The Terra Cotta Warriors

Tuesday 11 June: Like so many cultures, the chinese have had their periods where people were obsessed with immortality. As is so often the case, the rich people were the ones who could afford to explore their options, futile as they may have been. Side note: people believed jade had powers to protect the flesh from the ravages of time, to the point where the really rich would grind up and drink powdered jade.

Well, like any rich person, I'm sure Emperor Qin had a healthy interest in the idea of immortality. As you can see, he never learned the secret. Being emperor and all, he was able to commission his tomb shortly after he began his reign. A description from the first century b.c. claims that Qin's tomb is an elaborate underground city with (among other things) a ceiling inlaid with pearls to simulate the heavens and a map of the world in gold, with mercury pumped in to simulate bodies of water.

Xi'an: Emperor Qin's Terra Cotta Warriors In the tradition of so many emperors, Qin supposedly also had a complete set of household servants buried in the tomb, along with the workers and artisans who built it (so nobody alive would know how to gain access to the tomb). For a long time, people assumed that the mound alone was his tomb. Then in 1975, a farmer reported to officials the discovery of a stone man buried in his field. Further excavation found not one but thousands of stone men comprising the infantry, calvary, archers, and a command post of a terra cotta army. Pragmatic to the end, the man who fought like a tiger to conquer and unite his country obviously saw the benefits to sacrificing household servants, choice concubines and imperial artisans - but not the imperial army.

The area surrounding the burial grounds has been primarily agricultural for centuries and farmers had encountered these soldiers as early as the turn of the century. However, being rather provincial and somewhat superstitious, no one ever mentioned it to the authorities. According to tourist literature, farmers believed the stone men were evil spirits and therefore bad luck and would smash and rebury the soldiers, hoping they'd have better luck digging for water elsewhere.

There was an elderly man seated in one of the gift shops who turned out to be the original farmer who reported the terra cotta warriors. He was available for autographs and pictures... for a fee.

Xi'an: Terra Cotta Warriors Three pits have been uncovered so far. The largest holds 6,000 statues of footmen and charioteers, but only 1,000 are visible; the rest are either being restored, or have been reburied to prevent further deterioration. The second largest pit holds more charioteers, and archers. The final, smallest pit seems to be a command center.

Xi'an: Terra Cotta warrior, head If you look hard, you can still see some of the color that was painted on the uniforms to distinguish each unit. The truly amazing thing, though is that every face is different. Although the bodies were mass produced, the heads were created separately and added later. Each one was sculpted from a real soldier. They all look pretty alert. Brian pointed out that each man looks extra alert probably because he was overjoyed that the emperor was burying a statue of his likeness instead of the man himself.

Inside are stately masses of warriors. Outside are stunning masses of vendors. Most were selling cheap miniature terra warriors but others were selling local items: toys, trinkets, blankets, furs, you name it. The scam here is that you aren't allowed to take pictures. You have to buy The People's Postcards of The Warriors (photos taken circa 1982, cards printed circa 1985.) Brian's grandfather requested a pack of The People's Smokes so Brian and I stopped at a cart to review our options. I asked one of the vendors -- in chinese -- how much for a pack. She said "san kuai" (three local, about US$0.40). Brian asked her the same question in english. The two women sized him up and in english one woman cheerfully replied, "Fifteen!"

Later, Brian told the story my mom and said, "I have to learn more chinese to get better prices."

Mom: "Cut off your nose."

Previous Entry | China Index | Next Entry
The Wacky Seester