A face took shape in one of several dozen molds. The sculptor then added details, choosing from an array of basic hairdos, ears, eyebrows, mustaches, and beards. The body was created separately and displayed a similar combination of standard elements. All together, the completed figures gave an impression of infinite variety, as in a real army.

Birth by Mass Production

A face took shape in one of several dozen molds. The sculptor then added details, choosing from an array of basic hairdos, ears, eyebrows, mustaches, and beards. The body was created separately and displayed a similar combination of standard elements. All together, the completed figures gave an impression of infinite variety, as in a real army.

Terra-Cotta Warriors in Color

It was a dazzling spectacle: a life-size army of painted clay soldiers buried to guard an emperor’s tomb. Now archaeologists and artists, armed with the latest tools and techniques, are bringing that ancient vision back to life.

In an earthen pit in central China, under what used to be their village’s persimmon orchard, three middle-aged women are hunched over an ancient jigsaw puzzle. Yang Rongrong, a cheerful 57-year-old with a pageboy haircut, turns over a jagged piece in her callused hands and fits it into the perfect spot. The other women laugh and murmur their approval, as if enjoying an afternoon amusement in their village near the city of Xian. What Yang and her friends are doing, in fact, is piecing together the 2,200-year-old mystery of the terra-cotta army, part of the celebrated (and still dimly understood) burial complex of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di.

It usually takes Yang and her co-workers many days to transform a heap of clay fragments into a full-size warrior, but today they are lucky, accomplishing the task in a matter of hours. “I have no special talent,” insists Yang, who has been solving such puzzles since 1974, when farmers from her village of Xiyang first unearthed pottery and a sculpted head while digging a well for their orchard. “But nearly every warrior here has passed through my hands.” Having helped reassemble an army of a thousand warriors, Yang contemplates today’s final piece: a clay head sheathed in protective plastic. Visible through the wrap are flashes of pink and red, brilliant hues that hint at the original glory of the terra-cotta warriors.

The monochrome figures that visitors to Xian’s terra-cotta army museum see today actually began as the multicolored fantasy of a ruler whose grandiose ambitions extended beyond the mortal realm. The first emperor to unify China under a single dynasty, Qin Shi Huang Di packed a lot into his earthly reign, from 221 to 210 B.C.Aside from building the first lengths of the Great Wall, the tyrannical reformer standardized the nation’s writing system, currency, and measurements, and provided the source for the English word we now use for China (Qin is pronounced Chin).

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