Books on the Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta Warriors cvr

The Terracotta Warriors, by Jane Portal, London: The British Museum Press, 2007.

The Subterranean Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang: The Eighth Wonder of the World, by Wu Xiacong, Beijing: China Travel and Tourism Press, 2005.

The First Emperor’s Warriors, by Arthur Cotterell, London: The Emperor’s Warriors Exhibition Ltd., 1987.


The discovery in 1974 of the amazing terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang, unifier of China in 221 BC and its first emperor, has generated a sizeable literature.  Finds were made at the foot of Mount Li, at Xian in Shaanxi province, by peasants digging a well, and subsequent excavations have unearthed about 8,000 life-sized figures buried near the emperor’s mausoleum, ready for over two thousand years to do battle in the afterlife on his behalf.  A museum dedicated to the warriors opened in 1979, though the complex is still being excavated.  Below are details of several books dealing with the terracotta army and other features of Qin Shi Huang’s astonishing project.  While providing information in greater or lesser detail, what unites them is the photographs of these iconic objects, and they are essentially photography books with supporting text.


The Terracotta Warriors, by Jane Portal

Jane Portal’s 2007 book was published by the British Museum Press to tie in the with the museum’s 2007-8 exhibition The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army.  She begins by briefly discussing the historical background of the period and the emperor’s life.  After conquering and unifying the provinces of China he built the first Great Wall, though not the one which exists today, and inaugurated a road-building programme to help with unification of his extensive domain.  Construction of the tomb complex had begun as soon as he became king of Qin state in 246 BC but plans expanded in scope once he became emperor.  The work was unfinished when he died in 210 BC.

Portal discusses the finding of the pits, of which there was no previous record, although bits of pottery had been dug up by farmers for many years.  As the complex is reckoned to cover some 50 sq. km. and the figures were probably made in secret, the fact that knowledge of the army was lost is not as surprising as it sounds.  The pits containing the warriors are located to the east of the tomb itself, in which direction the conquered states lay, as if they were prepared as a symbolic form of defence for the emperor.  The figures were not randomly assigned:  pit 1 housed the main army, about 6,000 figures; pit 2 cavalry and war chariots as well as infantry; pit 3 was the command post with senior officers; a fourth pit was empty, presumably because of the emperor’s death.

The superbly modelled figures were painted, and though much of this colouring was lost on exposure to the air after excavation, enough remains to provide a sense of how they would have originally looked.  They were formed by mass production with individual details supplied afterwards by hand, allowing great variety of the basic forms.  Originally they carried real weapons, but many were looted and burned in the disorder following the emperor’s death, an act which resulted in a great deal of damage to the figures.

Portal also covers excavations in other areas of the site, including the finding of human skeletons, some with severed limbs suggesting sacrifice, bronze non-military chariots and horses, and hundreds of sets of armour made from limestone.  A pit with figures of bureaucrats was later discovered, as were grooms acrobats and strongmen, all designed to serve the emperor’s needs in the afterlife.  Musicians accompanied by water birds were possibly a double act to entertain the court, and a bronze crane is shown.  The quality of the warriors and other figures is such that they provide a wealth of details about life at the time.  The tomb itself has not yet been excavated but judging by a description written a century after it was built one suspects that it will outdo the rest in extravagance.

Following the introduction is a set of attractive photographs of some of the figures, with close-ups of interesting details.  They were taken against a black background, apart from a few of them in situ in the pits.  Accompanied by paragraph-length captions, they illustrate the different types, from generals (bigger than the other soldiers), archers, cavalry and charioteers, horses – chariot and cavalry – and of course infantrymen.  One of the curious sets of limestone armour is shown, impractical in real warfare and therefore probably designed to represent armour in the afterlife.

The photographs by John Williams and Saul Peckham are elegant but the text is too general for any other than a casual reader.  While the book makes a useful introduction to these remarkable products, more information on the social and particularly economic context which enabled such large-scale enterprise to be undertaken, and what happened after Qin Shi Huang’s death, would have been useful.


