What Was the Terracotta Army For?

Eugene Wang, Harvard University


The terracotta army at the First Emperor’s tomb site remains a source of wonder. What is it then that we should really be wondering about? There has been speculation about the terracotta army’s functions. Overtime, the range of proposed functions has narrowed and hardened into an assumption or firm conviction: the army is out there to defend the First Emperor’s tomb. Close scrutiny of the evidence erodes this conviction. For one thing, the terracotta soldiers are decidedly not in the condition of combat readiness. It is not clear that they are there to fight or defend anything. None of them wears a helmet. Not that the idea of helmets is alien to the site. Stone helmets are piled up in an accessory pit close to the tomb, but one mile away from the terracotta army. This is just the beginning of the list of oddities one can compile. The discovery of the two bronze carriages west of the tomb chamber further exacerbates the problem. The exquisiteness of the bronze carriages has fed the speculation that, of the two carriages, the canopied sedan is the emperor’s “spirit vehicle.” Leaving aside the validity of this characterization for the moment, we certainly have a curious situation. The terracotta army, located one mile to the east of the tomb, faces the east. Meanwhile, the emperor’s presumed “spirit carriage” decidedly faces the west. They thus stand at cross purposes. It is as if the spirit of the emperor, presumably the commander-in-chief of the terracotta army in this afterlife world, shows little interest in commanding his army. He—or his afterlife spirit—is poised to turn his back on his army and heads toward the west.

All this is to suggest that things in our assumed scheme of things do not add up. This means that we need to rethink the whole scheme. The symbolic function of the terracotta army needs to be questioned. We can only make sense of it in view of the overall conceptual blueprint governing the entirety of the First Emperor’s tomb site. The symbolic role fulfilled by the terracotta army is apparently part of the big picture. The satellite pits surrounding the emperor’s tomb combine to reveal a rather suggestive pattern. What precisely is this pattern? A close analysis of the accessory pits leads us to rethink the prevalent premise underlying the entire site. Is the tomb site, with its bronze birds, acrobats, officers, etc., a replica of the emperor’s living world aimed at eternity? On the face of it, it is hard to think otherwise. I will show, however, this is not the case. The cast of characters installed in various accessory pits, I will argue, stages a permanent performance, not permanence. What is it, then, they perform? What is the script on which the performance is based? These are the questions I will address in my presentation.