Terracotta Army possibly inspired by other cultures yet made by Chinese artisans: archaeologist

Terracotta Army possibly inspired by other cultures yet made by Chinese artisans: archaeologist

23 January 2017

By Naomi Canton

Dr Li Xiuzhen held a talk at Asia House in London in an attempt to clear up the mystery over who built, influenced and designed the 8,000 clay warrior figurines known as the Terracotta Warriors.

The life-size clay figurines were discovered by accident by farmers digging wells in a pit in Xi’an in Shaanxi province in northwest China in 1974 in what has since been described as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the world.

They are part of an ancient tradition of funerary art in Chinese culture, whereby figurines used to be buried alongside rulers to protect them in the afterlife.

Senior Archaeologist, Dr Li Xiuzhen, who works at the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum, Lintong District, Xi‘an, Shaanxi Province, has been studying the Terracotta Army on the ground for years.

Dr Li, who has a PhD in archaeological science, said the aim of her talk at Asia House was to put to rest claims that the clay figurines were masterminded by ancient Greek artisans and she wanted to stress that they were the product of the unique indigenous culture of China.

She appeared in a BBC documentary The Greatest Tomb on Earth: Secrets of Ancient China, which claimed the warriors had been inspired by ancient Greek sculptures and art, which led to several UK nationals reporting on this.

In the talk at Asia House, Dr Li said her remarks had been taken out of context in the western media and there had been no evidence to show a Greek sculptor on site training local artisans to make the clay figurines.

She said it was absolutely not the case that ancient Greek artists could have travelled all the way to China 1,500 years before Marco Polo’s historic trip to the east and subsequently helped design the famous Terracotta Army, as one newspaper paper claimed.

Nevertheless, she said there had been some “cultural interaction” – possibly from Central or Western Asia during the Hellenistic period – that led to the local artisans being inspired by ancient Greek sculpting techniques.

“That is why I called my talk West Wind,” she said, smiling.

Her talk titled Western Wind and Local Soil: The Fascinating Creation of the Terracotta Army, which took place on 18 January, came at a pertinent time as the direct train service from China to the UK arrived in London.

Not everyone shares the same view as Dr Li, however. Professor Lukas Nickel, chair of Asian Art History at the University of Vienna, holds a different view and is quoted by newspapers as saying: “I imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals.”

It was the discovery of the Terracotta Army which located the magnificent tomb complex of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang – now seen both as an Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

More than 400 pits have been found in the mausoleum and dozens of small tombs found around the site so far, which is still being excavated. Born in 259 BC, Qin Shi Huang died in 210 BC after he had conquered six warring states, establishing the first centralised state of China and becoming the first emperor of the entire country.

In addition to the 8,000 terracotta warriors, 100 wooden chariots, 400 terracotta horses, and more than 40,000 bronze weapons – mainly arrows – have been unearthed from three of the pits so far, demonstrating that the Emperor wanted to take everything with him to the afterlife.

Dr Li Xiuzhen presented a slideshow of images of the Terracotta Warriors as discovered in Xi'an

Dr Li Xiuzhen presented a slideshow of images of the Terracotta Warriors as discovered in Xi’an

“In ancient China they believed in the afterlife and believed they needed someone to accompany them,” Dr Li explained at the completely packed talk.

The Emperor started building the 56 square kilometre funeral compound when he took the throne aged 13 in 246BC. His empire lasted just 15 years.

The buried army was found in battle formation with bronze weapons facing east, poised for battle, east of the mausoleum.

“The first Emperor of China conquered cities form the Eastern states and unified China so in the afterlife they assumed his enemies would come from the East from the states he conquered,” Dr Li explained.

She said there are reports in Chinese history documents of “12 giants coming to China from the West” in foreign robes and the Emperor created 12 bronze statues of them, which led some to imagine that these giants referred to the ancient Greeks.

Moreover, figurines discovered from tombs of the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and early Qin dynasty were much smaller than the Terracotta Warriors, which are larger and more muscly, also leads some experts to believe the artisans who created them were influenced by ancient Greeks.

“The Terracotta Warriors are completely different,” Dr Li said.  “They have well depicted facial features, hair styles and postures – totally different to these other figurines from before and after this period. They are life-size and muscly, particularly the terracotta acrobats. The other figurines are smaller, less individualistic and with less features. The Terracotta Warriors are also more colourful.”

Each Terracotta soldier is unique, with individual hair, facial features, with even the ears being unique to each one.

The Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army

“The Han dynasty figurines were smaller and simpler. The early Qin figurines were more stylistic whereas the Terracotta ones are more realistic – they have beards and ears, proper eyes and eyebrows and are much clearer in how they show the facial features,” she added.

But she points out that local materials and soil from around the mausoleum were used to make the large figurines.

“We can trace back the origin of the raw materials using petrographic analysis,” she said.

Traditional Chinese techniques were used and local Qin artists sculpted them, she said. Greeks carved out of stone but the Chinese carved out of clay and the Terracotta Warriors were made from clay, she explained.

“My research shows that these statues were made individually by small workshops. The names of leading producers of that period have been stamped or incised on the figures they created and we believe they had small workshops working under them. It was local soil locally produced by local artisans according to traditional concepts and ideology,” she said.

She pointed out even the concept is based on traditional Chinese beliefs and cosmology.

“I can see traditional Chinese culture, ideology and technology used in them,” Dr Li said.

“It appears there was an exchange of objects before the Silk Road,” Dr Li said. “Objects came from Eurasia to the early Qin tombs. We found some gold and silver objects in the early Qin tombs – these were not traditional Chinese objects but objects from Eurasia,” she added.

“There is also archaeological evidence to show that the Qin people traded with surrounding tribes. Some objects came from Eurasia but they innovated them so they adapted objects from outside the Empire and used traditional Chinese methods.

“Cultural interaction can not be drawn in a simple line,” Dr Li said. “There is no evidence of any Greek person on site teaching the locals. The Terracotta Warriors were not designed by the Greeks. The media has gone too far. In my view the Qin people may have been inspired by some ideas and adopted some elements through Central or Western Asia during the Hellenistic period,” she concluded.


Experience a fusion of jazz, blues, Persian, Kurdish, Azeri, Afghani, Iranian and Armenian folk music at Asia House on 26 January. For more information click here.

Join critically acclaimed author Lesley Downer for insights into love and romance in 19th century Japan on 8 February. For more information click here.