12 Terracotta Warriors: The Absence of Women in the Tomb

Rebecca Zipper

Key terms

  • Filial Piety
  • Terracotta Warriors
  • Gender Relations
  • Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BCE)
  • The First Emperor (Qin Shi Huangdi)


Who was the First Emperor and why did he build this tomb?

He was the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, also known as Qin Shi Huangdi. The Qin Dynasty was the first empire where administration and government were centralized. China had just left the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) and was in need of these reforms to help unify them. While these reforms were created during the Warring States, they were also used for unification. No longer were they under feudal rule because First Emperor used legalism, a philosophy started by Shang Yang that said that rulers should have absolute power and should govern with the help of a strict legal code that favored no single class. The First Emperor used this in his military reforms; his army used crossbows, lamellar armor (rows of overlapping leather plates sewn together), and swords in fights; evidence was found in his tomb. He also started construction of the Great Wall by linking existing sections together. These reforms competed against the time-honored traditions of ancestor worship and filial piety.[1]

The First Emperor was obsessed with legacy and the idea of immortality. During his life, the First Emperor made many enemies and killed many people in war. He was always taking great precautions against assassins. He built the terracotta soldiers in order to protect him in the afterlife. [2] In the tomb, there are no women, in any form. While women had a very specific part of Chinese culture during that time, their absence raises many questions.

Remember earlier when I mentioned filial piety? To explain further, filial piety is a Confucian ideal that shows respect for your elders. The following anecdote demonstrates the gender dynamics in the Qin dynasty and also adds light to the First Emperor’s search for legacy. The First Emperor was unable to make his eldest son want to succeed him. The family line could only be transmitted through a male heir, so it was important that someone would take the throne. In an account by Sima Qian, dated to 89 BCE, “One of the emperor’s many sons conspired with the chief eunuch to murder his oldest brother, the emperor’s presumed heir, and to seize the throne himself.”[3] Inside the tomb, skeletons and artifacts of the royal family were found, most from men. Men were killed,  so a successor could try and secure the throne for himself. They did not need to kill women because they could not take the throne. But this source contradicts itself, because it says that while women were not purposely killed, bodies of the royal concubines were buried near the First Emperor. This could be so he would have these concubines with him in the next life.[4]

Gender Relations of the Qin

Women contributed to China by maintaining strong family relations. In traditional China, no matter what socio-economic state, women were always there to manage the household. One source says, “Status for a woman was determined by her own age, the position of her husband in the family, and whether she produced a male heir. Her beauty, womanly virtues, and domestic skills also contributed to status, although in a minor way.” [5] Specifically in the Qin Dynasty, the First Emperor was leaving Confucian ideals behind, but still some values remained. [6]

There isn’t much information about gender in the Qin dynasty because it was so short, but in the Han dynasty, which succeeded the Qin, a woman scholar named Ban Zhao wrote Lessons for Women. [7] This explained the “four womanly virtues” which were:

  1. Proper virtue
  2. Proper speech
  3. Proper countenance
  4. Proper Conduct

It also explained the “three obediences” which were:

  1. Obedience to one’s father before marriage
  2. Obedience to one’s husband when married
  3. Obedience to one’s son if widowed. [8]

Finally, the source explained bie or separateness. This explains the idea that women and men hold different roles in society. The men were supposed to study and train to enter the bureaucracy (if their status allowed), while women held down the fort. However because family is an important pillar of Confucianism, there is an interest in both men and women. In the Confucian moral code, one of the basic relationships is between wife and husband, especially reciprocity of respect. Filial piety is again very important to these relationships as well.[9]

In traditional China as a whole, women’s status was based on their roles in the household. Having children was very important. Boys would later repay their parents by caring for them when they are older. “Sons brought honor, prestige, and wealth to their families if they passed their civil service examinations and were appointed to government positions.”  Girls were also important because they would be the ones to produce more boys and would manage the household. This once again plays into the fact that women and men had different roles.[10]

So, why aren’t there women in the tomb?

If there were women in the tomb, they wouldn’t be depicted as soldiers. As seen above, women played a strong role in the household. When he died, the First Emperor left his family behind, therefore he wouldn’t need any women in the afterlife with him.

