Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier Book Poster Image
Boy joins a come-to-life clay soldier in exciting adventure.

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age 4+
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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers learn a bit about archaeology and get lots of historical background about Imperial China and its military, its battles against the Mongol army, Chinese food, politics, and culture in the 14th century and the 1970s. There's a glossary with English translations of some of the key Chinese words in the book, and Chinese characters appear in the text as those words are introduced. Recipes are provided for two dishes eaten in the story (author Ying Chang Compestine is also a cookbook author). Readers also learn what life was like in 1970s China during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, which Compestine herself experienced. Photos throughout amplify the historical events and settings mentioned in the book, especially those related to the discovery of the terra-cotta soldiers in 1974. 

Positive Messages

Never give up, trust yourself, use your brain and your special skills to get yourself out of sticky situations when all looks doomed, be brave, be loyal to family and friends, trust your gut when you encounter suspicious or evil characters, respect tradition, be honest, honor your parents.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ming's a wonderful, strong, mutlidimensional character. Still grieving the loss of his mother and still adjusting to life in the country, where his father was sent for political reasons, he struggles to cope, despite being hungry, having no friends, and being bullied by his teacher and the local political officer. He's good at fixing mechanical things, and he gladly repairs clocks and such for the villagers. He's polite, helpful, respectful, and brave. Shi, the terra-cotta soldier, also is brave and kind and sacrifices his own safety for Ming.


Lots of descriptions of violence on the battlefield, including mentions of chopping off the heads of enemy soldiers with swords in battle and presenting them to military officers for payment. One scene of beheadings as punishment (no gore is described). Stories of 14th-century battles, ambushes, killings with swords, boiling oil being poured down on approaching troops and horses, a solider falling off a horse, breaking his neck and being trampled by the horse, another soldier being crushed under his horse's hooves, a spear in the face, a lieutenant who slices his own arm off with a sword after it was slashed and left "dangling by only a thin strip of flesh and tendon." A boy's punched in the face and knocked to the floor. In the tomb, there's a "shriveled corpse" of a man killed by a booby trap, with two arrows protruding from his eye sockets, and some tomb robbers encounter poison dust and needles containing snake venom that shoot out of a fake flower. Another is on the receiving end of metal darts shooting from a sculpted dragon's eyes. One gunshot hits a character. A man is crushed by a terra-cotta soldier that falls on top of him. There's a mention of a woman dying in childbirth.


One crude, frustrated character exclaims, "Turtle turds!"

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Men in the village drink too much "three flower liquor" one night and pass out.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier by Ying Chang Compestine and her son, Vinson Compestine, is a culturally rich historical novel with the excitement of an Indiana Jones adventure, as 14-year-old Ming, son of an archaeologist, gets led into third century B.C. Emperor Qin's tomb by one of the emperor's clay soldiers come to life. Like Ying Chang Compestine's fictional memoir, the award-winning Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party, it shows readers what life was like during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Lots of violence in the accounts of Emperor Qin's battles against the Mongols (including beheadings, a soldier trampled by horses, and an officer who cuts off his own arm with a sword). And in the "present" (the 1970s), there's danger and grave injury when tomb robbers encounter deadly booby traps, including shooting darts, poison powder, needles containing snake venom, and a gunshot that fells a character. A great read for tweens, adventure fans, and readers who love history and learning about other cultures. 

User Reviews

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Kid, 10 years old February 13, 2014


I think this is a good film for children to watch by them selves and with family .and the age is appropriate for children 4 and up .

What's the story?

Ming, a 14-year-old boy in 1970s China, is at home in his village while his archaeologist father is at the museum he works for in the city, when some farmers bring a found artifact to sell: a clay male figure, broken in pieces, that they think is an earth god. It turns out it's one of the terra-cotta soldiers created to guard the tomb of third century B.C. Emperor Qin. Ming learns this when the head of the soldier, named Shi, comes to life and starts speaking to him. Shi recounts his personal history as a young soldier about Ming's age in that long-ago era, and Ming tells Shi about life in China under Mao Zedong. Once Shi is reassembled, he can walk and act like a human. He and Ming must act quickly to prevent the corrupt local political officer from robbing -- and destroying -- the emperor's tomb and blaming it on Ming's father.

Is it any good?

SECRETS OF THE TERRA-COTTA SOLDIER is an exciting adventure with an unusual supernatural twist. The writing is distinguished by snappy dialogue, sly humor, gripping supense, and down-to-earth, often cooking-flavored metaphors like this one: "His speech was like a drop of water in a pot of hot oil; the crowd bubbled and sizzled with excitement." And readers get lots of historical background about Imperial China and its military, as well as a feel for the political realities of 1970s China and what it was like for the underdog child of an "intellectual" in a school dedicated to teaching revolutionary ideas and "reeducating" intellectuals. 

Apart from the thorough political, historical, and cultural context, readers will enjoy a nail-biting, Indiana Jones-type adventure once the main characters leave the village and penetrate the emperor's tomb, dodging centuries-old booby traps to succeed in their mission. They'll also learn a bit about Chinese food, deliciously described, with recipes at the back for two dishes from the story they can make themselves. That's a lot of ingredients folded into one book!

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about China's Cultural Revolution and how the country changed once it became communist. How is a communist country different from a capitalist country like the United States? 

  • How do you like the supernatural element in The Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier? Have you read other stories where a thing or creature comes to life? 

  • What's fun about historical fiction? Do you like learning about other eras through book characters? 

Book details

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For kids who love history and adventure

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