Ying Zheng was clearly a man who knew how to hedge his bets. When he became king at the age of 13, it placed him at the head of the Qin, one of numerous warring states vying for supremacy. By the time Ying Zheng died, just 36 years later, he had conquered and unified those states to become the first emperor of China, and renamed himself Qin Shi Huangdi. This extraordinary military achievement was matched by Zheng’s administrative zeal and willingness to harness the best talent available, regardless of an individual’s origins. But the creator of this earthly empire was driven by an even bolder aspiration: to defeat death itself.
Ancient texts document how Zheng sought to secure the elixir of life and so achieve immortality. As well as dispatching an expedition to search for a mythical island in the eastern ocean, the emperor engaged alchemists to brew potions that would lengthen his lifespan. Ironically, these concoctions were laced with mercury, the toxic properties of which probably hastened Zheng’s death. But despite his quest for eternal life, the emperor had an ace up his sleeve in case immortality eluded him: the largest mausoleum ever constructed. There, within an underground empire, Zheng was guarded by an army that has kept watch for over 2,000 years: his terracotta warriors.
These sentinels, with their hauntingly impassive faces, were only one component of a burial complex that is believed to cover a staggering 56km². Of this, the three pits containing warriors only amount to a modest 0.02km² of the total. At the heart of the funerary monument lay Zheng’s coffin chamber, ringed by a set of inner and outer walls that created a subterranean version of a city’s defences. Indeed, the complex consciously evokes the nearby capital of the Qin empire at Xianyang. Just as the living city provided the emperor with the perfect backdrop to flaunt his status, so too his funerary complex was a study in splendour.
The warriors themselves lie beyond the outer mausoleum walls, facing a mountain pass to the east through which the emperor feared his enemies among the conquered states would attack. While the modern world has become captivated by this army, Zheng was probably more interested in the delights on offer within the funerary precinct. Underground palaces and offices once stood in this space, while further pits held terracotta figures that could entertain the emperor’s spirit with feats of acrobatics or wrestling. Not all of the emperor’s companions from life were present as imitations, though, and the excavation of 19 of 99 tombs near his burial mound revealed that they uniformly contained female skeletons. The simplest explanation is that Zheng’s concubines were entombed with him. Elsewhere, pits and even coffins contained the remains of real horses, while to the west of the walls lie tombs for what appear to be the workers who constructed Zheng’s edifice. Taken in its entirety, this empire for the dead can reveal much about the world of the living.
Splendour and sacrifice
The arrival of a selection of the warriors at the World Museum in Liverpool provides an opportunity to admire these breathtaking sculptures close up, and also place them within the wider story of Chinese burial traditions. ‘The first emperor’s tomb was a big step forward from the previous dynasties’, says Dr Xiuzhen Li, Senior Archaeologist in the Department of Archaeology at Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoelum Site Museum. ‘Before that, the kings of the Seven Warring States did not build such large-scale mausoleum complexes. You also don’t see such realistic sculptures, nor the mass of other materials that were buried with the first emperor. But while the Qin empire brought together so many special elements, there was already a long-standing tradition of equipping the dead with the goods that would fulfil their needs in the afterlife.’
A desire to ensure that the deceased carried the luxuries they enjoyed in life to the hereafter is already apparent in parts of the region that would become China far back into the 2nd millennium BC. One of the most celebrated features of the custom occurs in the valley of the Yellow River, where bronze cups with monstrous faces peering out from a maze of ornate decoration were deposited in some graves. In return for such largesse, the ancestors would send omens of the future, transmitted via the pattern of cracks that formed when bones favoured by oracles were exposed to fire.
One tomb foreshadowing that of the Qin emperor received the remains of Duke Jing of the Qin in the 6th century BC. This complex was 300m long, and at its centre lay a structure arranged like a house for the living. Despite the depredations of tomb robbers, thousands of objects remained to be found by archaeologists. The duke’s demise took a terrible toll on the living, though, with 166 people having been buried – seemingly alive – within his funerary complex. Burial rites continued to evolve as the seven rival powers struggled for supremacy during the Warring States period, from 475 to 221 BC. Although the quality of ritual bronze vessels declined, the range of goods represented grew more diverse. One feature of this was the widespread popularity of ceramic or wooden figurines, which probably offered a humane substitute for sacrificing real people to serve the deceased in the afterlife.
Ears of clay
It probably came as a relief to the soldiers in Ying Zheng’s army that the practice of using figurines in lieu of sacrifices was firmly established by the time of the emperor’s death, even if his concubines were not so fortunate. But while the cost in human lives was not as severe when clay figures were used, fashioning the life-size sculptures making up the army of figurines was far from being an easy option. The raw materials, manpower, industrial facilities, and artistic talent monopolised by the project are mind-boggling. It used to be widely believed that some corners were cut by adopting a production-line approach, resulting in individual warriors being assembled like Frankenstein’s creature from pre-prepared limbs and body parts. Modern technology, though, has revealed that the task of fabricating these figures was far more laborious.
‘Recent Sino-British cooperative research shows that the individual terracotta warriors display more unique characteristics than we had realised’, says Xiuzhen Li. ‘It’s not like they have come from several moulds and then been pieced together. We have been creating 3D images of the ears, which on humans are almost like fingerprints because they are so particular to individuals. We can thus compare them, with the idea being to find out whether they have come from moulds, or whether they are individual creations. It turned out that they are unique sculptures. This is also true of the terracotta warriors’ facial characteristics in general. In the past we found some faces that look so similar we called them twins, but when you create a 3D model and compare them in detail it turns out they are not the same. There are enough differences that we can be confident they weren’t made in the same mould. All of the warriors were individually sculpted, and that’s fascinating.’
