Can you imagine digging in your yard one day, and discovering a life-sized terracotta soldier, made completely out of clay over 2000 years ago, buried in your back yard? That's what happened in China in 1974!
A large piece of barren pebbles beach cover the land before the Qin Terracotta Warriors unearthed, where over 10 ancient tombs from Han (206BC-220) to Qing (1644-1911) dynasties have been discovered. The excavation of these tombs reached as deep as the horizon of soil where buried the terracotta warriors and certainly destroyed the warriors. Owing to the grave diggers have no knowledge about the value of the warrior’s fragments, they just left them scatter in the land. The local people keep it at a respectable distance because of the seemingly weird.
Wearing a traditional Chinese-style beige shirt and glasses, gray-haired Yang Zhifa busily signs books in a gift shop in the Museum of Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses, sometimes pausing to puff his long-stemmed pipe and blow a cloud of smoke. A huge photo showing U.S. President Bill Clinton meeting him on June 26, 1998, hangs on the wall behind him.
Yang was one of the farmers who first dug up fragments of the terra-cotta army when they were drilling a well in Xiyang Village of Lintong County, 35 kilometers east of Xi’an, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, 35 years ago.
A normal day in the March 1974, the villagers dug wells in this wasteland. When dug a distance of over seven feet deep, they accidentally discovered the burned earth, even deeper, some cavity potteries which looked like human bodies were appeared, and when reached over sixteen feet deep, they found the floor was covered with a piece of blue bricks above which scattered the pottery pieces of human heads, arms and legs. "Is it a site of ancient temple?" they wondered.
Almost every people in the village knew the news soon. The superstitious old women believed that the digging had disturbed the Earth God. When the night fell, they would come to the site to burn incense and kowtow. An old man thought probably birds would be scared if they saw the weird terracotta warriors, so he put a straw hat on a warrior to make it act like a scarecrow in the sweet potato land. Besides, the bronze weapons were sold al cheap al metal scraps like the arrow heads. If they know the real value of these figures, they must regret selling them.
When archaeologist Yuan Zhongyi was sent to Lintong to excavate the site in July 1974, he had no idea that he would spend his next 30 years there. One of his leaders said the excavation would probably last a week. However, it has lasted more than three decades and will continue for generations.
Yuan, 77, has retired from his post of curator of the Museum of Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses. Now living in Xi’an, he is often invited to the museum to help solve problems in the excavation of the No.1 pit, which started in June 2009.
“I spent most of my life digging. Archaeological excavation is boring work. But I often feel a happiness that cannot be understood by outsiders because it is heaven for archaeologists,” Yuan says.
“First we excavated around the well drilled by the farmers. We found the relic site much, much larger than we had expected. It took us about half a year to find the edge of the site, which turned out to cover 14,000 square meters. So we estimated there were about 6,000 terra-cotta warriors and horses buried in that single pit,” Yuan recalls.
“We were so excited because such a big funerary pit had never been found anywhere in the world. And the enormous life-sized underground terra-cotta army shocked not only China, but the world,” Yuan says.
The second and third pits were found in 1976 during the construction of the Museum of Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses. The second pit is about half size of the first, but its warriors, painted diversely in red, green, purple and other colors, are regarded as the best preserved. The third and smallest pit is the “headquarters” of the buried army.
Altogether, the three pits hold almost 8,000 terra-cotta warriors and horses, of which 2,000 have been unearthed under Yuan’s leadership.
The excavation has had its risks. Once the heavy iron bracket of a tackle used to lift the earth fell into the six-meter-deep pit, brushing past him. On a snowy day in the winter of 1976, Yuan lay in a pit from morning to afternoon, brushing off the earth from the burial horses. He forgot the time, and when his colleagues found him, he was stiff from being confined for so long in the cold.
“But the happiness after arduous work is tremendous,” says Yuan.
When Yuan was digging the southeast corner of the No.1 pit, he saw a bronze sword under the body of a terra-cotta warrior. He covered the sword immediately and called it a day, fearing that thieves might be nearby. After the workers left, he and two assistants cleared the earth again and found an untarnished bronze sword, the first bronze sword unearthed at the site.
He worked until midnight that day. In a dilapidated house in a nearby village, Yuan lovingly measured and recorded every detail of the sword as it glittered under a candle.
“That was one of the happiest moments in my life.”
There were low points too. Early in the dig, archaeologists worked year round, only taking off the Spring Festival holiday. While they were excavating the bronze chariots, the wife of archaeologist Cheng Xuehua came to ask Yuan when her husband could come home. Yuan told her the work was almost finished. Shortly after, Cheng’s wife committed suicide.