The Subterranean Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang: The Eighth Wonder of the World, by Wu Xiacong

The Terracotta army is sometimes referred to as the ‘Eighth wonder of the ancient world’, which is fine, but the tag ‘The eighth wonder of the world’, apparently said by French premier Jacques Chirac in 1978, has already been taken – by King Kong.  Portal’s book is small format, whereas these large pages display Guo Youmin’s photographs to more spectacular effect.  Written by Wu Xiacong and published in 2005 by the China Travel and Tourism Press (so officially sanctioned), it also has much more information, on Qin Shi Huang’s life, the politics of the period in which he lived (though the diplomatic and military campaigns leading to unification, which happened over a very short period, are skated over), the figures and the culture which produced them.  The dynasty fell quickly after Qin Shi Huang’s death, and the reasons for the upheavals, mentioned only in passing by Portal, are discussed in greater depth.  Chief among these were his punitive laws and the liberal use of corvée labour in his schemes, and the incompetence of the new administration.

The well digging is sketched in, and the initial excavations leading to the realisation that here was a dig of international importance; it is now a UNESCO world heritage site.  There is a description of how the imperial complex would have looked: it comprises some 400 pits and tombs and possibly 700,000 labourers were engaged in its construction.  Some 50,00 artefacts had been found at the time of writing, including a large number of surviving bronze weapons.  There was already a tradition of terracotta sculpture in China on which the artisans engaged at Xian could build and Wu describes the various methods used to create the enormous variety of faces.  As remarkable as the terracotta objects are en masse, equally magnificent are two chariots, drivers and horses in bronze.  Combined, the variety of the figures and their accoutrements were intended to form a miniature replica of the empire.  As the emphasis on war suggests, this was an unsettled time.  Wu notes that findings at the site have assisted in a fuller understanding of texts on warfare written at the time, and have modified received opinion about how war was waged.

The effect this reminder of China’s distant past has had on the modern state is readily apparent.  As founder of a ‘unified, multi-nationality empire under a central government’, one can readily understand why his image is popular with the Chinese government today, and the terracotta army provides more functions than expressions of archaeological interest and national prestige.  According to Wu, Qin Shi Huang is to the Chinese what Napoleon is to the French, one suspects with all the ambivalence that accolade entails.

Where the British Museum book concentrated largely on studio photographs of individual figures against a black background, those in The Subterranean Army are mostly taken in the pits, mixing wider shots with close-ups of the figures, as well as horses and chariots, and details of faces and dress.  There are record shots of the site before excavation began and of the work itself, showing just what bad shape the figures were in, and what a significant achievement the restoration has been.  Details of the three main pits and of the figures are accompanied by a large selection of images, and plans demonstrating how the various types of personnel were laid out.  Archers photographed just after excavation are (literally) vivid reminders of how brightly coloured and realistic the models originally were.  And there are photographs of the exhibition halls built to accommodate the figures in their trenches, a far cry from a rural landscape in which a few farmers got together to dig a well.


The First Emperor’s Warriors, by Arthur Cotterell

Arthur Cotterell’s book was published in 1987 by the Emperor’s Warriors Exhibition Ltd and was also produced with the assistance of the Chinese authorities, who provided the images.  As it appeared earlier than the other books, there is less information on the terracotta army itself (the pits were still being restored) but it is still informative and heavily illustrated.  However, some of the pictures taken in the pits have an unattractive cast.

The setting of the cultural context within which the emperor lived is outlined, though Cotterell includes the (erroneous) cliché that the Great Wall of China is the only human-made artefact that can be seen from space.  He refers to ancestor worship and China’s geographical isolation as factors in the construction of the emperor’s image as the greatest ruler who had ever lived.  A description of the terracotta army is linked to an account of the military history of the period and how the Qin operated in battle.

There is much more about the complicated and brutal events which brought the Qin dynasty to power, and about the emperor and the character of his reign, than there is in the other two books.  Cotterell highlights his superstitious character and obsession with immortality, his paranoia caused by assassination attempts, but above all his authoritarianism which unified the country and enabled the building of the tomb complex but indirectly led to the fall of the dynasty after a mere 15 years, to be replaced by that of the Han.


There is one curiosity of possibly Fortean significance in the story of Qin Shi Huang: Portal quotes Han-dynasty commentator Sima Qian as saying, a hundred years later, that in the mausoleum, ‘The candles were made of whale oil to ensure their burning for the longest possible time.’  Similarly, Cotterell quotes the same passage, and concludes ‘Lamps using whale oil were installed to burn for a long time.’  Wu also quotes this passage, with one critical difference.  He says ‘Candles made from the fat of mermaids were lighted to burn forever.’  Two key questions arise from this startling fact: were mermaids caught by the ancient Chinese solely for their oil, or was it extracted as a by-product; and how did Portal and Cotterell both manage such a significant mistranslation?


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