The Terracotta Army is the greatest work of mass-production art in history, made by more than 1,000 men including prisoners of war and convicts, or so it is said. Craftsmen who used to make drainpipes somehow adapted their technique to make soldiers’ legs. Hands, limbs and torsos were assembled by a production line of sweated labour. Yet there must have been a high number of master-artists in their midst – the last hands to touch each face, to adjust a mouth into the hint of a smile, to raise an eyebrow into perceptible impatience.

In Europe no such thing occurred until the Middle Ages, and even in Ancient Greece and Egypt you don’t see such painstaking expressions of individual identity except in portraits of single emperors and pharaohs, let alone ordinary soldiers by the thousand. It is true that these figures have no visionary uplift, like the animal-gods of the Nile or the Winged Victory of Samothrace. But reality is their point. They are meant to stand to attention; they are meant to do their job.

One certainty, however, is that they were never made to be viewed, still less admired as works of art. They were never meant to be seen at all, in fact, at least not on this side of the afterlife.

Sightless now, these warriors once had painted eyes and were coloured head to toe. Surrogates of the living, they were in no sense sculptures to the Emperor. His necropolis was an exact replica of life as lived above the ground, right down to the parks, the exotic birds, the bronze horse-drawn carriages and the massed ranks of soldiers.

The Emperor’s tomb has never been excavated and nobody knows what might be found within that enormous area beneath the ground, although the stories of starry heavens made of pearls and rivers of running mercury must have some truth in them, for pearls and mercury have both been found near the site. But it is known that many of the artists who made the Terracotta Army were buried alive with the Emperor when he died, very suddenly, at the age of 49. Perhaps he thought they would keep on working for all eternity, just as he would rule forever. Or perhaps he made no distinction between the life-like and the living.

Laura Cumming
Guardian Unlimited

The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army, on display at the British Museum in London, features 8 of the Terracotta soldiers.