Home China Guide Xi'an Attractions The Terracotta Army — Why and How They Were Made

The Terracotta Army — Why and How They Were Made

The Terracotta Army is one of the top attractions in China. It is significant because the hundreds of detailed life-size models represent the army that triumphed over all other Chinese armies in the Warring States Period, and who ushered in the united imperial China era 2,200 years ago.

It is considered one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world, and one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century.

Quick Facts

  • Attraction name: The Qin Tomb Terracotta Warriors and Horses
  • Chinese: 秦陵兵马俑 Qínlíng Bīngmǎyǒng /chin-ling bing-maa-yong/
  • Features: hundreds of life-size model soldiers, horses, and chariots in battle array
  • Construction: 246–206 BC. With the tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuang it took 720,000 builders. 
  • Time needed: half a day
  • Suited for: history and Chinese culture enthusiasts
  • Physical requirements: low (indoor sightseeing); wheelchair-accessible lifts and corridors are provided

More Terracotta Army Facts

Why Were the Terracotta Warriors Made?

xian the terracotta warriors and horses They were modeled on Qin Shihuang's soldiers.

First Emperor Qin (/chin/), from whom China gets its name, ordered the creation of this army of terracotta statues. It was made to be buried with him, it is said:

  • as a show of his glory,
  • to remember the army that triumphed over the other Warring States to unite China, and
  • because it was believed that objects like statues can be animated in the afterlife, and Qin Shihuang required an after-death army. 

History - How They Were Discovered

The Terracotta Army figures’ excavation is regarded as one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century. It had lain underground for more than 2000 years before farmers digging a well in 1974 uncovered what is now considered one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world.

The first part of the Terracotta Army site to be discovered was named Vault One. In 1976, two other vaults were uncovered about 20 meters away, and were named Vault Two and Vault Three.

The tomb is a treasury for the Chinese people and for the whole world. In December 1987, UNESCO selected the Tomb of the First Emperor (including the Terracotta Army Vaults) as a World Cultural Heritage Site.

Incredible Detail

Terracotta Warriors head

Thousands of life-size, vivid terracotta warriors;in battle formation were revealed in the course of excavation of the earth and timber vaults - a whole army which would accompany its emperor into immortality. The sight transports you back to the ancient warring states period.

The horsemen, the longbow bearers, the archers, and the senior officers and generals were positioned in a grand ancient army formation, in strict accordance with the ancient directives on the Art of War.

Every figure differs in facial features and expression, clothing, hairstyle, and gestures, providing abundant and detailed artifacts for the study of the military, cultural, and economic history of that period.

Many of the figures originally held real weapons of the time, such as bronze swords, longbows, arrows, spears, dagger-axes, and other long-shafted weapons. The weapons were treated to make them resistant to rust and corrosion, so that even after being buried for over 2,000 years they were still sharp.

Major Attractions inside the Museum

The museum mainly consists of three vaults and an exhibition hall: Vault One, Vault Two, Vault Three, and The Exhibition Hall of the Bronze Chariots.

The vaults are arrayed as the buried army was in strict accordance with the ancient directives on the Art of War: facing east towards the ancient enemies of Qin State (and towards the entrance, see plan view), with Vault One on the right flank, Vault Two on the left flank, and Vault Three a command post at the rear.

Vault One - 2,000 Warriors Displayed

xian the terra-cotta warriors and horses Vault One displays about 2,000 warriors

Vault One is the largest and most impressive — the size of an airplane hangar. It is believed to contain over 6,000 terracotta figures of soldiers and horses, but less than 2,000 are on display. All the most impressive Terracotta Army pictures were taken in Vault One.

All soldiers and horses face east in a rectangular array, each one either armed long spear, dragger or halberd. The vanguard appears to be three rows of infantry who stand at the easternmost end of the army. Close behind is the main force of armored soldiers holding weapons, accompanied by 38 horse-driven chariots.

On the southern, northern, and western side there stand one row of figures serving as the army's defense wing. Standing in front of such a grand ancient army array, one would feel the ground shake to the footsteps of the advancing soldiers.

Every figure differs in facial features and expression, clothing, hairstyle, and gestures, providing abundant and detailed artifacts for the study of the military, cultural, and economic history of that period.

This vault opened to visitors in 1979. It measures about 210 meters long and 62 meters wide and the bottom of the pit varies from 4.5 meters to 6.5 meters below ground level. Ten earthen walls were built at intervals of 2.5 meters, forming 9 circling corridors.

Vaults Two - Uncovers the Mystery of the Ancient Army Array

warriors and horses in vault two Warriors and horses in vault two form a rigorous battle array.

Excavation and restoration is still ongoing at vaults two and three.

Excavated in 1976, Vault Two stands about 20 meters north to Vault One. As the highlight of the whole mausoleum, it uncovers the mystery of the ancient army array. It consists of four units, measuring 94 meters east to west and 84 meters south to north and 5 meters deep., forming a 6000 sq. meter built-up area.

The first unit contains rows of kneeling and standing archers; the second one is a chariot war array; the third unit consists of mixed forces with infantry, chariot and trooper standing in rectangular array; and the last one includes numerous troopers holding weapons. The four units form a rigorous battle array.

Vault Three - Represents the Command Post

Vault Three is the smallest one. There are only 68 terracotta figures, many of which are without heads. It's obvious that Vault Three represents the command post, as all the figures are officials. 

Pit three, Terracotta ArmyWarriors without heads in Vault Three

The Exhibition of Bronze Chariots

The two bronze carriages displayed in the hall were discovered 20 meters from the west side of the Tomb of Qin Shihuang in December 1980, and were elaborately restored before exhibition.

The carriages have about 3,400 parts each and were driven by four horses. The second one is 3.17meters long and 1.06 meters high. The bronze horses vary from 65 cm to 67 cm high and 120 cm long. Each weighs 1,234 kg in total.

They were mainly made of bronze, but there were 1,720 pieces of golden and silver ornaments, weighting 7 kg, on each carriage. The carriages were so well-made, and so vivid, that they boast being the best-preserved and having the highest rank among the earliest known bronze relics in China. These chariots are the biggest pieces of ancient bronzeware ever found in the world.

Visit the Terracotta Army with China Highlights

Exhibition of Bronze Chariots The Exhibition of Bronze Chariots

No visit to Xi'an, or even China, is complete if you don't visit the Terracotta Army. See our most popular tours to explore this ancient wonder:

Or we can help you tailor-make a tour to meet your requirements.

Be better prepared for a visit — read A Visitor's Guide to the Terracotta Army Museum.