In March 1974, Yang Zhifa and six other peasants were asked by their production unit to dig a well. It was a dry month and they needed to water the crops of the cooperative farm. The country was entering into the 8th year of Cultural Revolution, led by Mao Zedong, and the political and social environment of the country was extremely volatile.
A few days into the digging, Yang found a piece of terracotta. Thinking that it is the site of an ancient kiln, he and his team started digging a little more carefully. They were hoping to find jars and pots that they could take home.
A few more days into the digging, they found small articles made of bronze and thought they could sell them for some tobacco.
What they eventually found however was worth much more than tobacco and jars. They had found the terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.
March 1974 must have been hot and dry but as I stood with hundreds of others, in a neat winding queue at the Xi’an bus stop, I realised June 2015 was no picnic either. We were all waiting for bus number 306 that was going to take us to the “Museum of Qin Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses”. Having forgotten my umbrella back at the hostel, I was fighting a losing battle with the heat and humidity of Xi’an.
To my left was the Xi’an Railway station, where I had arrived early in the morning from Shanghai on an overnight train. Half asleep, I had lugged my backpack to the taxi stand, bargained with the driver for a ride to my hostel (got a fair deal too I might add), woke up the girl at the reception, checked in and caught a few hours’ sleep before I suddenly woke up with the uncontrollable urge to visit the famous museum that very day.
To my right was the mighty city wall of Xi’an. I would walk through various sections of the wall during my stay at the ancient capital of China. The city wall in the evening, with its cherry red lights turned on, is truly a mesmerizing sight. A month or so before my visit, our beloved Prime Minister, during one of his many official foreign visits, received a royal welcome at the gates of this wall. He was received by the President of China, Xi Jinping, personally and a traditional ceremony was organized in his honour. And here I was standing in this never ending queue, drenching my last clean t-shirt in sweat.
Life isn’t fair!
Anyway, coming back to the story, the 2200 year old army that Yang had accidentally discovered, shook the world. This was termed as the greatest discovery of modern times. As years passed and the Chinese government slowly opened its doors, people from all over the world started visiting the terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang and his mausoleum, which the army was supposed to be protecting.
Born as Ying Zheng, he had assumed the throne of Qin, one of the seven major warring states, at the age of 13. One by one, he conquered them all and unified China. And once he did, he came to be known as Qin Shi Huang, translated as the first emperor of Qin. He standardized coins, measures and weights, built canals and to protect his kingdom from the Mongols in the north, he started unifying the protective walls of different states. This would later became the Great Wall of China. (More on that in a future post)
Not long after Qin became king, he decided to build his mausoleum. It is said that his coffin is made of bronze and there are precious gems, replicas of palaces and streams of mercury inside the tomb. He also installed booby traps to protect his tomb from robbers and thieves. It is also said that the 700000 skilled workers who built his majestic tomb were also buried inside along with his many concubines, to protect its secrets and treasures.
Bus no. 306 drove us out of Xi’an. There was not much scenery to start with, so it wasn’t long before I fell asleep. By the time I woke up however, there were beautiful green mountains in the distance and lush fields on both sides of the freeway. A group of middle aged men, sitting in the backseat of the bus, had started singing; people sitting around them were clapping along.
Half an hour or so later, people started putting on their hats and taking out their cameras and selfie sticks.
We were almost there!
At the ticket counter, I bought a combined ticket for the Terracotta museum and Qin’s mausoleum. It was a Saturday and the place was jam packed with visitors. There were souvenir shops and restaurants all around. I believe I saw a casino as well.
There are three pits inside the museum complex where the warriors and horse chariots are kept. Though I did not see anyone working, they say the excavation work is still underway. Few of the warriors and various trinkets found during excavation are kept in glass showcases in the museum to give the visitors a closer look. These cases were surrounded by visitors, most of whom seem to be too engrossed in clicking pictures to actually appreciate the ancient wonders.
What makes these warriors even more interesting is that all 6000 of them have unique faces and they were all found standing in an aggressive formation, like they were going on a war. Not just foot soldiers, there are archers and horse chariots amongst them as well.
As I walked through the pits, I heard a tour guide say “Qin, after conquering all of China, wanted to conquer heaven as well. That’s why when he died, he took an army with him.”
However, some of the historians wrote how Qin wanted his medics to find the elixir of life which will keep him young and alive forever.
“If he wanted to conquer heaven, why did he want to stay alive forever?” I wonder.
You know how some kids sleep with a soft toy because they are afraid to be alone in the dark. In my opinion, Qin may have been afraid of dying and the army, along with all the other precious stones and palace replicas, were his teddy bear. I think he built this army not to conquer heaven but to protect himself from whatever awaited him after his death.
But then again, what do I know!
After a good three hours in the museum complex, I took a shuttle bus to the mausoleum of Qin, which was a five minute ride away. We walked on the cobbled path through the beautiful garden that led up to the mausoleum. I wish I knew the names of the trees because that might have helped me describe the garden better, but I don’t. Just know that it was beautiful. There were tall green trees; there were flowers; there were mountains in the distance and a superb view. You could totally understand why the emperor chose to be buried there.
No one seem to know for sure how the emperor died, however. Some believe he died because of overwork. Being the first emperor of unified China, he didn’t have a precedent to follow. He would go on long trips around his vast kingdom which drained him out mentally and physically. Some believe he was assassinated. Some believe he died of an illness.
The legend goes, the emperor was so obsessed with finding the elixir of life that he sent his workers and medics to different parts of the world in search of it. The medics too, under the pressure of finding the elixir, tried out different potions on him. It is said he died because his arteries were choked with mercury due to overdose of these medications.
I sat on a bench under one of the trees overlooking the emperor’s tomb. The afternoon sun was at its merciless worst. Few tour groups came by. They would fill the air with their chatter and laughs. But as soon as they left, the tomb would be blanketed over by this eerie silence punctuated only by distant chirps of birds and rustling of leaves.
Sitting there, I remembered this article I had read about Yang Zhifa, the guy who discovered the warriors.
When the authorities found out about the terracotta warriors, they took away the land and relocated the villagers somewhere else. The villagers started resenting Yang and the others for their discovery because it made them leave their village. While the officials got richer, the villagers had to give up farming. They started working around the museum, in restaurants and souvenir stands to make ends meet.
Yang got a low paying job of signing autographs for visitors at the museum. Most of the others from his team have died since then with hardly any money to their names. Many impostors, pretending to be one of the original discoverers of the terracotta warriors, have cropped up, taking clueless tourists for a ride; charging unreasonably for their autographs and pictures.
Off late, however, Yang has been interviewed by various international magazines and websites and is a known face in China.
In one of these magazine articles, I found a funny anecdote.
In 1998, Bill Clinton visited the museum and met with Yang. Yang was taught a few English phrases knowing Clinton would probably want to talk to him.
On the day of the visit, Yang, meaning to ask “How are you?”, mispronounced the “How” and asked “Who are you?
“I’m Hillary’s husband” Clinton said.
Expecting a reply to “How are you?”, Yang answered with confidence.