Skip to main content Accessibility help

The First Emperor and sculpture in China

  • Lukas Nickel (a1)


Sculpture as an artistic medium was widely employed in the arts of Greece and the Hellenistic East, but played only a minor role in ancient East Asia. This changed dramatically with the First Emperor of China who marked his ascent to the throne in 221 bc with the erection of giant bronze sculptures outside his palace and the installation of thousands of terracotta figures in his tomb. The current text sets out to investigate the sudden and short-lived surge of sculpture making in third-century bc China and places it in the context of developments across Asia of the time. The text joins art historical, archaeological and textual evidence to investigate whether the First Emperor's extraordinary interest in sculpture may have been the result of contacts with the contemporary Hellenistic world.


Corresponding author


Hide All
Barnard, Richard. 2004. “Alexander in China?”, in Xiaoneng, Yang (ed.), New Perspectives on China's Past. Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 329–43.
Bernard, Paul. 1994. “The Greek Kingdoms of Central Asia”, in Harmatta, János (ed.), History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. 2: The Development of Sedentary and Nomadic Civilizations. 700 B.C. to A.D. 250. Paris: Unesco publication.
Bernard, Paul. 2007. “The Greek colony at Ai Khanoum and Hellenism in Central Asia”, in Cambon 2007, pp. 44–55.
Blänsdorf, Catharina, Emmerling, E. and Petzet, M. (eds). 2001. The Terracotta Army of the First Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuang. Munich: Lipp Verlag.
Boardman, John. 1993. The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bosworth, Albert Brian. 1988. Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Boyle, Katie, Renfew, Colin and Levine, Marsha. 2002. Ancient Interactions – East and West in Eurasia. Cambridge: McDonald Institute.
Brinker, Helmut. 1995. “Vom Ursprung des Menschenbildes”, in Goepper 1995, 13–35.
Broschat, Katja et al. 2007. “Die Bronzevögel des Ersten Kaisers – Restaurierung und Technologie”, in Unter der gelben Erde – die deutsch-chinesische Zusammenarbeit im Kulturgüterschutz. Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 8194.
Cambon, Pierre (ed.). 2007. Hidden Afghanistan. Amsterdam: De Nieuwe Kerk.
Chen Li 沈琍. 2010. “Huo Qubing mu ji qi shijiao yanjiu de huigu ji sikao” 霍去病墓及其石雕研究的回顧及思考 (Review and reconsideration of research on the tomb of Huo Qubing and its stone sculpture), Kaogu yu Wenwu 2010/6, 60–6.
Christopoulos, Lucas. 2012. “Hellenes and Romans in Ancient China (240 bc–1398 ad)”, Sino-Platonic Papers, no. 230.
Cuo mu. 1995. Cuo mu. Zhanguo Zhongshanguo guowang zhi mu Cuo 墓-戰國中山國國王之墓 (The tomb of Cuo – The tomb of the king of Zhongshan state of the Zhanguo period). Beijing: Wenwu Press.
Delaine, Janet. 2002. “The temple of Hadrian at Cyzicus and Roman attitudes to exceptional construction”, Papers of the British School at Rome, vol. 70, 205–30.
Dintsis, Petros. 1986. Hellenistische Helme. (Archaeologica 43.) Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider.
Von Erdberg, Eleanor. 1990. “Die Soldaten Shih-huang-ti's – Porträts?”, in Kraatz, Martin, Meyer zur Capellen, Jürg and Seckel, Dietrich (eds), Das Bildnis in der Kunst des Orients. (Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 50/1.) Stuttgart: Steiner, 221–34.
Von Falkenhausen, Lothar. 2003. “The external connections of Sanxingdui”, Journal of East Asian Archaeology 5/1–4, 191245.
Von Falkenhausen, Lothar. 2004. “Mortuary behaviour in pre-Imperial Qin: a religious interpretation”, in Lagerwey, John (ed.), Religion and Chinese Society, vol. I. Ancient and Medieval China. Hong Kong and Paris: The Chinese University Press and École française d'Extrême-Orient, 109–72.
Von Falkenhausen, Lothar. 2006. Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1000–250 bc). The Archaeological Evidence. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California.
