What conclusions can we draw about Ancient Chinese society from the building of Emperor Shi Huang's terracotta warriors?

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More than 8,000 clay life-size human figures and hundreds of horse figures, many with wooden chariots, were buried in the necropolis of Qin Shi Huang Di, China’s first emperor, in northern China. He is known for unifying a large expanse of territory, calming the widespread warfare among competing clans to...

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More than 8,000 clay life-size human figures and hundreds of horse figures, many with wooden chariots, were buried in the necropolis of Qin Shi Huang Di, China’s first emperor, in northern China. He is known for unifying a large expanse of territory, calming the widespread warfare among competing clans to do so, and for building a large part of the Great Wall. Most of the buried figures were warriors, so the grouping is usually known as the Terra-cotta Army. This massive burial, discovered in the 1970s, both confirmed and added to textual information about Chinese military organization and reflected the grandeur of the emperor’s achievements. The remarkably lifelike, detailed figures were especially commissioned to accompany the emperor after his death in 210 BCE, although the necropolis had not been finished by then. Along with the huge number of figures, it is also surprising that each figure is unique. The terra-cotta is now gray in tone; traces of colored paint have been discerned.

The presence of this army is important both for the specific features of the individuals and types of people and for the massive scale of the artistic and political project. (The mausoleum itself also contains figures representing dancers and musicians, indicating court life.) Glorifying the emperor’s accomplishments by surrounding him with such a vast contingent clearly indicates his sense of self-importance and desire to perpetuate his reputation. However, that could have been accomplished with much simpler statues. It has been variously estimated that making, assembling, and burying the army took twenty years, and the planned assemblage would have been still larger. Completing thousands of figures represents the artistic talents and skilled labor of thousands of participants, as well as the coordination of production in various locations, transportation to the site, and installation in precise configurations underground.

The figures vary according to clothing and accessories, indicating the rank and function of different warriors. Archers are very well represented, as well as chariot drivers. The insignia of different military ranks has been determined, while the individualism includes such diagnostics as height, body build, and distinctive beards. The inclusion of a well-organized army surely indicated the emperor’s command of such a fighting force, but how accurately they reflect his actual military power has been debated. The orderly arrangement of the rows of warriors conveys the impression of a tightly organized fighting force. However, the unity he established proved fragile, and fierce fighting for control followed his death.

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