Army of Ghosts: Terracotta Warriors

Historical Facts

Where: Xi’an, Central China
When: 3rd century BC
History: Individual and elaborate terracotta tomb pieces for China’s First Emperor, the work and death of 3/4 million slaves
Go there for: An amazing glimpse at one of the great wonders of the world

The terracotta warriors were originally painted in beautiful colors. Unfortunately, fire damage, water damage and more than 2,000 years of natural erosion caused the paint to peel off. By Kevin Poh


Around the village of Xi’an, folktales had been told for centuries about scary ghosts that lived underground in this area. So imagine the fright of two farmers in 1974, as they went about their daily chore of digging a well to supply water to their local crops, they come face to face with a menacing Chinese warrior. Wiping the sleep out of their eyes to have a closer look at this intimidating ghostly figure, little did they know they had come across one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century.

Almost thirty years later, three vaults have been discovered and over 8000 of these terracotta warriors have been unearthed in a site covering 20,000 square meters – and this is just the beginning. Decades of work are still to be done in order to uncover all of the archaeological treasures that lay hidden beneath the earth.


The terracotta warriors were originally placed to protect the tomb of China’s 1st Emperor Qin Shihuang who ruled from the then capital of Xi’an, 36km to the west. In 246 BC, at the age of 13,Ying Zheng ascended to the throne of the Qin State, taking the name of Shi Huang or First Emperor. During his reign, he built the Great Wall of China, implemented mass irrigation and conquered the other 4 warring states. He was the first emperor to truly unify China. He started work immediately on his tomb; commissioning over 700,000 slaves to do the work and took over 40 years to complete. Everyone who had worked on the tomb was supposedly killed and buried with the emperor to ensure that the site remained secret for the rest of humanity.

The thousands of protective statues comprise a complete army of cavalry, infantry, archers, and chariots with their horses, all positioned in battle formation. The infantrymen form three lines at the front, with armed soldiers and chariots standing immediately behind. A single column of soldiers flank the sides of the pack, facing outward to offer enhanced protection. The warriors were created in the vision of the Emperor’s own army, resulting in every face being chiselled with unique characteristics and expressions. Each statue holds real battle equipment such as swords with the lead poisoned tips still fastened today. The terracotta was once elaborately painted but this has sadly all but disappeared due to their time underneath the unrelenting earth.

The Emperor’s tomb itself still remains to be excavated. Historic records state that the tomb was designed to replicate the Qin Empire with rivers of flowing mercury and jewel studded ceilings, floors and walls. And if this isn’t enough to make you feel part of a modern day Indiana Jones adventure, the tomb is said to be equipped with lethal booby traps to automatically deter any intruders!

Visiting the Warriors

As one of the world wonders, the Terracotta Warriors are really an overwhelming site to see – you will be taken aback by the grandeur of it all and sense the real power of the Ancient Chinese army. No pictures are allowed due to the detrimental effects of flash bulbs but there are mock warriors set up outside for that purpose. The Chinese are rightly going to great lengths to preserve this national treasure and guard the secrets that still lie within.

More Information

Walled Towns Friendship Circle
The international association for the sustainable development of walled towns, walled cities and fortified historic towns. The website includes detailed information and photos.


Emperor’s Silent Army : Terracotta Warriors of Ancient China by Jane O’Conner (pub. Viking Childrens Books 2002)
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By Amy Jurries

main image: Xian_China_Terracotta-Army-Museum-02