, leaders, and soldiers would be buried together with their possessions including weapons, jewelry, and slaves among other sacrificial objects. However, Emperor Qin treasured his army and power above everything else. Therefore, given that he could not be buried with his soldiers, he commissioned the creation of clay substitutes to replace his earthly army. However, this theory is implausible because the Terracotta Army was found buried in a tomb several miles away from Emperor Qin’s grave.
The majority of the Terracotta soldiers were complete and elaborate, and it took archeologists a long time to understand how such indestructible sculptures could be created within a short time when Emperor Qin ruled. The sculptures are made of a form of clay called yellow earth, which was locally available near the tomb (Hu et al. 2007, 1153). This material was easy to obtain at the time, and it is highly adhesive. In the 3rd century, technology had not been advanced, and, thus, it is assumed that soldiers, horses, and locally available tools were used to make the sculptures. Additionally, given the short period within which the Terracotta Army was made, it is estimated that thousands of workers were involved in its creation.
This piece of art reflects the values of the civilization that created it based on the underlying reasons for its creation. As discussed earlier, the most plausible theory is that the army was created to protect Emperor Qin in his afterlife. This argument indicates that superstition was widespread in 3rd-century China when the Emperor ruled. This argument could be rebutted by claiming that only Emperor Qin was superstitious. However, the Emperor did not live in isolation, and he probably copied these beliefs from society. Second, to mobilize thousands of workers to complete such an enormous task within a short time implies that the soldiers also believed in the afterlife. It takes intrinsic motivation, inspiration, and conviction to execute such a project within a limited period. Therefore, it is possible to argue that the civilization that created the Terracotta Army believed in the superstition of the afterlife where people would continue living as they did during their time on Earth.
The Terracotta Army is a collection of thousands of sculptures, which were made in the 3rd century during the reign of the first Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The sculptures were discovered accidentally in 1974 in a tomb in Lintong. The artists who made the sculptures are unknown, but it is thought that soldiers working for the Emperor were involved in the making of the clay warriors. Even though several theories have been used to explain why the Terracotta Army was made, the most credible one holds that the clay soldiers were created to protect the Emperor in his afterlife. This argument provides an insight into the 3rd century when this piece of art was produced, specifically concerning superstitious beliefs of the time.
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Clements, Jonathan. 2007. The First Emperor of China. Stroud: Sutton Publishers.
Hu, Ya-Qin, Zhong-Li Zhang, Subir Bera, David Ferguson, Cheng-Sen Li, Wen-Bin Shao, and Yu-Fei Wang. 2007. “What can Pollen Grains from the Terracotta Army Tell Us?” Journal of Archaeological Science 34 (7): 1153-1157.
Kesner, Ladislav. 1995. “Likeness of No One:(re)presenting the First Emperor’s Army.” The Art Bulletin 77 (1): 115-132.