Francfort, Henri-Paul. 1988. “Central Asia and Eastern Iran”, in Boardman, John et al. (eds), The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 4. Persia, Greece, and the Western Mediterranean ca. 525 to 479 bc. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 165–93.
Goepper, Roger (ed.). 1995. Das Alte China. Essen: Kulturstiftung Ruhr.
Gombrich, Ernst. 1972. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon.
Dashun, Guo. 2004. “The Hongshan culture complex at Niuheliang and the origins of ritual in China”, in Xiaoneng, Yang, New Perspectives on China's Past – Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 144–59.
Hannestad, Lise. 2013. “A comparative study of the cultural dynamics in two cities of the eastern Seleucid Kingdom: Uruk and Ai Khanoum”, in Lindström et al. 2013, 99–113.
Hanshu. Ban Gu 班固. Hanshu 漢書. (Documents of the Han Dynasty.) Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1962.
Yoshito, Harada 原田淑人, (1885–1974) 1936. “Qin zhi jinren” 秦之金人 (The Metal Men of Qin), trans. Guwu yanjiu (古物研究, Research on Antiquities). Shanghai: Shangwu press.
He Xilin 賀西林. 2009. “‘Huo Qubing mu’ de zai kaosi” ‘霍去病墓’的再思考 (Reconsidering the ‘Tomb of Huo Qubing’), Meishu yanjiu/Art Research 2009/3, 3244.
Von den Hoff, Ralf. 2013. “Alexanderbildnisse und imitatio Alexandri in Baktrien”, in Lindström et al. 2013, 83–97.
Hölscher, Tonio. 1971. Ideal und Wirklichkeit in den Bildnissen Alexanders des Großen. Heidelberg: C. Winter.
Holt, Frank L. 1988. Alexander the Great and Bactria. The Formation of a Greek Frontier in Central Asia. Leiden: Brill.
Holt, Frank L. 2005. Into the Land of Bones – Alexander the Great in Afghanistan (Hellenistic Culture and Society 47.) Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.
Howard, Angela Falco, Song, Li, Hung, Wu and Hong, Yang (eds). 2006. Chinese Sculpture. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Huainanzi. He Ning 何寧. Huainanzi jishi 淮南子集釋 (The Huainanzi collected and interpreted). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1998.
Jettmar, Karl. 1989. “Der Oxus-Schatz und das Heiligtum von Tachti Sangin”, Oxus 1989, 171–5.
Boqin, Jiang 姜伯勤. 2004. Zhongguo Aojiao yishushi yanjiu 中國襖教藝術史研究 (A History of Zoroastrian Art). Beijing: Xinhua Press.
Kaogu yu wenwu 1996/5, pp. 1–8. “Xianyang Shiyougangguan Gangshengchang Qin mu qingli jianbao” 咸陽石油鋼管鋼繩廠秦墓清理簡報 (Preliminary report on the excavation of the Qin period tombs at the steel factory of the Oil and Steel factory in Xianyang).
Kesner, Ladislav. 1995. “Likeness of no one: (re)presenting the First Emperor's army”, The Art Bulletin, 77/1 (March 1995), 115–32.
Khayutina, Maria (ed.). 2013. Qin – The Eternal Emperor and his Terracotta Warriors. Zurich: Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
Ledderose, Lothar. 2000. Ten Thousand Things – Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ledderose, Lothar and Schlombs, Adele (eds). 1990. Jenseits der Grossen Mauer – Der Erste Kaiser von China und seine Terrakotta-Armee. Dortmund and Munich: Museum am Ostwall.
Legge, James. 1895. The Chinese Classics, vol. 2: The Work of Mencius. Oxford: Trübner & Co.
Yinde, Li. 2012. “Excavations and studies of the Western Han tombs of the Chu kings”, in Lin 2012, 43–48.
Lin, James (ed.). 2012. The Search for Immortality – Tomb Treasures of Han China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Meicun, Lin 林梅村. 2006. Sichou zhi lu kaogu shiwu jiang 絲綢之路考古十五講 (Fifteen lectures on the archaeology of the Silk Road). Beijing: Beijing University Press.