‘Nowadays, new technology allows us to look at the warriors in many different ways. It is providing a sense of how the Qin society that managed to produce these figures was organised. It is helping us to see the technologies that they used, and how they were able to create the many extraordinary objects that went into the tomb complex. One research strand was to find the provenance of the raw materials used, which revealed the clay is local. So it seems that the warriors were manufactured nearby. We haven’t found the kilns they were fired in yet, but we have found kilns that manufactured roof tiles and bricks that were used in the mausoleum. The warrior kilns would probably have been big enough to fire seven or eight of them at a time. They probably couldn’t have been much larger, because the firing temperature wouldn’t reach the 950-1,050°C needed to bake the figures.’
‘According to the historical account provided by Sima Qian, who was writing during the later Han Dynasty, 700,000 people were conscripted to the site to build the whole mausoleum. Today we know the names of some of the craftspeople working on the terracotta warriors, because they are stamped or carved into their backs. We have found about 90 names, but some of the terracotta warriors don’t have these marks, so we think that the names are probably only of master craftsmen, who were guiding a larger team of apprentices. There were probably at least 1,000 people working on sculpting the warriors in total.’
Today, we usually think of the terracotta warriors as dark, monochrome figures, but – just like Classical statuary – they were originally prepared in full colour. Although this paint rarely remains, surviving examples of the warriors still clad in pink, red, purple, green, white, and black create an entirely different impression of the finished sculptures. Some of these colours also reveal the advanced technology Qin society could call on. ‘This has been a subject of long-term research’, says Xiuzhen Li, ‘which shows that most of the pigments are naturally occurring and found in plants. But Chinese purple was produced using a process that requires a complicated chemical reaction. It is quite extraordinary that the Qin Dynasty people had sufficient knowledge of chemistry to achieve this over 2,000 years ago.’ Visitors to the Liverpool exhibition can see visualisations of how the terracotta warriors in attendance appeared during their heyday, projected on a screen behind them.
Another feature of the warriors that requires a degree of imagination to be appreciated today is the weapons and equipment that their empty hands once grasped. The vast majority of metal weapons were bronze, with only a literal handful of iron implements found to date. What sort of weaponry the warriors brandished varied depending on the type of soldier being represented. Infantry clasped bronze swords, halberds, or spears, while standing archers held bows, and kneeling archers cradled crossbows. As the wooden parts have disintegrated over the passing millennia, preservation varies considerably, with bronze swords still readily recognisable, while the crossbows are represented by no more than a metal trigger mechanism. Some of the weapons may have been veterans of earlier campaigns, with bronze halberds and spearheads bearing control marks dating back to the early years of Zheng’s rule in 244 BC, before he became emperor. Others, such as bundles of arrows, seem to have been made for burial, with metallurgical analysis suggesting that they are still in the batches they were originally manufactured for.
Despite the authenticity of the weapons the warriors wielded, they proved no deterrent to human assailants. A few years after the emperor’s death, the warrior pits appear to have been ransacked during an episode known as the ‘farmer rebellion’. ‘According to the historical records, some of the pits were entered by the rebellious farmers, who burnt and smashed what they found and looted weapons’, Xiuzhen Li explains. ‘This is supported by some of the archaeological evidence, which shows that pieces of the terracotta warriors were moved after they were damaged, indicating that people were inside the pit. But that isn’t the only explanation for why so many of the figures are smashed today. The natural collapse of the pits that held them is mainly responsible. These cavities were separated into individual corridors, with partition walls between them and a roof structure overhead. Eventually the roof rotted, and the earth on top of it collapsed into the pits, smashing the soldiers. So that’s the other explanation.’
Chamber of secrets
What of the individual that this army was created to guard? The burial chamber at the heart of the funerary complex remains unopened by archaeologists, so the first emperor presumably still resides there. While geophysical survey and other remote-sensing techniques have been used to pry into the secrets of his resting place, the most evocative account of the wonders that may lie within comes from the writings of Sima Qian. He describes how ‘palaces, scenic towers, hundreds of officials, treasures, and exotic objects were brought to fill the chamber. Craftspeople were ordered to set up crossbows on the sloping entrance, to shoot down anyone attempting to break in. Flowing mercury was used to fashion the rivers, streams, and seas in the Qin empire.’
While the reference to flowing mercury has the ring of a romantic flight of fancy, some support for the accuracy of Sima Qian’s statement has been discovered to the north-east of the outer wall. There, an elegant tableau was assembled for the emperor’s entertainment. Before a band of terracotta musicians, bronze waterfowl ambled beside an artificial stream, poised to cavort in time to the tune. The mystery of whether any such delightful scenes lie beneath the emperor’s burial mound is unlikely to be solved anytime soon. ‘The coffin chamber probably does contain amazing objects and treasures’, says Xiuzhen Li. ‘But there are no plans to excavate the tomb. It’s partly because of the conservation issues that preserving the contents would create, but also out of respect for the ancestors. We are waiting for the day when a new technology will let us see through the mound and reveal the objects that are inside without causing any damage.’
FURTHER INFORMATION (THIS EXHIBITION IS NO LONGER RUNNING.) The exhibition China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors will run at Liverpool’s World Museum until 28 October 2018. Tickets are £14.50 for adults, £5.50 for children aged 6-17, and free for children under five. To book, and find other concessions, go to www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/terracottawarriors. The exhibition catalogue provides a fascinating account of life and death from the Neolithic through to the Han Dynasty: China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors by J C S Lin and X Li is published by National Museums Liverpool (ISBN 978-1902700595, £19.99).