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City of the ageless army

When Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti built 8,000 life-size, pottery warriors and horses, little did he imagine that these would one day lead to a perfect match of tourism and archaeology. HUGH and COLLEEN GANTZER on why he was a man of our age.

Farmers turned souvenir sellers.

WE have come here on a strange quest: to see the army of the Emperor who unified China. In the very comfortable compartment of our overnight train from Beijing we did our homework on Shih Huang Ti. This remarkable man built the Great Wall, abolished the feudal system, codified the law and simplified the script. All this was done in just 11 years; but at a price. Dissenting intellectuals were branded unpatriotic and imprisoned or killed. Books, which dared to question the Emperor's vision, were burnt. Shih Huang Ti claimed that he had to do all this to bring peace and order in a corrupted age. It was the familiar despotic argument made by megalomaniacs all through history.

In many ways, therefore, Shih Haung Ti was a man of our age; even though he died more than 2,000 years ago!

Oddly, he suppressed all records about his most remarkable creation; and, but for a serendipitous event, the Emperor's great secret might never have been revealed.

A mural in the temple in front of Hiuen Tsang's pagoda.

And that is why we are here, in the beautiful Garden Hotel built in a landscaped park, in the ancient walled city of Xi'an (pronounced Shian). It's a clear evening and we're going to walk out and see what else this historic town holds for us.

* * *

We're back, and delighted: we've discovered an unexpected Indian connection going back 1,400 years. At the end of the road, a seven-storeyed pagoda rose into the sky. Fronting it was a temple that also served as an interoom to the pagoda. On a wall of the temple was a bright mural resembling one we had seen in Sikkim. It illustrated an aspect of Buddhist cosmology. A board said, in English:

Pilgrim Xuan Zang went to India when he was 28 years old and returned in 652 when he was asked to take over temple affairs. He built the pagoda to preserve the hundreds of volumes of Buddhist literature he brought back from India.

Chinese words are spelt in various ways. Xuan Zang is also spelt Xun-zu and Hsuntzu. Indian scholars spell this Buddhist monk-historian's name in another way but they admit that much of what we know of India at the time is thanks to the meticulously kept chronicles of this man. We call him Hiuen Tsang.

With this discovery, our voyage to Xi'an has already been fruitful. Hopefully, we'll be as rewarded tomorrow when we see the secret of Emperor Shih Huang Ti.

* * *

Sometimes, at the end of the day, we feel as if we have completed a great pilgrimage. There was the day we scrambled some way up the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Giza, and then when we stood in the Colosseum in Rome. Our Stonehenge day was another of them and also when we trudged up to the Parthenon in Athens. Today, too, was one such memorable day.

We drove out of Xi'an and through the flat terrain of loess country. Loess is a fine-grained, wind-blown, yellow dust that has been deposited in this area for centuries. It now forms a layer between eight and 76 metres thick — gently and persistently obliterating the physical features that lie under it. It is not easy to farm this land. The old fields, however, soon gave way to brightly decorated stalls lining our road.

Shih Huang Ti's army ... an incredible achievement.

"These people were all farmers before the government took their land" our guide said. We stopped and asked some of the stall holders: "Are you unhappy about giving up your ancestral land?"

All of them beamed cheerily at us, chattering through our guide: "We farmed because there was nothing else to do. It was hard work, an uncertain living. Today, the tourists come all the time: easy work, better earnings. Every reason to be happy!''

In fact, it was the fortuitous find of a farmer that gave his colleagues their new found prosperity. He and his friends were digging a well in March 1974 when they discovered a few broken pottery figures. They knew that a wooded mound nearby hid the legendary tomb of the great emperor and so they thought this, too, was a part of it. Since it is inauspicious to disturb another's tomb, they stopped and reported their find to the Government.

Today, their chance discovery has captured the attention of the world, drawing thousands of visitors every year. Tourism and archaeology have been perfectly matched: the income generated by visitors funds the activities of the scientists.

It was here that Emperor Shih Huang Ti had 8,000 life-size, pottery warriors and horses created, presumably to serve as his guardians in the after life. It was an incredible achievement.

We ran the gauntlet of the farmers-turned-souvenir-sellers, and stepped down into a landscaped and paved forecourt. Most of the "army" has been left standing in the three vaults in which they had been positioned. Hanger-like structures have been built over them and they are accessed through superbly designed museums that explain all one needs to know about the terracotta army.

We saw re-assembled chariots and weapons made of bronze. We learnt how each of the hollow figures was sculpted separately of a clay made of washed loess and quartz sand; the fired heads were fitted only after the bodies had been baked; and then each figure was painted.

A few of the warriors had been removed from the pits and placed in display cases. We walked around them, examining them very carefully: they were extraordinarily life-like. Their uniforms, facial features, headwear and even hairstyles were varied. According to the official guide-book:

(the features of) "those from minority areas in (the) northwest have projecting chins and their foreheads shrink back a little, some have whiskers... "

The museums also serve as the entrance to the pits where archaeologists are still at work. We stood on fenced-off platforms and gazed down at an army marching towards us. It was amazingly realistic. In Pit 1 there were 6,000 horses and warriors in battle array. Two hundred and four warriors formed the vanguard of the army. These infantrymen, with light packs, were followed by 38 files of chariots alternating with more infantry. To the right and left of this information were two lines of infantrymen facing outwards. Right at the back were lines of rearguard infantrymen. We could almost hear the cadenced tread of feet.

Pit 2 had kneeling and standing archers, more chariots and cavalry.

Pit 3 held the commanding chariot with a bodyguard 64 infantrymen armed with bronze weapons.

There is also a Pit 4 but, before it could be filled with the last warriors of the army, a peasant revolt aborted the project.

We're back in our room and a little model of a terracotta warrior sits in front of us.

For all his genius and all his ruthlessness, China's first emperor had one obsessive weakness. He was terrified of death. But he died, on a tour of his empire, in 210 B.C. and the long-suffering farmers rebelled against his despotic Government. Emperor Shin Huang Ti never did complete his ageless terracotta army.

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