In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Terracotta Warriors

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Excavation Reports
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Museum Journals
  • The Qin and the Qin Emperor
  • Restoration and Conservation

Chinese Studies The Terracotta Warriors
Xiuzhen (Janice) Li
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0095


The terracotta warriors, made in the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), were discovered by chance in 1974, and have since become an icon of Chinese culture throughout the world. The thousands of life-sized terracotta warriors, arranged in battle formation, had silently guarded the underground kingdom of the Emperor Qin Shihuang (259–210 BCE) for two thousand years. The terracotta army was buried in three roofed pits. Pit 1, the largest in the compound, contains thousands of terracotta figures, of which some 1,100 have been unearthed and restored during a partial excavation from 1970s. Based on the density of the figures found to date, it is estimated that this pit contains about 6,000 terracotta warriors and horses in total. Pit 2 contains the military arrays, which include archers, cavalrymen, charioteers and infantrymen. Pit 3, the smallest pit, is assumed to be the headquarters because of ceremonial weapons found there; it contains sixty-eight terracotta figures, standing face to face, and one chariot drawn by four horses. All the terracotta figures were originally beautifully painted in very bright colors: blue, purple, red, white, pink, green, and brown. However most of the colors faded or peeled off once the terracotta warriors were exposed to the air. In order to ameliorate this problem, a joint project was established between Germany and China in the 1990s to further polychrome research and to conserve the painted decorations on the terracotta. These terracotta warriors were originally equipped with lethal bronze weapons with sharp blades: approximately 40,000 bronze arrows and hundreds of other types of weapons, including swords, lances, hooks, halberds, spears, dagger-axes, crossbow triggers, and ceremonial weapons known as su 殳. A Sino-British project undertaken in the early 21st century concentrated primarily on these bronze weapons in order to investigate the technological and logistical questions their production and arrangement raised. However, the terracotta army and their weapons are only a small part of the Emperor Qin Shihuang’s tomb complex, which covers about fifty-six square kilometers in total. Ongoing archaeology not only focuses on the terracotta warriors themselves, but also on the other ancillary pits, tombs, and construction ruins within The Tomb Complex. Recent archaeological excavations have unearthed pits containing Bronze Chariots, Bronze Birds, Terracotta Acrobats, terracotta breeders of birds, Stone Armor, Terracotta Figures and Horse Skeletons, and stables, as well as tombs of workers. The terracotta warriors, together with Emperor Qin Shihuang’s tomb complex, have been included in UNESCO’s list of world cultural heritage sites.

General Overviews

Following the discovery of the terracotta army in 1974, the first publications concentrated on the enormous number of archaeological finds and were written almost exclusively in Chinese. Yuan 1990 and Wang 1994 are both pioneer pieces of research on the terracotta warriors and Qin Shihuang’s tomb complex. Cotterell 1989 is an early illustrated English version about the Qin terracotta warriors with an introduction by a former curator of the terracotta museum, Yang Chenching. It is only in the early 21st century that the archaeological data has been used to understand the objects and the site in greater detail, particularly by the Sino-German and Sino-British collaborations. Blänsdorf, et al. 2001 is a collection of Sino-German collaborative papers on joint research in the 1990s into Polychrome Painting on the terracotta. Li 2012, part of a collaboration between UCL Institute of Archaeology and the Qin Shihuang museum, is a PhD thesis which, using multidisciplinary methods, carries out a comprehensive study of the Bronze Weapons made for the terracotta warriors and analyzes the organization model used to make them in the workshop and arrange them in the pits. Publications in other languages aimed also at the general reader first appeared with the advent of a number of overseas exhibitions and continue to this day. These exhibitions also resulted in other books written with the general reader in mind. Portal 2007 is a very comprehensive catalogue for The First Emperor’s exhibition at the British Museum, and combines high-quality illustrations with in-depth expert research while also discussing for the first time in English the then-recently discovered Terracotta Acrobats, Stone Armor, Bronze Birds, and construction materials. Ciarla 2005 is a well-illustrated book about Qin Shihuangdi, his mausoleum, and the terracotta army. After three decades of ongoing archaeology from the 1990’s to the early 21st century, Yuan 2002 discusses the most recent archaeological discoveries and offers his own in-depth study of the terracotta warriors and the Tomb Complex as a whole.

