Qin Dynasty Armor

The Armor worn by Qin Dynasty Soldiers

We have an idea of what Chinese armor from the Qin Dynasty may have looked like, since the 7,000 or so terra cotta warriors from the mausolem of the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (260-210 B.C.) appear to be modeled on distinct, individual warriors.

Like the early Egyptian pharaohs, the first Chinese emperor spared no expense provisioning the afterlife, including a subterranean palace and an enormous terra cotta army complete with life-size, realistic, painted warriors, chariots and horses.

Some of these warriors made it to the United States via a traveling exhibit. The following observations are based on an exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Color of the Qin Dynasty Armor

The garments on the terra cotta army were lacquered [see Chinese inventions] 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.

Although the warriors are made of terra cotta, they are detailed and realistic, so one can make guesses about what the features of the clay forms represent. There are clear features such as hands, arms, legs and faces on the terra cotta statues.

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 (perhaps 2 inches by 2 inches or 2 by 2 and a half inches) of leather with the number of 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.

Weaponry of Qin Dynasty Soldiers

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 -- Qin Dynasty soldiers wore 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 when riding on horseback, but no stirrups, and wore coats 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, which  included a helmet, round shield, greaves, and cuirass for bodily protection, all made of bronze.