In 246 BC, one of the greatest artistic endeavors in history was taking shape. Just north of the Lishan Mountain Range outside Xi’an, China, Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the creation of a life-sized army complete with horses, artillery, weapons and provisions……all made out of clay. While the formal name for this group of impressive statuary is the Army of the First Emperor Qin, to most of the world, these are known as the Terracotta Warriors.
Beginning in 246 BC, “more than 700,000 laborers worked on the project, which was halted in 209 B.C. amid uprisings a year after Qin’s death” (Roach). It is estimated that in those 37 years of labor, those 700,000+ workers created “about 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses, 150 cavalry horses, as well as officials, acrobats, strong men and musicians” (Ross). Not all of the mausoleum grounds have been excavated, so the number may be slightly off, but based on the information currently available, this number has been accepted across historic and archeological circles as accurate.
In undertaking this enormous project, Emperor Qin began one of the most innovative and challenging feats of known history. While the Greeks and Romans had already been creating life-size sculptures with intricate detail for years, the quantities which Emperor Qin required, as well as the varying characteristics incorporated, are what make Emperor Qin’s project such a spectacular undertaking. The Greeks were master craftsmen when it came to creating sculptures, but their versions of mass production were on a smaller and much more limited scale. Take, for example, the Caryatid of the Erechtheion.
When comparing the Caryatid of the Erechtheion side-by-side with the Terracotta Warriors, the most striking difference is the quantity, along with the variance in characteristics. True, the Caryatid are female while the entirety of the Warriors are male and one is made of stone while the other is made of clay, but the differences go far beyond that. Looking closely at the faces of the two groups, what is noticed is that the Caryatid look almost identical to each other, with just minor differences that aren’t noticeable without close inspection. Their stances are identical as well as their postures, their expressions and even their clothing are the same. They were exquisitely created, but lack a real diversity. With the Warriors, that is not the case.
Just glancing at the Warriors a person can see that these statues are not all the same. This is most noticeable in the faces. Some have thin faces, some have fuller faces, some have round, some square and some long. And it’s not just the face shapes that vary. Great care was put into ensuring that facial features were diverse enough to give each statue an individual appearance. Even if many have the same facial shape, there are a variety of eyebrows, noses, mustaches, chins, foreheads, cheekbones, lips, head angles, ornamentation and hairstyles.
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This variety allows each man to look like his own person. The reason for this distinct collection of features is explained by British Museum curator Jane Portal and narrator Dan Snow in the BBC documentary Behind the British Museum-The First Emperor’s Terracotta Army, Part 4. Ms. Portal explains how the different hairstyles have to do with rank and also the areas of China which the workman came from. To further that explanation, the narrator states, “The faces in the Terracotta Army reflect the different ethnic groups brought here to work from across the empire” (Behind the British Museum-The First Emperor’s Terracotta Army Part 4).
Beyond the variety of heads and faces, the true magnitude of the complexity of this undertaking is shown in how each body also takes on an individual style and manner. While a majority of them are standing upright, they do so with a variety of postures and stances: some are leaning forward slightly; some are standing at full attention. No matter how they are standing, they all have arms at different angles with their hands in varying positions.
Along with the heads, faces and postures, even the clothing varies. The armor has different lengths in the torso as well as in the leg with the shoulder armor being different sizes and setting at different angles. Under their armor some have long pants, some have short pants, and some have skirts while some have long sleeves, some have pushed up sleeves and some have ¾ sleeves. One will also notice the variance in cravats, shoes and body types.
Overall, the size, detail and number of statues all lend to the innovativeness of the task and the complexity of the undertaking. Throughout history, others have tried to create terracotta armies, but none were as successful on such a scale as Emperor Qin. While this army holds the title of the greatest sculptural project yet to be found, it could quite possibly be the biggest sculptural project ever attempted. The Army of the First Emperor Qin is an incredibly important piece of work because of the size of the project, the fact that it survived into the 20th century and also for what it stands for. It is believed that the Army of the First Emperor Qin “symbolizes Qin’s assertive nature…..and his desire to….carry that through to the afterlife….particularly the military quality” because ”he held his power in life through military power….and he wanted to continue to do that in the afterlife through military means” (Ross). Ross also goes on to describe how Emperor Qin began this project when he first came to power around age 13, which showed he must have been preoccupied with his legacy and the afterlife. She theorizes that he wanted to change the world around him and part of that change was to leave a monument to his reign, wealth and power. Emperor Qin’s monument has survived earthquakes, war, desecration and pillage to become an influential and awe-inspiring symbol to what man can achieve given the drive and ambition.
“The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army.” The British Museum. The British Museum, n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. <https://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/press_releases/2007/the_first_emperor.aspx>.
Lubow, Arthur. “Terra Cotta Soldiers on the March.” Smithsonian. Smithsonian Magazine, July 2009. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/terra-cotta-soldiers-on-the-march-30942673/?no-ist>.
“Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. World Heritage Convention, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/441>.
Moskowitz, Clara. “The Secret Tomb of China’s 1st Emperor: Will We Ever See Inside?” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 17 Aug. 2012. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. .
Roach, John. “Emperor Qin’s Terra Cotta Army.” National Geographic. National Geographic, n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. <http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/archaeology/emperor-qin/>.
Ross, Nancy. “Terracotta Army.” 15 Oct. 2014. Lecture.
Snow, Dan, and Jane Portal. “Behind The British Museum-The First Emperor’s Terracotta Army, Part 4.” YouTube. YouTube, 23 Mar. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrJbDeoOMPU>.
“Terracotta Army.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Sept. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terracotta_Army>.