Friday, May 02, 2008

Day 8 – Xian Terracotta Warriors

This is billed as the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World on the site, and they have a point. There’s also a dig at the US where a label claims that they invented chrome 2,200 years before the US. ‘How amazing it is!’ says the text.

Making a warrior
On the way to the Terracotta Army we stopped at a factory that makes replicas. This was great for the kids as they got to make their own warrior from the same clay as the originals, a deep, dark brownish-red colour and perfect for moulding.

We were given two-piece moulds, a slug of clay, and pressed it into the sides. A fine, detailed warrior emerged. Carl and I had noticed an abandoned headless Emperor in the coal pile. We filched it along with a goofball of clay and shaped a new head back at the hotel.

Seeing the warriors
We had seen some warriors in London a week before this visit. It had a few choice pieces, horses, a general, acrobats and a replica of the Imperial chariot. Here we were to see it in situ and on scale. This period was truly the big bang for modern China. It was lifted from feudal warfare into a huge, centralised, unified walled state with canals, standardised coinage, weights and weapons. The same features we see today in its deep pool of cheap labour, centralised government, enormous state funded projects, standardised behaviour and manufactured objects. Mao himself used this Emperor as a role model.

Pit 1
Our first sight of the site was the low pyramid of In Shi Huang’s unexcavated tomb. It was a sunny day and we entered the covered Pit 1 to face the massed ranks of the warriors. They stand in columns, separated by clay walls. The first ranks have no armour, the bravest shock troops at the front. Occasional horses and chariots, guards on the outside. They all face east, where his enemies lay, and he was right to worry, his tomb was sacked and his 14 year reign ended in disaster,

He was a tyrant but how you wonder how despotic he could have been to have commissioned such a huge work of art, albeit to his personal goal of immortality. The figures have great heads but the bodies and legs are clearly mass manufactured. It’s the expressions and hairstyles that impress, along with the sheer effort in making them in such numbers. It was though that the faces were modelled on the workers but it is now believed that real soldiers posed, as the workers would not have had enough time. It is, in a way, a reminder of China’s love for manufacture. These figures are more than life size and produced in astonishing numbers. The colours were originally quite gaudy, and little of the pigment survives exposure.

The site was ransacked two years after his death when people looted the bronze armaments, pushed over the figures and set fire to the timbered roof. Other damage has come from water seepage, earthquakes and the simple collapse of further timbers.

The guy who discovered the site, after sinking a well, sits in a corner, charging for signed books. He famously had lunch with Bill Clinton.

Pit 2 & 3
The other two pits contain more specialised groups of cavalry, archers and charioteers. The weapons were designed to be manufactured in huge numbers and had interchangeable parts. The museum has some weapons on show as well as the real Imperial chariot.

What everyone is waiting for is the excavation of the tomb. We know from historical records that it contains his coffin and a recreation of his empire with Mercury Rivers, a starry sky and other treasures. I’d much rather have seen money spent on this than the Olympics. We had jasmine tea in a pavilion then headed back to Xian.

German hoax
There a great story of a German art student in 2006, who studied the site in great detail, dressed himself as a warrior, climbed unseen into the pit and stood posing as a warrior. Pablo Wendel, made up like an ancient warrior, jumped into a pit showcasing the 2,200-year-old pottery soldiers and stood motionless for several minutes. The 26-year-old was eventually spotted by police but not arrested. Mr Wendel is reported to have entered the museum on Saturday where he changed into his outfit, jumped over a barrier and took up a position on a pedestal he had taken along. "I got to the area where he was supposed to be, looked around and didn't see him - he looked too much like a terracotta warrior," Hong Kong newspapers quoted a security guard as saying.

As Mr Wendel's "performance art" did not harm any of the ancient relics, he was not arrested or charged but given "serious criticism", the reports said. Mr Wendel had his costume confiscated and was sent back to the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, where he is studying.

Cycling the walls
That afternoon we entered Xian city by the south gate and hired bikes. There was some doubt about cycling the entire wall – 12 Km, so we set off at pace. In the end we did the whole route but not without a puncture and tongue biting from the cobbled surface. It was a bone rattling experience but worth the effort. The irony is that the city walls are almost empty as the locals have been walled out by the price. This is a shame as I’d much rather have seen the real people on their own wall.

Dumpling dinner
Xian is famous for its dumplings so we headed out for one such dinner. They were delivered at pace – pork and leeks, seafood, walnuts, chicken – 18 varieties in all. Callum loved this food and set the pace in Beijing with more than 10 dumplings for breakfast. When we emerged the city wall was lit up and looked great.