Mandate from Heaven: The Tomb of Qin Shi Huang

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Mandate from Heaven: The Tomb of Qin Shi Huang


In 1974, while digging a well, Chinese peasant Yang Zhifa uncovered bronze projectile points and pottery shards. He had no idea that he had found one of the largest and most spectacular archaeological sites in the world. This treasure, known as the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang, has given researchers insight into the historical, political, philosophical, and artistic life of people in what is now known as China. It has also given us an opportunity to appreciate the achievements and legacy of Chinese culture.


In 1974, a terra-cotta clay army of some 7,000 life-sized figures, equipped with actual chariots and bronze weapons, was discovered near the tomb of the first Emperor of Qin. Created nearly 2,000 years ago to accompany the dead emperor on his celestial journey, they were buried in an underground vault near a subterranean palace containing the dragon-shaped sarcophagus of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

The layout of the burial area is an imitation of the emperor's Xinnyang palace. The tomb is situated under a 15-story earth mound, Mt. Li. Covering approximately 500 acres, two protective walls enclose the central part of the mausoleum. The emperor's tomb was originally built in the center of an enclosed "spirit city." It contained sacred stone tablets, inscribed towers, and prayer temples. All of these structures were part of the "inner city" within a walled square more than a quarter mile long on each side. Beyond lay an "outer city" guarded by a high, rectangular stone wall, 23 feet (7 m) wide at its base with watchtowers at the corners.

Today archaeologists have unearthed more than 2,000 of the clay warriors, dozens of bronze horses, and a cache of 30,000 bronze swords, spears, crossbows, and other weapons. In 1980, a ceremonial procession containing the oldest bronze chariots and horses were found. Although the practice of burying live people and animals had been abandoned during the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 b.c.), it appears that Emperor Qin Shi Huang revived it symbolically.

Ranks of clay warriors were carefully arranged four abreast in long tunnels paved with tightly fitting green bricks and then covered with wooden planks and a layer of preserving clay. The Qin craftsmen gave each warrior a different hairstyle, and each of the faces are painted differently. The specificity of the uniforms, armor, and weapons, as well as the arrangement of the figures into distinct battle units, offers an unusual glimpse of the Qin Dynasty and people's lives at the time.

Each figure has been individually shaped from coiled clay. Once formed, the figures were fired, cooled, painted, and placed in position. The horses and charioteers were first modeled in clay, and then cast in bronze with hand-crafted overlays and painted. All of the faces have distinct characteristics, indicating that the artists had been ordered to model after live soldiers. In addition, bronze weapons found at the site, together with molded clay bricks and tiles, give insight into the physical environment. The material goods excavated from the tombs depict native beliefs regarding the afterlife, and the artistic and ornate objects speak of high sophistication and craftsmanship in Chinese culture at the time.

Excavation work on the site is moving ahead, however, there is no timetable for working on the actual tomb of the emperor. A Chinese historical record written a century after his death describes the tomb as filled with precious jewels and roofed with pearl replicas of the stars, sun, and moon. These same records suggest that the bodies of the tomb artisans and conscripted work force may have been buried alive to protect the secret of Qin Shi Huang sarcophagus.


By about 1500 b.c. the population of what is now known as China had grown to a substantial level and along with it the desire to consolidate the provinces into a unified territory. A pattern of warfare, slavery, and ideology was set into motion during the years prior to Qin, known as the "Spring and Autumn Period" and the "Warring States Period." Though marked by civil strife and disunity, this epoch, also known as theGolden Age of China, is testimony to an unprecedented era of cultural richness and economic prosperity. This era had a profound political and philosophical impact on China for the next 2,000 years.

This period was marked by constant warfare as the feudal system weakened and crumbled. Confucianism and Taoism, two powerful systems of philosophy and thought, emerged during this time and contributed to political and social transformation. Confucius believed that the only way society could work was for each person to act according to prescribed relationships. To Confucius, the government functioned to sustain ethical values.

To the Taoist school of thought, life focused on the individual finding balance and harmony adjusted to the rhythm of the natural and supernatural world. The early rulers of China also believed that a mandate from Heaven guided social and political authority. This mandate determined that the emperor governed by divine right; if dethroned, he had lost divine favor. These philosophies had profound implications in the way the Qin empire developed.

Also during this time, commerce was stimulated through the introduction of coins. Iron came into general use, making irrigation and canal projects feasible. Enormous walls were built around cities and along the broad northern frontier. Warring regional lords competed in amassing strong and loyal armies and increasing economic production for a broader tax base.

In 246 b.c., a 13-year-old prince inherited the throne of the Qin Kingdom. The next 25 years of his life were spent in battle, which resulted in the unification of China. Ruling over this feudal empire, he proclaimed himself the first emperor of a unified China. He asserted that his dynasty would rule for 10,000 years, but it turned out to be the shortest in the imperial system. There would be a long line of imperial dynasties until the fall of the lineage in 1912.

Although Qin Shi Huang ruled with an iron hand, often with barbaric methods, he was a leader with considerable foresight and talent. Under his 14-year rule, sweeping changes made his dynasty a turning point in Chinese history. Forty provinces were organized into a unified empire. Each was administered by non-hereditary officials appointed by the emperor. A system of education was developed in order to fill the burgeoning civil service positions. A hierarchical chain of authority from provincial governors to the emperor was initiated.

Under his rule, coins and other forms of money, weights, and measures conformed to a standard. Wide highways were constructed, all leading to the capital city, with bridges and lined with shade trees. These thorough fares allowed taxes to be collected and couriers to deliver messages to the emperor. A uniform system of writing was also developed.

His success in unifying the country is symbolized by the consolidation of the disparate, pre-existing segments of the northern frontier into the famed 1,500-mile (2,413 km) long Great Wall. Emperor Qin Shi Huang mobilized more than 500,000 soldiers and conscripted laborers to connect the wall segments into a single fortified defense line.

Several years before his death in 210 b.c., Emperor Qin Shi Huang provided himself with a massive tomb and clay army to protect him in the afterlife. The emperor had declared a Mandate from Heaven, whereby he declared himself a god as well as the Emperor of China. The construction of the tomb lasted for 40 years until the end of the Qin Dynasty. Nearly 750,000 laborers were conscripted to build the tomb and army, located near present-day Xian in Shaanxi province in the Yellow River valley. The ability of the Emperor to assemble this workforce speaks of his enormous political power and resources.

However, the measures taken by Qin Shi Huang were to prove too severe. The people of the eastern region found the restraint imposed upon them unacceptable. The huge work projects of building the Great Wall, the Imperial Palace, and the Emperor's Tomb exhausted the manpower and drained the treasury. To pay for the extravagances of the Emperor, taxes were raised and the people faced poverty or was forced to work at hard labor for the remainder of their lives. Furthermore, following advice given to him, the Emperor ordered books burned and libraries destroyed.

The first emperor failed in founding a lasting dynasty, however, a unified China continued, proving to be the world's most durable geopolitical unit. The remarkable systems of philosophy and thought, as well as the development of art, literature, medicine, and science, continue to be a reminder of the remarkable culture that evolved prior to that of the West. The unification of China over 2,200 years ago remains one of the most momentous events in the history of the world.


Further Reading

Periodical Articles

Carlson, Bobby. National Geographic vol. 153 (April 1978).

Hearn, Maxwell. Smithsonian Magazine (November 1979).


Davis, B. K. "The Chinese Emperor's Eternal Armies."

"Qin ShiHuang's Terracotta Army."