“When I heard that, I felt as if a knife was being stabbed into my heart,” says Yuan.
Terra-cotta army divisions The army has been a cause of resentment among local people too.
Three farmers, who were among those digging the well 35 years ago, submitted a request to the Museum of Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses in 2003, asking the museum to issue them a certificate to confirm they were the discoverers of terra-cotta army.
One of the three, Yang Xinman, 71, says, “The museum only says in the introduction that the terra-cotta warriors and horses were discovered by local farmers when they were digging a well. They should add our names to the introduction.”
But they ended up with nothing, because China has no law to determine the discoverer of cultural relics.
Nobody can say definitively how many people were working on the well 35 years ago, but Yang Zhifa’s fame and earnings have made the other farmers envious.
Another key figure in the discovery was very angry at the farmers’ request. Zhao Kangmin, whose name is rarely heard, was the first to realize the true value of the terra-cotta fragments, and the first to reconstruct the warriors and horses.
“What they want is money,” said Zhao, who has retired from his post of curator of the Lintong Museum in Lintong town.
“Seeing doesn’t mean discovering. The farmers saw the terra-cotta fragments, but they didn’t know they were cultural relics, and they even broke them. It’s me who stopped the damage and collected the fragments and reconstructed the first terra-cotta warrior,” Zhao said.
Zhao, a frail 74-year-old, goes to the Lintong Museum everyday. He sits in a dark display room in the museum, autographing postcards, beside four terra-cotta warriors and a horse that he reconstructed 35 years ago.
But the tourists in this small museum are not as generous as those in the Museum of Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses. Few want to pay 15 yuan (2.2 U.S. dollars) for a set of postcards.
Unlike Yang Zhifa, who only signs his name on books, Zhao writes. “Zhao Kangmin, the first to discover, restore, appreciate, name and excavate terra-cotta warriors.”
Zhao was an official of in charge of cultural relics in the government Lintong County when he got the news that a large amount of terra-cotta fragments had been found. He rushed to the site and was surprised to see fragments of heads, torsos, arms and legs. He asked the farmers to collect them and pile them on to three trucks, which took them to Lintong Museum.
He began to reconstruct the statues from the thousands of fragments, some as small as a fingernail. During this task, Xinhua News Agency journalist Lin Anwen heard the news and came to see the find. His report roused the interest of China’s leaders, who sent an archaeological team to do the excavation.
During the dig, archaeologists found 30 tombs dating to different periods over the past 2,000 years, indicating that the terra-cotta warriors and horses could have been “seen” at least 30 times in history.
But the army kept its secret secure for two millennia.
Tea and clones The first emperor of China’s feudal dynasties, Qin Shihuang, hoped the underground army would protect his mausoleum forever. Interestingly, the real beneficiaries were the local people 2,000 years later. Since its discovery, the terra-cotta army has attracted almost 60 million visitors.
A saying in the new village outside the Museum of Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses goes, “Don’t forget the Communist Party liberated us. Don’t forget Qin Shihuang made us prosperous.”
The two-story houses with white walls and gray tiles were designed by the local government, but built by the villagers from 2003 to 2005. About 500 people from 200 families have moved to the new village from old homes nearby, to protect the environment of the mausoleum area of Qin Shihuang.
Each family has telephone access and more than 10 percent have broadband Internet access. Seven families in the village own factories and stores producing and selling terra-cotta warrior and horse replicas, and 38 families have opened farmhouse restaurants and hotels. About half the villagers make and sell souvenirs.
Villager He Li, 48, owner of a restaurant and a souvenir production factory, treats guests with tea ceremonies in his home. His living room is decorated with tea sets and art. Only his dark skin shows he once worked in the fields.
“When the terra-cotta warriors and horses were found, I was 14. Every family in our village was poor at that time. I went to the site and found nothing interesting. I worked in the cinema of the museum in the 1980s. I saw many tourists bought the replicas. I thought producing and selling the replicas could be good business,” says He.
He set up a factory, becoming one of the first farmers to produce replica terra-cotta warriors and horses. His statues, ranging from miniatures to life size, can cost more than 10,000 yuan (1,470 U.S. dollars). He opened a shop outside the factory and wholesalers come to buy in bulk.
The replicas are sold to America, Germany, Spain, Japan and other countries. He, who just bought his third car, won’t say how much money he makes every year.
“Recently, the statues of generals and kneeling archers have been most popular. We can also make statues emulating the faces of our customers, and statues in golfing poses,” says He.
“The terra-cotta warriors and horses are great, and Qin Shihuang really was a great emperor.”