A question rattling in my head was why wouldn’t he have concubines with him for pleasure? This can be answered by examining the role of the concubine. Concubines had little social status because they were viewed as “secondary wives.” The role of the concubine was to produce a male heir if a man’s first wife could not do so. The man’s first wife would be viewed as the mother. They also became a mark of wealth, explaining why the emperor would have many.[11] The emperor would not need a concubine because he did not need to produce an heir. The expanse of his army and what we now know of his tomb, he reeked with wealth, ergo he would not need to flaunt it in the afterlife.

While there are no terracotta depictions of women in the tomb, an artist by the name of Prune Nourry created a small army of 116 female terracotta warriors in an exhibit called the “Terracotta Daughters.” Similar to the terracotta warriors in the First Emperor’s tomb, every girl is unique. In 2014, the statues traveled around the world and will now be buried until 2030. Nourry originally started with eight soldiers (eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture), modeled after eight girls she met through an orphan charity. The article states, “With these modern female warriors, Prune raises the pressing issue of gender discrimination without pointing fingers at anyone or anything. One looks at these amazing terra-cotta statues and feel compelled to ask — why aren’t there more of them? And why aren’t there more girls in China?”

To stay true to the gender norm, “Unlike the male warriors, they look approachable, friendly and even charming.”

In a trailer on her website, she says that this is to deal with population control during the time of the One-Child Policy when people were prone to select gender (normally male). A 2010 census indicates in China there are at least 34 million more men than women. Nourry explains, “In China, there is a huge imbalance between boys and girls. I wanted to highlight the issue of gender preference. I needed a strong cultural symbol to base this project on, and a universal one that would speak both to Chinese villagers in the countryside and to citizens abroad.”[12]

Screenshot from the CNN article, depicting statues in the style of the terracotta warriors but as women
Source: CNN

Overall, the gender imbalance in Chinese culture has not disappeared in today’s world. Because of the different roles of men and women, the latter were not included in the tomb because they were not useful enough in the afterlife.


Ban Zhao. “Instructions for Women”. In The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, edited by Victor Mair, 534-41. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1994.

Littell-Lamb, Elizabeth A. “Women, Role of.” In Berkshire Encyclopedia of China: Modern and Historic Views of the World’s Newest and Oldest Global Power, edited by Linsun Cheng. Berkshire Publishing Group, 2009, via Credo Reference.

Hinsch, Bret. Women in Early Imperial China. 2nd ed. Asia/Pacific/Perspectives. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.

McCurley, Dallas L. “Qin Dynasty.” In Berkshire Encyclopedia of China: Modern and Historic Views of the World’s Newest and Oldest Global Power, edited by Linsun Cheng. Berkshire Publishing Group, 2009, via Credo Reference.

Williams, A.R. “Discoveries May Rewrite History of China’s Terra-Cotta Warriors.” National Geographic, October 12, 2016. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/china-first-emperor-terra-cotta-warriors-tomb.

Zhang, Flora. “Terra-Cotta Warriors Get ‘Sex Change’.” CNN. Cable News Network, September 11, 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/10/opinion/zhang-terracotta-daughters/index.html.

  1. Dallas L. McCurley, “Qin Dynasty,” in Berkshire Encyclopedia of China: Modern and Historic Views of the World’s Newest and Oldest Global Power, via Credo Reference.
  2. McCurley, "Qin Dynasty."
  3. R.A. Williams, " Discoveries May Rewrite History of China's Terra-Cotta Warriors" refers here to Sima Qian, "Shi ji 6: The Basic Annals of the First Emperor of the Qin," in Records of the Grand Historian, transl. by Burton Watson, revised edition (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1993), 62-63.
  4. Sima Qian, "Shi ji 6," 64.
  5. Elizabeth A. Littell-Lamb, “Women, Role of,” in Berkshire Encyclopedia of China: Modern and Historic Views of the World’s Newest and Oldest Global Power, 2009, via Credo Reference.
  6. Littell-Lamb, "Women, Role of."
  7. Ban Zhao. “Instructions for Women," in The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, edited by Victor Mair (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1994), 534-41.
  8. Ban Zhao, “Instructions for Women”.
  9. Littell-Lamb, "Women, Role of."
  10. Littell-Lamb, Elizabeth A. "Women, Role of."
  11. Littell-Lamb, "Women, Role of."
  12. Flora Zhang, “Terra-Cotta Warriors Get ‘Sex Change,’” CNN, September 10, 2014, https://www.cnn.com/2014/09/10/opinion/zhang-terracotta-daughters/index.html.


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