  • Blänsdorf, Catharina, Erwin Emmerling, and Michael Petzet, eds. The Terracotta Army of the First Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuang. Munich: Bayerischen Landesamtes fur Denkmalpflege, 2001.

    The book comprises twenty-one essays in three versions—Chinese, English and German—regarding the First Emperor Qin Shihuang 秦始皇陵兵马俑. Apart from several papers focusing on the terracotta warriors from archaeological and historical perspectives, a number of essays concentrate on the colors used to decorate the terracotta army and include the results of long-term collaborative research on the pigments, painting techniques, binding agents, and conservation methods employed.

  • Ciarla, Roberto, ed. The Eternal Army: The Terracotta Soldiers of the First Emperor. Vercelli, Italy: White Star, 2005.

    This lavish volume, comprising 287 pages with impressive photos and illustrations, places the Qin First Emperor and his terracotta army in its historical, archaeological, and artistic context to trace the roots of Qin’s political, cultural, and philosophical innovations. The essays in this book provide an introduction to the period before Qin’s unification, and also investigate the character Qin Shihuang, while studying individual terracotta warriors as well as the vast tomb complex.

  • Cotterell, Arthur. The First Emperor of China. London: Penguin, 1989.

    First published by Macmillan in 1981, this was a new edition of the first major illustrated book documenting the discovery at Mount Li. It remains an excellent guide in English for the general reader, despite the omission of recent finds. The archaeological discovery, historical context, and the Qin Empire are all well covered. Featuring an introduction by Yang Chen Ching, curator of the Museum of Warrior and Horse Figures from the Tomb of Ch’in Shih-huang-ti.

  • Li Xiuzhen 李秀珍. “Standardization, Labour Organisation and the Bronze Weapons of the Qin Terracotta Warriors.” PhD diss., University College London, 2012.

    A PhD thesis about the bronze weapons of the terracotta warriors that draws upon extensive measurements, typological analysis, and related statistical treatment, as well as a study of the spatial distribution of the weaponry. The research concludes that groups or cells of workers produced the weapons, rather than the model of flow line production that had previously been suggested.

  • Portal, Jane, ed. The First Emperor - China’s Terracotta Army. London: British Museum, 2007.

    A catalogue written for the First Emperor’s Exhibition at the British Museum in 2007. The 120 exhibits included the then-newly discovered Terracotta Acrobats, Bronze Birds, Stone Armor, and construction materials in addition to the terracotta warriors. This edited volume is not only well illustrated, but also contains essays with in-depth research on the terracotta warriors and the recent archaeological discoveries from the whole tomb complex.

  • Wang Xueli 王学理. Qinyong zhuanti yanjiu (秦俑专题研究). Xian, China: Sanqin chubanshe, 1994.

    This is a monograph of 655 pages about a wide range of topics concerning the Qin terracotta warriors. It focuses on the Qin military background and weapons, and the artistic features of the terracotta warriors, and includes preliminary scientific analysis based on a study of the archaeological materials.

  • Yuan Zhongyi 袁仲一. Qin Shihuang ling bingmayong yanjiu (秦始皇陵兵马俑研究). Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1990.

    A pioneering and comprehensive monograph developed from years of archaeological research on the terracotta warriors and horses in the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shihuang. Written by the leading archaeologist, who had worked on the site since the first discovery of pottery fragments in the 1970s, it reflects his unparalleled knowledge of the entire complex.

  • Yuan Zhongyi 袁仲一. Qin Shihuang ling kaogu faxian yu yanjiu (秦始皇陵考古发现与研究). Xian, China: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe, 2002.

    English translation: Archaeological Discoveries and Research on the Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum. This is a comprehensive and detailed piece of research regarding the archaeological discoveries within the Emperor Qin Shihuang’s tomb complex, including the pits of the terracotta warriors, the Bronze Chariots, and several other pits and tombs. The research also covers the ceramics, bronzes, iron, and stone objects found in the tomb complex.

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