Part five in a series
One day, thirty-five years ago, Yang Quanyi found a head in his well. His discovery helped changed the face of China.
The date was March 29, 1974. Quanyi, a farmer in his thirties, was digging a new well, without much success, when he struck gold.
It wasn’t gold, literally—it was a head made from terra cotta, the same clay material used for making flower pots. And for Quanyi, it didn’t work out so great, at least not at first. When the government swooped in to investigate his discovery, Quanyi lost the lease to his land (there’s no private land ownership in China).
Subsequent archeological work revealed the scope of what Quanyi and his friends had stumbled upon: a lost tomb containing some eight thousand terra cotta statues, all smashed to bits.
Today, on what had once been Quanyi’s field , stands an extensive complex of museums and buildings, all devoted to the preservation of Quanyi’s find.
My group pulls up in our tour bus, one of dozens in the parking lot. Until just a few years ago, visitors pulled right up to the museums themselves after running a gauntlet of trinket merchants, amusement park rides, and food vendors. The government finally decided the carnival atmosphere was unbecoming of a site widely considered the Eighth Wonder of the World, so they cleaned it all out and created a garden park that leads to the museum complex.
The merchants and vendors previously set up in front of the museum complex now hawk their terra cotta replicas, animal furs, and other assorted trinkets in a marketplace village located at the exit of the grounds. Students will buy boxes and boxes of cheap replicas, forking over a buck a piece, not even sure why they want to load up on boxes even as they do. That will come after the tour, after they’re all wowed by what they see and on fire just a little bit to take some of the coolness home with them.
But when we first go inside the complex, Harry leads us over to check out the orientation film. The film, which looks like it was shot in the mid-eighties, appears on a series of screens that circle 360-degrees overhead.
The warriors, it turns out, are the legacy of Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China, who unified the country in 221 B.C. He began construction of his tomb almost immediately, a project that took thirty-eight years and some 720-thousand laborers to complete. That sounds impressive until compared against another of Qin’s pubic works projects: The Great Wall. Qin, apparently, was keen on creating Wonders of the World.
“He was a great and cruel emperor,” says Harry, our tour guide.
To protect his soul in the afterlife, Qin ordered the creation of the terra cotta army, buried in an area just over a mile to the east of the emperor’s tomb. The warriors all held real weapons, and they all face east, toward the sea hundreds of miles away, because the empire’s enemies all seemed to come from the coast (especially since the Great Wall kept them from invading from the north).
Qin died at the age of fifty, but work on the tomb lasted another year, completed under the reign of one of Qin’s sons. Today, the tomb looks like nothing more than a big hill. Scientists don’t yet have the technology to properly excavate it, Harry explains, so they leave it for the future.
As a ruler, Qin’s son was worse than his father, and the peasants revolted. They overthrew the emperor, thus bringing to an end the Qin Dynasty. As part of their revolt, they looted the chambers that held the terra cotta warriors so they could seize the weapons the statues held. They smashed the warriors in the process.
From the movie dome, we file over to the first of the three buildings that cover the archeological pits.
The first building covers 16-thousand square meters and reminds me of Texas Stadium on steroids. It has high steel girders that form a dome, and although the top isn’t open, it’s covered with plexiglass to let in plenty of natural light.
The building surrounds a huge pit in the floor, and there at the bottom stand row upon row of restored warriors in eleven long columns. Large walls of unexcavated dirt separate the columns from each other, and at the rear of each column, tumbled heaps of broken statues not yet restored litter the earthen floor.
Near the front of one of the columns, a sign reads “Site of original well.” When Quanyi pulled up that first terra cotta head, who could’ve ever known that this is what laid in wait beneath the earth.
Once again, China offers up something so big in its sheer magnitude that I can hardly take it all in.
I follow the walkway all the way around the pit, peering down at the sculptures. I’ve been told that no two faces on the warriors are alike, but I want to be the guy to disprove that snowflake-like theory. I study the details: some have thin moustaches, some have sideburns, some have bare chins, some have moustaches that look like they came straight from a barbershoppers’ quartet. Some scowl. All look serious.
Each infantryman has his hair wrapped in a single bundle that sticks up toward the right on the back side of his head, but the style of each wrap is slightly different.
In all cases, the intricate craftsmanship amazes me.
At the rear of the building, atop an unexcavated part of the pit, archeologist have set up what they call the hospital area. It’s here that they reassemble broken warriors so the statues can be returned to the pit floor in formation.
Building two is much smaller, but building three is slightly larger. Like building one, the other two buildings cover pits full of partially excavated terra cotta warriors. Some have been reassembled while others, smashed, still lay embedded in the earth.
The warriors come in a variety of different styles. Aside from infantrymen, who come armored and unarmored, there is a general, infantry officers, cavalrymen, cavalry officers, kneeling and standing archers, charioteers, and horses. Building three holds displays on each type of figure.
Another figure makes a guest appearance while we’re in the complex: Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Most of us miss him, but a couple students manage to snap some photos in passing.
The museum complex offers so much to look at, including a giant replica of a terra cotta warrior and a pair of bronze chariots unearthed during excavations.
But perhaps the most unexpected thing to see if Yang Quanyi himself. He lost his farm when he reported his discovery, so he lost his livelihood. But he still seems to do pretty well for himself. He sits, like a rock star with dark glasses, at a table in the movie building. One after another, he autographs tour books, pocketing a portion of the proceeds. For a small fee, visitors can get their photo taken with him. It’s a little bit of capitalism at its finest.
The face of China is changing indeed.