The Qin Dynasty Armor

Close up of Terracotta Army statues in Xian, Shaanxi, China
studioEAST / Getty Images

We have an idea of what Chinese armor from the Qin Dynasty may have looked like since the 7000 or so terracotta warriors from the mausoleum of the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (260-210 B.C.) appear to be modeled on distinct, individual warriors. Some of these warriors have made it to the United States via a traveling exhibit. The following observations are based on the exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the lecture of one of its docents on January 6, 2013.​

Armor Color

The garments on the terracotta army were lacquered and colorfully painted, especially in blue and red. Unfortunately, exposure to elements, like air and fire, led to flaking off, bleaching, and discoloration. Splotchy faded color remains.

Terracotta Realism

Although the warriors are made of terracotta, they are detailed and realistic, so one can make guesses about what the features of the clay forms represent.

Armor Variety

Some of the warriors wore no armor; some, only chest covering armor; others, chest, and upper arm. The armor seems to have been riveted together in places; tied or sewn, in others. The armor itself appears to be small plates (around 2"x2" or 2"x2.5") of (possibly) leather with the number of (possibly) metal studs in each plate varying a little. Some warriors clearly wear extra garments on their thighs in addition to the pants under their coats and the neck covering material.


The warriors do not appear to have carried shields but held in their grip their weapons, which in the traveling exhibit were mostly various types of bows, although the bows are not actually in their hands. They also carried spears. Not exactly a weapon, but horsemen appear to have carried reins.

Grooming and Accessories

On their neatly combed and parted head hair—their mustaches were exquisite, too—were topknots to the right, elaborate braids, and, sometimes partially hair-concealing (probably) leather caps, most noticeably on the mounted cavalry, but no helmets. These horsemen sat on their still short horses with their hair coiffed and covered, too. The horsemen used saddles, but no stirrups, and wore coats the docent thought were somewhat shorter than their fellow foot soldiers, over leggings. Some generals appear to have had literal ribbons (still clay, of course)—tied like bows—and pinned on their coats in a number of places. The number and arrangement could be the equivalent of the difference between four and five-star generals.

Compare this very limited and probably animal hide armor with the standard Roman armor of even a few hundred years earlier: a helmet, round shield, greaves, and cuirass for bodily protection, all of bronze.