Our time in China has been nothing if not a lesson in the relative brevity of our own country’s history.  This lesson really sunk in as, during our time in Xi’an, we stood in front of an army of terra cotta warriors and tried to wrap our minds around the fact that a Chinese emperor ordered their construction some 2,200 years ago.  (Kind of makes July 4, 1776 seem like yesterday!)
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The emperor, Qun Shi Huang (incidentally, the same guy who began construction of the Great Wall), reportedly decided that the army would suffice to guard his spirit in the afterlife, but only after one of his generals reportedly (and this is only according to our guide; I couldn’t substantiate it with research!) talked him out of his initial idea for spirit protection: burying alive 3,000 children whose spirits could keep him company.
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The army itself is notorious.  You may already know that each warrior’s face is unique. But did you also know that, before the tomb–with all of its warriors, its bronze weapons and its gold chariots–could be sealed, it was torched, either by the many members of the populace who resented the emperor’s cruelty or by the 700,000 workers who had been conscripted to build it all. (According to our guide, the workers, too, were to be buried alive in the tomb, so as to ensure that the knowledge about how to break into it would die with them.)  Whomever the cause, the fire destroyed the tomb’s roof, which crushed the warriors and created an intricate puzzle for archaeologists to assemble a couple of millenia later.
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Equally fascinating is the fact that the 7,000 warriors that have been uncovered so far represent only a fraction of those actually constructed.  Huge portions of the land surrounding the emperor’s tomb, as well as the tomb itself, remain unexcavated, in part because a river of mercury reportedly courses through it.  The frenzy that started in 1974, when a farmer digging a well accidentally uncovered a mysterious terra cotta head,1 surely will continue for a long time to come.

  1. What did the Chinese government pay the farmer for this discovery, which turned Xi’an into one of the top three tourist destinations in China? A whopping 30 yuan, or about $4 US.  In the government’s defense, that’s all that the farmer asked for; he wanted the equivalent of a day’s wages. So you don’t feel too sorry for the poor farmer, you should know that he and his family have reaped a handsome profit from  the book that tells the story of his discovery. []