Lindström, Gunvor, Hansen, Svend, Wieczorek, Alfried et al. (eds). 2013. Zwischen Ost und West – Neue Forschungen zum antiken Zentralasien. Darmstadt: Philipp von Zabern.
Loeb. 1917. Jones, Horace Leonard (trans.), The Geography of Strabo. (Loeb Classical Library.) 8 volumes. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1917–32.
Loewe, Michael. 1985. “The royal tombs of Zhongshan (c. 310 b.c.)”, Arts Asiatiques 40, 130–34.
Loewe, Michael. 2010. “Imperial tombs”, in Nylan, Michael and Loewe, Michael (eds), China's Early Empires, a Re-Appraisal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 213–31.
Liancheng, Lu 盧連成 and Zhisheng, Hu 胡智生. 1988. Baoji Yu guo mu di 寶雞?國墓地 (The cemetery of the Yu state in Baoji). Beijing: Wenwu Press.
Mairs, Rachel. 2011. The Archaeology of the Hellenistic Far East, BAR International Series 2196.
Major, John S. et al. (ed. and trans.). 2010. The Huainanzi – a Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China. New York: Columbia University Press.
Martinón-Torres, Marcos et al. 2012. “Forty thousand arms for a single emperor – from chemical data to labor organization in the production of bronze arrows for the Terracotta Army”, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, October 2012.
Shunying, Mu 穆舜英 and Mingzhi, Wang 王明哲. 1985. Xinjiang gudai minzu wenwu 新疆古代民族文物 (Artefacts of the ancient peoples of Xinjiang). Beijing: Wenwu Press.
Nickel, Lukas (ed.). 2002. Return of the Buddha. Zurich: Museum Rietberg; London: Royal Academy.
Nickel, Lukas. 2006. “Tonkrieger auf der Seidenstrasse? Die Plastiken des Ersten Kaisers von China und die hellenistische Skulptur Zentralasiens”, Zurich Studies in the History of Art/Georges Bloch Annual, vol. 13–14, 124–49.
Nickel, Lukas. 2007. “The Terracotta Army”, in Portal 2007, 158–79.
Nickel, Lukas. 2011. “Yazhou shiye zhong de bingmayong” 亞洲視野中的兵馬俑 (The Terracotta Warriors in an Asian Context), in Yan, Zheng and Hung, Wu (eds), Studies on Ancient Tomb Art, vol. 1 古代墓葬美術研究(一). Beijing: Wenwu Press, 2340.
Nickel, Lukas. 2012. “The Nanyue silver box”, Arts of Asia, 42/3, 98107.
Oxus 1989. Oxus – 2000 Jahre Kunst am Oxus-Fluss in Mittelasien. Zurich: Museum Rietberg.
Paludan, Ann. 2006. Chinese Sculpture – a Great Tradition. Chicago: Serindia Publications.
Parzinger, Hermann. 2008. “The ‘Silk Roads’ concept reconsidered – about transfers, transportation and transcontinental interactions in prehistory”, The Silk Road Project Newsletter 5/2, 715.
Portal, Jane (ed.). 2007. The First Emperor. China's Terracotta Army. London: The British Museum.
Pugatchenkova, Galina Anatoljevna. 1971. Галина Анатольевна Пугаченкова, Скульптура Халчаяна, Москва, Издательство Искусство.
Rawson, Jessica (ed.). 1996. Mysteries of Ancient China – New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties. London: British Museum Press.
Rawson, Jessica. 1999. “The eternal palaces of the Western Han – a new view of the universe”, Artibus Asiae 5/1–2, 558.
Rawson, Jessica. 2002. “The power of images – the model universe of the First Emperor and its legacy”, Historical Research 75, no 188 (May 2002), 123–54.
Rawson, Jessica. 2010. “Carnelian beads, animal figures and exotic vessels: traces of contact between the Chinese states and Inner Asia, c. 1000–650 bc” in Wagner, Mayke and Wei, Wang (eds), Archäologie in China, vol. 1, Bridging Eurasia. Mainz: Philip von Zabern, 142.
Report. 2000. Qin Shihuang diling yuan kaogu baogao 秦始皇帝陵園考古報告 (Excavation of the Precinct of Qin Shihuang's Mausoleum in 1999). Beijing: Wenwu Press.
