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The Field Museum

China's First Emperor and his Terracotta Warriors

March 4th, 2016 — January 8, 2017

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Shaanxi BureauThis exhibition was organized by The Field Museum in partnership with the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau, Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Center, and Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum of the People’s Republic of China.

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Terracotta Warrior General

Guarding the Emperor for Eternity

China's First Emperor, Qin Shihuang, planned to spend his afterlife buried in a palatial tomb, surrounded by all his worldly treasures. To guard his mausoleum, he commissioned an army of terracotta warriors unlike anything seen before or since.

Born into War Conquest shaped Emperor
Qin Shihuang
An Army for
the Afterlife Meet the soldiers that
guarded a hidden tomb
Treasures of the
Secret Empire See the wonders Qin Shihuang
built an army to protect
Ceremonial Stone Armor on exhibit at The Field Museum

Born into War

A life of conquest forged the man who would become Qin Shihuangdi

The man who first ruled over a unified China was born in 259 BC, during the Warring States period, into the royal family of the Qin state, which would rise to become one of the dominant powers in the region.

Little is known about King Zheng of Qin, the man who eventually became known as Qin Shihuangdi, China's First Emperor. He ascended to the Qin throne at age 13, amid the chaos and conflict of the Warring States period (475-221 BC). Seven major states fought for regional dominance, resulting in centuries of bloody conflict.

Lacquered leather armor, similar to the ceremonial stone version seen above, would have been a constant part of the First Emperor’s life throughout this time of ceaseless warfare.

Before age 40, Qin Shihuangdi conquered the last of his rivals and brought the Warring States period to an end. He began to commission his own enormous defensive walls and worked to unite the peoples of his empire for the first time through a common writing system, standardized currency, and a unified system of measurements. These shared cultural bonds, forged by his empire, helped hold the country we now know as China together for more than 2,000 years.

Gold Buckle
This gold belt hook was recovered from a tomb belonging to one of the dukes of the Qin state. The artifact predates Emperor Qin Shihuang by approximately 300 years, and is an example of the ancient custom of burying the dead with important funerary objects for the afterlife. The presence of gold and other treasures in a tomb demonstrated the wealth and power of the owner. Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb reflected that tradition, but on a scale never seen before or since.

The Warring States Period was a time when warfare in China increased and peasants were drafted into the armies. Armies started to have tens of thousands of conscripts... and states constructed defensive walls as well.

Gary Feinman MacArthur Curator of Anthropology
Terracotta Warrior General on exhibit at The Field Museum

An Army for
the Afterlife

Meet the warriors who guarded a hidden empire

Emperor Qin Shihuang’s tomb paid homage to his superior rank and position as the divine ruler of China. In addition to the magnificent treasures, the First Emperor’s tomb is also a hidden, underground empire. To guard it, Qin Shihuangdi commissioned a massive army of terracotta warriors.

Archaeologists estimate that there are about 8,000 terracotta figures in the areas surrounding Qin Shihuang's tomb, including horses, archers, charioteers, infantry, and generals. Most of the terracotta warriors are over six feet tall, substantially larger than the average citizen of the Qin empire at the time.

Each warrior is unique, with distinct faces that mirror the diversity of individuals who would have made up an actual army. The warriors were all painted by hand, enhancing the realism of the army as a whole. Each warrior was also stamped with the name of the foreman responsible for its creation, in order to track any mistakes.

Emperor Qin Shihuang spent a significant portion of his life preparing for the afterlife, and began construction on his tomb even before becoming Emperor. Archaeologists estimate the creation of the terracotta warriors alone to have taken over 10 years, which represents only a portion of the massive effort that went into creating Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb complex. No contemporary written reports of the tomb’s creation exist; the earliest written stories coming from over a century after the First Emperor’s death. Despite the large size of the site and its place in Chinese history, the terracotta army faded from memory and was effectively lost for centuries.

In order to make the the terracotta warriors, it is estimated that more than 1,000 convicts and conscripts were pressed into service, divided into groups, and overseen by the Emperor’s foremen. As depicted in this model, workers prepared massive amounts of clay for production and built each warrior by hand. Molds were used to form the feet and other body parts, and workers assembled the warriors from the ground up before taking the completed warrior to a giant kiln for firing.

It's interesting to think about how the First Emperor was able to rally enough labor and resources in a relatively short period of time to be able to accomplish this. Just think of the size of the population, and the number of people, including criminals and conscript labor, that he would have to bring in to build his tomb. Think about all the soldiers that are off on military campaigns, his court, and then the rest of the population involved with work like farming, which is required to feed all these people.

Lisa Niziolek Boone Research Scientist
Half-scale Bronze Chariot on exhibit at The Field Museum

Treasures of the
Secret Empire

Emperor Qin Shihuang's tomb housed an entire kingdom of riches for the afterlife

Qin Shihuangdi’s reign ushered in massive social change, but funerary practices remained similar. Accumulating and protecting possessions would ensure his proper place, and rank, in the afterlife.

The terracotta army is just one part of Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb. The First Emperor sought to secure his position as cosmic ruler in the afterlife by constructing an entire kingdom to surround his tomb. The mausoleum complex was built to mimic the Emperor’s world and was filled with precious goods, such as musical instruments, weapons, armor, jewelry, and models of warriors, officials, and entertainers, all intended to ensure the emperor’s place in the next world.

By examining what Qin Shihuangdi chose to keep for the next life, we can better understand how he lived his life on earth. The importance of horses is reflected in their prominence within the Emperor’s treasures. Horses are represented in the terracotta army, as well as in bronze figures, like the half-scale chariot seen above. Emperor Qin Shihuang paid particular attention to the equine aspects of his empire, going so far as to regulate the width of axles for chariots and horse carts as part of his regime’s standardization efforts. By controlling the width of axles, Qin Shihuangdi knew that new roads would be capable of accommodating all the empire’s travelers.

Bronze Tripod Ding Vessel on exhibit at The Field Museum
Tripod vessels, like this bronze ding from the Warring States period (475–221 BC), are a common artifact in ancient Chinese graves. Archaeologists think this ding is from the Jin state and dates to the fifth century BC. The vessel weighs over 450 pounds. It was found in the same pit as some of Qin Shihuangdi’s terracotta strongmen and acrobats.

Ding vessels can be seen as symbols of political power. As such, sumptuary laws were put in place to limit the number of vessels like this one a person could be buried with, so as to ensure that no one exceeded the privileges of his or her rank.

The conception of the afterlife was pretty elaborate. There were specific rituals that you would undertake to provide sacrifices of food and wine to support and feed the ancestors. So it was a fully formed, very detailed belief system, and among ruling families, elaborate burials were not uncommon. Now, that said, the tomb of the First Emperor is unique. No other ancient Chinese ruler, before or after, did something that is fundamentally similar to the First Emperor.

Deborah Bekken Adjunct Curator

Visit the Field Museum and Experience the Terracotta Warriors Through January 8, 2017

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