When we left home in February, there were only three items on my unwritten bucket list for China:
On March 29, 1974, a group of peasant farmers came upon something completely unexpected while digging a well about 1.6 km east of the burial mound containing the remains of China’s first emperor. What at first appeared to be an earthenware jar was actually the head of a life-sized terracotta warrior, one of thousands buried with Emperor Qin Shi Huang to protect him in the afterlife.
The discovery prompted Chinese archeologists to investigate and what they found was one of the greatest archeological discoveries of the 20th century shocking not only China but the entire world. The pits in which the army of an estimated 8000 soldiers, 130 chariots and 670 horses were buried more than 2000 years ago had been roofed with wood before being covered with a metre or more of earth. Over time, the wood decayed and collapsed leaving the underground army in pieces. Fragments of heads, torsos, legs and arms have been uncovered and entire statues meticulously restored, each one different from the others. Many remain beneath the ground.
I remember reading about this amazing discovery and thinking how great it would be to see it but I didn’t think that I ever would. As I approached the pit that houses the bulk of the terracotta army, I was overcome with emotion. It was hard to believe that I was really there!
As we gazed out over the vast army of statues we were amazed! Amazed at the incredible workmanship, amazed at the years of work and the number of craftsmen that must have been involved in creating such a vast array of statues, amazed that anyone would actually commission this work to be buried with him when he died! We also shared our tour guide’s concern about the future preservation of the statues. Though a building now protects them from wind and rain, there is no temperature or humidity control. The figures were originally painted and covered with a laquer finish but what remained quickly began to fade and flake off when they were exposed to the air and very little colour can now be seen.
I was also amazed at the size of the site, noting how much land that was once farmed is no longer. On the other hand, thousands of tourists visit every year significantly boosting the local economy. And what happened to the farmers who made the original discovery? Their land was confiscated by the Chinese government and one of them spends his days in the gift shop signing autographs and having his picture taken with tourists (for a fee, of course). It was a thrill to meet him but I wonder if he might have been happier living out his life on the farm.
Before leaving Xi’an, we also crossed another item off my bucket list. I’ve always wanted to ride a bicycle built for two. One of my Chinese students recommended that we ride bicycles on the Xi’an city wall so we promised her we’d do that. When I saw that we had the option of renting a tanden bike instead of two individual ones, I thought there’d be no better place to fulfill that dream so this one’s for Grace!