How the Terracotta Army Works

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Candace Keynard: Hello, and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Editor Candace Keynard joined, as always, by Writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace.

Candace Keynard: Hey, Jane. So, a couple of weeks ago, one of our colleagues, Kristin Conger got to go see the Terracotta Army Exhibition at the High Museum of Art and she wrote this fantastic article about it and we couldn't resist sharing it with everyone today.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's right. It's really exciting that they're able to take a couple of these soldiers and bring them around. They're at the British Museum for a while and we're lucky enough to be in Atlanta and they brought them here to the High. And it's a really cool story about this Terracotta Army. It's actually just discovered in the 70s and it all has to do with this emperor who unified China actually. He was considered basically the first emperor of China and his name is Qin Shi Huangdi and if we go back to about the 6th Century B.C. China, at that time, China wasn't a unified country or kingdom at all. It was fractured into about six or seven different kingdoms.

Candace Keynard: And so Qin was the first one who really brought all these different provinces and kingdoms together and he did it in a very shrewd way. First of all, he used conscription to gather an army together so essentially he forced men to join his army and then, by using this army to overpower different nations, he was able to get people under his thumb and he kept them under his thumb by unifying a system of currency that everyone could use and, furthermore, he systematized things like weights and measures and written language so he really got people to unify, not only through their submission to him, but through the way that they exchanged goods and traded and the way that they recorded their lives.

Jane McGrath: So, you can see a lot of benefits from this, although, I guess it wasn't all selfless. As he did this all too basically build his own power? Obviously, you have, like, six different kingdoms with six different currencies, it's difficult to build bridges and bring things together that way.

Candace Keynard: And it's funny that he sort of tapped himself for that mission, like, oh, I guess I'll unify China today and he did, but it worked, and not only that but he started building canals and roads and he was the first one to really institute the first portion of the Great Wall of China to protect his kingdom from invaders from the north.

Jane McGrath: That's right and we've done a podcast on that as well.

Candace Keynard: Yes, we have. But the funny thing is when you're that powerful and you sort of proclaim yourself as the ruler, you're bound to have a couple of enemies and there were a few assassination attempts on his life but he escaped. But he did eventually die. But before he died, he had a certain plan that he wanted carried out for his afterlife.

Jane McGrath: We should note, he had a very intense fear of death and -

Candace Keynard: Yeah, he did.

Jane McGrath: Like you said, these assassination attempts which he barely dodged, that - I mean, it's understandable that he would have a fear of death after that but in addition to those things, he wanted to see if he could possibly not die and he did a few things -

Candace Keynard: I love that.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I know. He did a few things to try to do that and he commissioned a taskforce to go to this mythical island that's had a sort of fountain of youth type power that they thought of.

Candace Keynard: Was it in Saint Augustine, Florida, because I've been there and I drank it. I'm still holding on.

Jane McGrath: I can see it. I can see it.

Candace Keynard: Yeah, youthful glow.

Jane McGrath: But, in addition to that, he got alchemists and magicians to make him pills and potions to try to hang onto his youth and confusion philosophers at this time actually condemned a lot of the stuff that he was doing. They thought it was all hocus pocus and wrong and in response, this was a dangerous move, because in response, Qin had hundreds of them killed, but, yeah, it just goes to show he has an intense fear of death and intense fear of what would happen to him after death.

Candace Keynard: But he also had a very grandiose notion that if, and when he did die, he would rule the universe and he had a very concrete, no pun intended, I guess I should Terracotta Plan, no pun intended, for how he was going to rule the cosmos in his second life. So, he essentially commissioned, I guess about a 1,000 different artisans to build him this vast army that included about 7,000 soldiers of different ranks. We're talking about everyone from mere archers and men holding crossbows to very esteemed generals, about 800 horses and a band of musicians and acrobats and bureaucrats and he was creating for himself an army as well as some sort of menagerie and a circus or some sort of entertainment site to keep him protected and amused in his afterlife.

Jane McGrath: One thing that's interesting is their all facing east. We have a great article on this onsite by our colleague, Kristin Conger, and she explains the one theory about this is that he had unified other kingdoms to the east so it's thought that, like, his enemies were to the east and so that's why his army is facing that way. But also we should note that a lot of these are estimations. We say, like - you'll see, oh, there are 7,000 warriors, oh, there are 6,000, oh, there are 8,000 and that's because actually not all of them have been excavated and archeologists are taking their sweet time taking everything out because it's so precious and for one example, for instance, when these soldiers were originally made, they were brightly colored, just vibrant colors and -

Candace Keynard: Purples and reds and greens.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and now you look at it, you see pictures and they're grayish and they're drab looking and that's because these colors didn't last well over time and especially even when you take them out today, excavating them from the sun this them, it really hurts the colors.

Candace Keynard: And so they don't have the technology yet to really delve into the full depths of this tomb. And what they've hit so far, or what the people who discovered it, a group of farmers back in 1974, they hit about 13 feet underground in search of water actually. It was a total accidental discovery. They were out on March 29th looking for water and they discovered a bunch of clay shards and it got more suspicious when they pulled out what looked like a head of something so they called a group of historians and archeologists and that's when the excavations really began but what hasn't been touched so far is what people think is a series of palaces and ships and very big structures that would've been built from the same type of material.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and one thing that's interesting is that tomb, which these soldieries are protecting, they're taking their sweet time excavating that because some say that it's booby-trapped and they said all the crossbows -

Candace Keynard: Yeah, the crossbows.

