Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Selling the Warriors to the World

Back in 1974 when I was a teenager  in high school, I heard on the nightly news about an amazing archeological discovery of life-size terracotta statues found in a field in the depths of China. At the time I had a bit of an interest in archeology, having read many books about the amazing discoveries of Howard Carter in the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt, but this was something very different. What had been discovered outside of Xian were not just a few decorative figures, but literally thousands of terracotta warriors prepared as if for battle. It was not until the new millennium that the wider world began to see these figures first hand, with selected pieces traveling the world in a touring exhibition. Eventually the ‘Great Warrior Show’ made its way to Australia and I was one of the thousands who squeezed into a packed gallery to catch a glimpse of the figures set behind perspex barriers. While I remember the extraordinary craftsmanship of each figure, what appeared to be lost in such a setting was the sheer scale of the initial discovery and the collective nature of these figures in context with their cultural location. Therefore, it remained somewhat of a lifetime ambition to actually see them in situ, although I never really thought it would actually happen … until now!

With our small tour group, Jules and I headed away from the city of Xian to what we imagined would be a hanger-like building positioned somewhere in the middle of a field in a remote country location. Clearly the famed Terracotta Warriors had over the years captured the imagination of the world and now a multi-laned highway had been built to fast-track tourists to the location and within 90 minutes we were there. This streamlined approach to the site should have alerted us to the fact that the picture we had formed in our minds would not quite match the scene we were about to encounter. Indeed, over the past 40 years the area had been transformed into a small city, with all manner of industries and commercial enterprises springing up to cash in on the overwhelming global interest in the warriors. We were taken to one of the industries that mass-produce reproductions of the clay figures to sell locally and throughout the world. You would be amazed by the amount of people who are seeking a couple of life size warriors for their back garden or to guard their front door! Here in this local workshop, ladies meticulously provide the finishing touches to clay statues of varying sizes following their removal from plaster moulds. They are then placed into huge wood burning kilns to be fired, which also provides them with the aged look that give the pieces a certain degree of authenticity. In many ways the scene looked much like it may have done centuries before when local craftsmen were commissioned for the enormous task of building a full size army complete with horses and chariots.  

Making our way through the gamut of souvenir stalls, restaurants and tearooms we arrived at the giant hangers that house the ‘real life’ warriors and although it was relatively early, the crowds were beginning to build. Over the years the original arched hanger has expanded into several outer building as the dig was extend. Even today archeologists are uncovering new pieces and their process of discovery and restoration remains ongoing. Upon entering the original building we are struck by the overwhelming scale of the dig, with row upon row of warriors in various states of repair. Most now stand just as they might have done centuries before, having been restored and returned to their original site. Others lay broken and dismembered providing a tantalizing glimpse of what might be below the surface yet to be discovered. In a strange sort of way these are the ones I liked the best, with archeological tools still lying alongside the artifacts as they wait to be released from the bounds of the earth. Our guide reliably informed us that some pits still remain undisturbed as a way of protecting the warriors from the air, which apparently has the unfortunate tendency of draining the painted colours from the figures within minutes of exposure. It seems that science and technology had still some way to go in fully preserving the thousands of warriors and horses that were placed here around 200BC to protect the tomb of emperor Qin Shi Huang.

Originally the site was discovered by a family of farming brothers who where digging a water well and it is still possible to see the location were they originally began to dig on that fateful day. It turned out to be a profitable discovery for the farmers who upon alerting the authorities, where amply rewarded and held up as national heroes, while the country began to prosper from the billions of dollars the discovery would continue to generate each year. While one of the farmers has since past away, the youngest brother continues to enjoy his celebrity status as we witnessed, with the now elderly gentleman happily signing books and having his photograph taken, for a small fee of course. Apparently this all began many years ago when then US president Bill Clinton on a visit to China especially asked to meet the farmer and have him sign his book. The quick thinking farmer realized if the president was interested others might be too and that his autograph might provide him with an ongoing income, as it has done.

Our visit to the Terracotta Warriors had been one of the motivating attractions that had lured us to China and our visit had certainly not disappointed. We had learnt much about this country’s fascinating ancient culture and the wonderful skills of the artisans of the time in creating such amazing ceramic forms. However, what we had not anticipated was what we would also learn here about modern China. Our visit had further reinforced to us the way in which commercialism and capitalism had been truly embraced within this country over the past few decades. In its efforts to sell the Terracotta Warriors to the world, a whole industry had been created that continues to generate a sizable income for an ever-growing local economy. Like many of the worlds great wonders, the warriors had now evolved into a slick iconic product; an image and brand that would continue to sell China as a must see travel destination for generations to come.

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