Skip to content

The Mystery of the Terra Cotta Warriors

The Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an is a "World Heritage Site" named by UNESCO. The widely held notion that it’s part of the tomb of China’s first emperor Qing Shihuang is now being questioned.

Xi’an, the capital of northeast China’s Shaanxi Province, is famous for its rich and deep-rooted historical and cultural heritage through a wealth of cultural relics, museums, and historical sites—including the world-famous terra cotta army of Emperor Qin Shihuang.

In 1974, while a group of peasants in Lintong County, a suburban area of Xi’an City, were digging a well, they discovered some pottery nearby the royal tomb. This instantly caught the attention of various archeologists, who then traveled to Xi’an, in hopes of further findings. The terra cotta warriors were discovered in rows, and three vaults have been excavated thus far.

A museum was built on the site in 1975. The entire museum is 16,300 square meters (175,451 square feet) and divided into three sections (pit No. 1, 2, and 3). The museum became a great attraction for tourists all around the world after the grand opening of pit No.1 to the public on October 1, 1979. Pit No.1 is the largest, extending 230 meters (755 feet) by 62 meters (203 feet) wide. Displays of life-size terra cotta figures of warriors and horses arranged in battle formations are the main features of the museum. They serve as an exact duplication of what an imperial guard would have looked like in ancient days.

Pit No.2, found in 1976, is 20 meters (66 feet) northeast of pit No.1. It contains over 1,000 warriors and 90 chariots of wood. Pit No.3, also found in 1976, is 25 meters (82 feet) northwest of pit No.1. It went on display in 1989 and exhibits 73 terra cotta warriors that carry hand weapons and stand around a chariot; similar to the command center of the armed forces. Overall, more than 7,000 pottery soldiers, horses, chariots, and even weapons are displayed in these pits.

It has long been believed that the terra cotta warriors are part of the accompanied burials surrounding the tomb of the Emperor Qin Shihuang, the first Emperor of China. When Qin ascended the throne at the age of 13 (in 246 B.C.), he began to work on two massive projects: his mausoleum and the infamous Great Wall of China. Situated at the North foot of Mount Li in Lintong County, Shaanxi Province, the mausoleum took 700,000 people and 11 years to complete. Qin is the most hated emperor in Chinese history because of his reputation of cruelty, burying alive several hundreds of highly respected intellectuals under his order.

This widely held theory is now being challenged. A report on (website for People’s Daily) on December 1, 2005, questioned that Qin Shihuang was the master of the terra cotta warriors. This report created a widespread commotion within the archeological communities in China. Chen Jing Yuan, a 69-year-old scholar of architecture provided three important points of evidence to prove that the artifacts were not associated with the Emperor Qin Shihuang:{mospagebreak}

1. The distance between the terra cotta warriors and Qin’s mausoleum is too great—over 1.5 km (about one mile). Usually, artifacts buried along with the dead are relatively close in proximity. Thus, the artifacts should have been buried close to Qin’s mausoleum.

2. The terra cotta warriors are facing the east side of Qin’s mausoleum. This is unusual because the mausoleums in all kingdoms customrily face a north-south direction.

3. When Qin Shihuang unified China, he demanded that everything be black. However, almost all the terra cotta warriors are in red and green robes with purple-blue pants. In addition, Qin only used soldiers who marched or rode horses. However, the terra cotta warriors are shown with combat vehicles and weapons.

4. In unifying China, Qin Shihuang also demanded that all war chariots be the same. The vaults, however, reveal various kinds of war chariots.

The debate will probably continue for a while. Research is still being conducted in China by a group of scholars. No matter what the result will be, this "World Heritage Site" named by UNESCO will always be a fascinating attraction for both tourists and archeologists.