published on 16 April 2012
Of the many great archaeological ﬁnds in the 20th century, one of the grandest is the discovery of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi’s terracotta army. The ruler of the state of Qin, King Cheng, proclaimed himself the First Emperor of China in 221 BC taking the name Shihuangdi (ﬁrst sovereign). After hundreds of years of open warfare between the different feudal lords, referred to as the Warring States period (475-221 BC), the state of Qin raised an army that conquered them all and seized power. A monument of some 7,000 clay officers, soldiers, horses, and chariots was found underground just outside Mount Li in Shaanxi China, the legendary resting place of the First Emperor. The question that still puzzles scholars and archaeologists is why Emperor Qin had this army of pottery constructed. The answer may lie with the other items found in his tomb in addition to the terracotta warriors.
Very little of the tomb has actually been excavated, but the writings of the Han scholar Sima Qian (145–c. 90 BC) provide us with the only record of what the tomb of the First Emperor may contain. At present, we do not have the technology that would allow archaeologists to safely open the tomb to verify these writings without exposing the tomb’s contents to the air which could quickly corrode the ancient artifacts. In this essay I contend that Qin’s elaborate tomb and its guardians reﬂect the parts of life that the Emperor thought were of greatest importance to him, and those things which he wanted to take with him into death and the afterlife. This desire for a reconstruction of certain aspects of his surroundings in his ﬁnal resting place may have stemmed from his obsession with immortality.
Deliberations (2007), Duke University