Jane McGrath: So, I would take my sweet time, too.

Candace Keynard: Yeah, definitely. And we know for a fact that people have broken - well, I guess I shouldn't say we know for a fact, we have pretty good evidence to suggest that people broke into the tomb shortly after Qin died.

Jane McGrath: That's right, there's evidence of fire, right?

Candace Keynard: Yeah, fire and toppled soldiers which may indicate that they settled with time but, more likely, they were toppled when someone was breaking in. And we should note, too, that after Qin died in 210 B.C., his kingdom didn't last for much longer. A new ruler ushered in, a new age, and so his tomb went vastly unprotected. But ancient manuscripts describe that he was buried with all sorts of extravagant pieces of gold and pearls and fine gems, which could still be down there. We don't know. But -

Jane McGrath: Yeah, great fodder for a raid obviously.

Candace Keynard: Exactly. And, so, techs like this suggest that there's a lot waiting to be unearthed but let's talk a little bit about how these soldiers were made.

Jane McGrath: What's interesting about how these soldiers were made is t hat they actually had a variety of molds so that you had a sense of realism in the soldiers. It's not some were smaller, some were bigger, but - you know, and they used different kinds for different ranks in the army as well and they had about 25 different styles of beard and the way their hair is tied up in knots on the back of their head, often askew. It's very different and it changes. And another interesting part is that there's a sense of racial diversity among these different soldiers and they actually reflect, interestingly, the kind of racial diversity that is present in modern day China, which I find fascinating. And, so, one example of this would be that about 20 percent of the soldiers have square earlobes and so that means more than half have, like, round earlobes and that's the same kind of percentage or proportion for modern day Chinese.

Candace Keynard: We should mention that long, long before Henry Ford had his assembly lines making cars, the ancient Chinese had their own assembly lines making these figures, and like Jane said, they used molds to at least form the bodies and we know that they range in general from about six to six and a half feet tall and the assembly workers would've started by building bases for them and they were very heavy so they had to be very well constructed, solid bases and then they would've made their different types of bodies according to whether the soldier would be kneeling or standing, if he had a very fierce stance, if he was standing at attention or maybe he was creating an acrobat or a musician but where the handiwork really came into play was the individualized details of the face.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, every artisan or individual laborer, not all of them were artisans, they were just sort of slaves who were forced to do this, they took great pride in making the different individual facial expressions, some look fiercer, some look serene.

Candace Keynard: Here's the catch. All of the laborers names were stamped on the bottom of the statues and this wasn't like Van Gogh signing his name to masterpiece he'd made, it was to hold the laborer accountable for any flaws in craftsmanship that there may have been.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And these assembly lines that Candace mentioned were about a 1,000 people big so it's a 1,000 person assembly line and I think the foreman had to sign his name to each individual soldier and what I find really cool is that these soldiers, you see them today and they look they had their hands out and they're holding something and it's not there, what they were holding were actual real weapons.

Candace Keynard: Made out of bronze, is that right?

Jane McGrath: Yeah, bronze and wood. The wood has actually not stood the test of time and so they're not there anymore but there are lots of evidence and remains of the metal that was kind of ahead of its time because it didn't corrode over time. And it is shocking to me that why would Qin have these clay armies but give them real weapons?

Candace Keynard: And also I think they had armor made out of limestone so he really had them all decked out and what this does, I think is, paints a picture of a very talented and very capable ruler but shows his very human and almost child-like side with his superstition and his great fears. And I wonder what was going through the mind of such a great and intelligent man who thought he could rule in his afterlife and who thought he needed protection from these forces.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and he wasn't alone. I mean, obviously, there are examples in ancient Egypt of people being buried with their things for the purposes of afterlife but in China, as well, this one emperor, Han Ling Di, actually he took the throne about 53 years after Qin and he made a similar burial site, not too far away from Qin's and the soldiers are actually smaller in stature and all different kinds of animals are there as well. Statues of animals. Overall, it's not as vast as Qin's and some people say that this is a reflection of a nicer ruler because he was actually much nicer than Qin.

Candace Keynard: And he certainly would've had to have commissioned less artists to work on the army so I guess that points to the fact of less slave labor. Exactly. So, this is such an interesting example of not only history but art history, too, and you can learn so much about a culture judging by the artifacts that it produces, you know, how it values proportion and color and detail and so I think it's just fascinating. A fascinating example of art and of historical narrative and a glimpse into the mind of an interesting and strange man!

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I can't wait to see it.

Candace Keynard: So, if you want to learn more about the Terracotta Army, be sure to check out the article, How the Terracotta Army Works on

Jane McGrath: While you're there, be sure to check our blog, Stuff You Missed in History Class, which Candace and I both write on every day.

Candac e Keynard: And we'll see you there. Be sure to send us your comments and questions to or you can leave comments and questions for us on the posts that we blog about at

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