Report. 2007. Qin Shihuangdi lingyuan kaogu baogao 2001–2003 秦始皇帝陵園考古報告 (Report on the excavations during 2001–2003 at the grave site of Emperor Qin Shihuang). Beijing: Wenwu Press.
Sherratt, Andres. 2006. “The trans-Eurasian exchange. The prehistory of Chinese relations with the West”, in Mair, Victor (ed.), Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 3061.
Yan, Shi 史岩. 1940. “Qin zhi zhong ju jinren kao” 秦之鍾鐻金人攷 (Considerations on the term zhong ju jinren of Qin), Jinling xuebao 金陵學報 10/1–2, 4356.
Shiji. Sima Qian 司馬遷. Shiji 史記 (Records of the Historian). Beijing: Zhonghua Press, 1959.
Kurakichi, Shiratori 白鳥庫吉. (1865–1942) 1929. “Kyōdo no Kyūtoō no Ryōiki to So no Saiten no Kinjin ni tsuite” 匈奴の休屠王の領域と其の祭天の金人について.(Concerning the area of the Xiongnu-Prince Xiutu and the bronze figures for its heaven ritual), first published 1929, reprint in Saigai Minzokushi Kenkyū (塞外民族史研究 Research on the History of Peoples on the Periphery), vol. 2 (Shiratori Kurakichi Zenshū vol. 5). Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten, 1970, 303–62.
So, Jenny F. (ed.). 2000. Music in the Age of Confucius. Seattle and London: Washingon University Press.
Stewart, Andrew. 1993. Faces of Power. Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics. Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford: University of California Press, 25–7.
Thote, Alain. 2004. “Burial practices as seen in rulers' tombs of the Eastern Zhou period. Patterns and regional traditions”, in Lagerwey, John (ed.), Religion and Chinese Society, vol. 1: Ancient and Medieval China. Hong Kong and Paris: The Chinese University Press, 65107.
Kai, Wang. 1990. “Han terracotta army in Xuzhou”, Orientations, October 1990, 62–6.
Wenwu 1988/11, pp. 14–23, 54. “Shaanxi Longxian Bianjiazhuang wuhao Chunqiu mu fajue jianbao” 陝西隴縣邊家庄五號春秋墓發掘簡報 (Preliminary report of the excavation of the Chunqiu period tomb no 5 in Bianjiazhuang, Longxian, Shaanxi).
Wenwu 2008/9, pp. 4–28. “2006 nian Gansu Zhangjiachuan huizu zizhixian Majiayuan Zhanguo mudi fajue jianbao” 2006 年甘肅張家川回族自治區馬家塬戰國墓地發掘簡報 (2006 Excavation on the Majiayuan cemetery of the Warring States period in Zhangjiachuan autonomous county of Hui Nationality).
Wenwu 2010/6, pp. 4–20. “Shaanxi Hancheng Liangdaicun mudi beiqu 2007 nian fajue jianbao” 陝西韓城梁帶村墓地北區 2007 年發掘簡報 (2007 Excavation on the Northern Section of the Liangdaicun Graveyard in Hancheng City, Shaanxi).
Hung, Wu. 2005. “On tomb figurines – the beginning of a visual tradition”, in Hung, Wu and Tsiang, Katherine R. (eds), Body and Face in Chinese Visual Culture. (Harvard East Asian Monographs 239.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1347.
Hung, Wu. 2006. “From the Neolithic to the Han“, in Howard 2006, 17–104.
Xi'an 2006. Xi'an – Kaiserliche Macht im Jenseits – Grabfunde und Tempelschätze aus Chinas alter Hauptstadt. (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland). Bonn. Philipp von Zabern.
Xi'an nanjiao Qin mu. 2004. Xi'an nanjiao Qin mu 西安南郊秦墓 (Qin tombs in the southern suburb of Xi'an). Xi'an: Shaanxi Renmin Press.
Xu, Jay. 2001. “Bronze at Sanxingdui”, in Bagley, Robert (ed.), Ancient Sichuan – Treasures from a Lost Civilization. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 59152.



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed