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SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12

XI'AN: Discovery of a National Treasure, 1974
Unearthing the Army of Emperor Qin

Zeng Nian/Contact Press Images for TIME
Xi'an's famous terra cotta soldiers.

Following the 1974 winter drought, Yang Zhifa and several other peasants living in the outskirts of Xi'an, in Shaanxi province, sank a new well to irrigate their parched plots. Instead of finding water, however, Yang's team unearthed broken clay pottery. "We thought they were old bricks," says Yang. "We dug some more and unearthed headless torsos and a clump of rusty bronze arrow-heads. We took them home--to use the pottery as containers and to sell the bronze for scrap and buy cigarettes." But when the team reached their village with wheelbarrows full of broken figurines, a commotion ensued. "The old women thought we had angered the gods and would bring great disaster to the village," recalls Yang. "They burned incense and prayed."

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In fact, the farmers had hit an archaeological jackpot. "It turned out to be one of the most spectacular finds of the 20th century," says Jin Xianyong, associate researcher at the Shaanxi Archaeology Institute. Excavations showed the clay torsos were part of a legion of life-size terra-cotta soldiers and horses, deployed 22 centuries ago by the eccentric Emperor Qin Shihuang. Pieced together by experts, the Xi'an warriors and their steeds now stand in formation inside a few huge hangar-like buildings that enclose the diggings. The clay figures, 8,000 in all, were actual likenesses of Qin's army, cloned in clay to guard him in death as his real soldiers had in life. Each has a unique facial expression, posture and hairstyle.

The grandeur of the grave can be traced to Emperor Qin's ruthlessness. A megalomaniac who ascended the throne at the age of 13, Emperor Qin (259 B.C.-210 B.C.) conquered six rival warring states to unify China in 221 B.C. Qin formed a centralized, autocratic government, built a nationwide network of roads and canals, standardized weights, measures and currency and formalized the written language. His name, pronounced "Chin," evolved into the Western word for China. Among his own people, he inspired both pride and fear.

Qin clearly was a tyrant. Historians say hundreds of thousands of conscripts died under his direction completing the Great Wall, while 700,000 slaved to build his palace and pyramid-like tomb. A believer in evil spirits, Qin employed master craftsmen to mass-produce the terra-cotta army as a protection in the afterlife. His mausoleum was rigged with crossbows to ambush intruders. Those who knew the tomb's secrets were buried alive with their Emperor. Qin's dynasty was overthrown, however, just a few years after his death. The site of the pottery army was burned and lost to history for more than 2,000 years.

The accidental discovery of the warriors helped invigorate China's tourism industry. The reemergence of the terra-cotta army became a must-see for international travelers. From 1978 to 1997, Shaanxi province, which offers little else of note to foreign visitors, reaped $1.2 billion in tourism earnings.

In Xi'an the effect is plain. The crush of visitors has spawned a cottage industry of spinoffs, ranging from the Qin Army Hostel to Qin Army Powdered Milk. Battalions of farmers-turned-entrepreneurs stalk the vicinity of the Qin museum, hawking trinkets. "Every family here is reaping profits from the Qin army," says Feng Dong, manager of the museum's Friendship Store.

As for Yang Zhifa, now 61, he spends much of his time autographing souvenirs at Feng's store. "Here is the first person to discover the terra-cotta soldiers," barks a tour guide to a group of Hong Kong visitors. "He can sign autographs, but you must buy books or postcards from the shop." A few take the bait. Yang signs some books and poses for pictures. He gets a $100 monthly retainer from the shop, plus occasional tips from tourists.

Just outside the museum, other farmers have set up shop offering autographs for a fee. One of them, 71-year-old Yang Quanyi, says he actually was the leader of the team that discovered the warriors, a claim Yang Zhifa (no relation) rejects. "I don't want to dwell on this," Zhifa says, "but impostors have emerged because there is money and a name to be made." Quanyi responds: "We were all together then." He produces a "certificate of appreciation" that he says city officials gave him in 1985. "Besides," he adds, "Yang Zhifa could not have dug a well by himself."

The digging is now in the hands of the experts, and there may be more impressive discoveries to come. Officials plan to excavate the Emperor's tomb, which lies under a hill about a kilometer from the museum. According to ancient records, the tomb was a repository of exquisite antiquity. As the world awaits news of further treasures, the Yangs are happily reaping theirs from their accidental find.

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