Unless you’re a Chinese history buff, the name of Qin Shi Huang may not immediately ring a bell. But perhaps his accomplishments will sound familiar. “He conquered the warring states that surrounded him, creating the first unified Chinese empire” — making him the very first emperor of China — “and enacted a number of measures to centralize his administration and bolster infrastructure,” writes Smithsonian.com’s Brigit Katz. “In addition to standardizing weights, measures and the written language, the young ruler constructed a series of fortifications that later became the basis for the Great Wall.”
Second only to the Great Wall as an ancient Chinese artifact of note is Emperor Qin’s army: not the living army he maintained to defend and expand his empire, fearsome though it must have been, but the even more impressive one made out of terracotta.
“In 1974, farmers digging a well near their small village stumbled upon one of the most important finds in archaeological history,” says the TED-Ed lesson written by Megan Campisi and Pen-Pen Chen above: “a vast underground chamber surrounding the emperor’s tomb, and containing more than 8,000 life-size clay soldiers, ready for battle,” all commissioned by Qin, who after ascending to the throne at age thirteen “began the construction of a massive underground necropolis filled with monuments, artifacts, and an army to accompany him into the next world and continue his rule.”
Qin’s ceramic soldiers, 200 more of which have been discovered over the past decade, have stood ready in battle formation for well over 2000 years now. Stored in the same area’s underground chambers are 130 chariots with 520 horses, 150 cavalry horses, and a variety of musicians, acrobats, workers, government officials, and exotic animals — all made of terracotta, all life-size, and each with its own painstakingly crafted uniqueness. They populate what we now call a necropolis, an elaborately designed “city of the dead” built around a mausoleum. You can get a 360-degree view of a section of Qin’s necropolis above, as well as a deeper look into its historical background from the BBC documentary New Secrets of the Terracotta Warriors, the BBC documentary above, and this episode of PBS’ Secrets of the Dead.
Why direct so much material and labor to such a seemingly obscure project? Qin, who also showed a great interest in searching far-flung lands for life-prolonging elixirs, must have considered building a well-populated necropolis a reasonable bet to secure for himself a place in eternity. Nor was such an endeavor without precedent, and in fact Qin’s version represented a civilizing step forward for the necropolis. “Ruthless as he was,” write Campisi and Chen, he at least “chose to have servants and soldiers built for this purpose, rather than having living ones sacrificed to accompany him, as had been practiced in Egypt, West Africa, Anatolia, parts of North America,” and even previous Chinese dynasties. “You can’t take it with you,” we often hear today regarding the amassment of wealth in one’s lifetime — but maybe, as Qin must have thought, you can take them.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.