On a morning in late March of 1974 (just a week or two after Steve and I were married), a farmer near the ancient Chinese capital of Xi’an was digging a well in search of water. He thought that the persimmon trees in the area suggested water might be present. While digging, he encountered some clay fragments. At first he thought they were remnants of an old pot, and thus potentially valuable, but he couldn’t discern any pot shape and the decoration suggested it was something else. Later digging unearthed a ceramic arm. Eventually, suspecting that the site might have archeological significance, he turned the fragments over to the cultural office of the local museum. Experts soon confirmed that Farmer Wang had found the first clues to one of the most important archeological treasure troves in human history — an as-yet-undiscovered part of the burial complex of China’s first emperor.
That guy, Emperor Qin (pronounced “Chin” — from whom the country’s present name derives) was a monster — both ruthless and stunningly cruel. He was also obsessed with immortality. According to the biography Steve read, at one point he ordered some of the country’s top scholars to find the secret to eternal life. When they failed, he had them 460 of them executed. If he had to go on to an afterlife, he was determined to rule as emperor there, and he reasoned that he would need a strong army to seize power. He ultimately decided to build and bury one — thousands of larger-than-life soldiers and archers and cavalrymen made of clay — near where his own body would eventually be interred. The artists who created them produced beautiful work, but if the emperor was impressed, he had a funny way of showing it. He killed them too (and buried them with the terra-cotta army.)
We went to Xi’an to see the incredible figures that have been exhumed and reassembled over the past 42 years.
In addition to feeling intensely grateful for the opportunity to see them, we appreciated other turns of our good fortune. The guide that we hired to take us to and around the huge, impressive complex that’s been developed at the site told us it had been raining for the past week or more. Rain is rare in Xi’an, and it scoured the legendarily polluted air, so our outing took place under sunny, blue, and relatively smog-free skies. We learned that the the gigantic building that houses terra cotta horses and chariots would be closing to the public the very next day (so that the workers could continue excavating and reassembling them). Although 30,000, 50,000, even 100,000 Chinese tourists jam this space on days during the height of the season, the crowds were relatively light; we could see everything easily.
Perhaps our coolest stroke of luck was that we met… Farmer Wang! His digging days are long gone. He’s rich and famous, our guide said, and his family owns one of the fancy gift shops that have been erected on the complex grounds. He’s not there every day, but when we popped in, he was sitting at a table piled high with the book that bears his name. An assistant told us if we bought one of the book/postcard packages for 200 yuan (just under $30), Farmer Wang would autograph it and pose for a photo with us. Who could resist that?