In China, it’s all about the gift shop.
Since arriving in the Middle Kingdom, nearly every destination we visit comes equipped with a well-stocked gift shop manned by an English-speaking staff all ready to grant us, their new friends, at least a twenty percent discount.
Even a callused traveler as myself is susceptible to the material charms of jade, silk scarves, smiling panda teacups, silver-tipped chopsticks and semi-precious to less-than-precious Buddha statues. Although I arrived in China on a private jet from Cambodia, I have discovered a new solidarity with Marco Polo, who marched some 15,000 miles overland to and from Beijing, returning home with the most remarkable Chinese souvenirs.
The word souvenir comes from the French remember, and based on the number of souvenirs I am confronted with in China, I get the impression that my gracious hosts are concerned with my ability to remember much of anything.
They are probably correct in this assertion. Everything I remember about the terra cotta warriors comes from reading National Geographic, specifically the October 1996 issue, which details one of the greatest archeological finds of the century. While I had read about great discoveries of the past (like that of King Tut’s tomb in 1922), the terra cotta warriors revealed themselves in my lifetime—of all the world’s wonders I intend to visit on my trip around the world, the terra cotta warriors are most memorable for me because in the course of my life, humankind has been confronted with the great mystery that comes from great discovery.
And yet for all the reading and research one may do, nothing comes close to walking into the behemoth hanger that encloses Pit 1 of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, ripped open like some dusty strip mine, and then taking in the panoramic vision of these thousands and thousands of life-size clay soldiers, standing at attention, most of them facing the same direction.
Wow. Such was my oversimplified reaction upon staring at the manmade entourage that accompanied the Emperor into his afterlife. Reading about thousands of soldiers is far different than seeing thousands of soldiers in real life. Suddenly I felt sympathy for all those victims of the six warring states with whom Emperor Qin Shi Huang waged battle. Even as ceramic effigies, the sheer size of the terra cotta army is intimidating. Even more mind-boggling is the reality that this one pit—the one most often shown in documentaries and tourist brochures—is but one of the countless other burial pits believed to exist for this one Emperor.
More than ageless souvenirs or some unchecked ego trip, the fathomless funerary band that accompanied Qin Shi Huang into the afterlife was an assurance that his power and work would continue beyond his earthly years. Here was a leader who during his rather short reign (221-206 B.C.) managed to unify all of China. Though in retrospect, his methods were considered cruel and autocratic, he accomplished a geopolitical feat that had challenged all others before. In fact, our modern English name China derives from the pinyin Qin (cheen), from the Qin Dynasty.
Walking along the length of Pit 1, past hundreds and hundreds of ceramic soldiers, I gained a new insight into what today seems like nothing more than royal extravagance. For me, the famous terra cotta warriors represent the buried hopes of a past civilization—a hope that no matter what, China would last forever.
Emperor Qin Shin Huang had dedicated his life to unifying a country—based on what that required of him during his life, perhaps he knew that his own future and that of his country would require (above all) a fairly decent army. Staring out across the stoneware heads of so many lifeless clay pawns, I felt as if this great spectacle is, in fact, nothing more than a surviving souvenir of one man’s ancient vision for China today.
We are no different today. Ex-presidents start foundations and libraries to ensure their work continues beyond their own lifetime, plutocrats set up trust funds with highly-specific instructions on spending, everyday workers buy life insurance to protect the ones they love.
The way I see it, the terra cotta warriors comprise part of Qin Shin Huang’s insurance policy for China. As an American visitor two thousand years after the fact, it’s a remarkably impressive testament to the foresight of a long-dead leader.
It is also both memorable and meaningful that this buried army, which dates back to the founding of China, came to light in 1974, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, when the political culture was more concerned with disassociating itself with China’s imperial past. Obviously, the way Chinese people feel about the terra cotta warriors has changed in an amazing way. In 1996, National Geographic reported a whopping two million visitors per year at the tomb, but today, more than 20 million Chinese visitors come to the tomb annually (compared to only 16 million annual total visitors to Washington, DC).
Obviously, traveling with National Geographic opens many doors, and in my case, it allowed us entrance into the locked vaults of the Shaanxi History Museum. Not only did we gain access to the non-displayed treasures of the Qin and Han dynasties, but I came face to face with some of the original terra cotta figures.
These are the moments I remember best—far more memorable than any Made-in-China souvenir I will surely end up buying. To stare into the glazed eyes of a human figure—one that is nearly my own height, with equally-broad shoulders and feet so similar in size we could probably share shoes; to know that this effigy represents in fact, an actual Chinese man who lived and breathed and fought once upon a time—for me this was the greatest reverence I have ever felt towards any historical object. The most chilling was to stand on my tippy-toes and to stare at the hundreds of hand-carved strands of terra cotta hair and to imagine the ancient craftsman who had stood in some workshop so long ago, investing, in his own way, to the future of his country.
And yet while the world-famous terra cotta warriors bizarrely moved me, I found the nearby tomb of Han Yangling more creepy than moving. Perhaps that is because instead of 8,000 life-size warriors, the tomb of Emperor Lui Qui of the Han Dynasty contains more than 100,000 human miniature, all of which are eerily naked and missing their arms. My scientific acceptance of the fact that hand-carved wooden limbs and elaborate silk costumes would disintegrate over time still did not change the creepy feeling I got while walking through the underground chamber where the expressionless clay bodies of soldiers, officials, eunuchs and concubines were splayed out in the hard-packed dirt like the remnants of some dramatic doll plague.
Emperor Liu Qui’s tomb was only discovered in 1991, when the Chinese government began constructing a highway from Xian to the new airport. Ten years later, in October 2001, National Geographic magazine detailed the excavation of this second tomb, comparing this lesser-known emperor to Qin Shi Huang of terra cotta warrior fame. According to the author, Liu Qui was much more moderate, leading his country under the Taoist principle of Wu Wei Erzhi (“Do nothing to govern”) and taxing his subjects only 3% compared to the 50% tribute collected by the autocratic Qin Shi Huang.
Walking through these younger burial pits, I noticed how Liu Qui’s tomb lacked the same militaristic tones of the great terra cotta pits, favoring instead the officials and bureaucrats of a Chinese court. Clearly China had a very different set of priorities in the Han Dynasty—from his tomb, it seems Liu Qui was more concerned about filling his future with family and friends (and concubines, of which he had over 3,000 in his lifetime), along with plenty of good food. Though the Emperor himself remains buried, his afterlife snack pack is on open display: lifelike terra cotta reproductions of pigs, piglets, cows, dogs, and oxen—all things that he would be eating beyond this. Here is a man and a leader who ate well in this life and seemed quite concerned with eating well in the next (which it appears he has).
Though the two tombs are situated so closely, they reveal China’s two distinct realities: an overarching concern with the country’s long-term future and prosperity, compared to the more practical concerns of maintaining the day-to-day, namely, having enough to eat.
As a tourist visiting the two sites back-to-back, it seemed only real similarity between the tombs was the substance used to craft all these ancient souvenirs (terra cotta), and the nearly identical gift shops.
As I wandered said gift shops searching for Chinese souvenirs, I encountered several real-life terra cotta reproductions, “Made from the same clay as the real terra cotta warriors!” which at life-size, sell for an average $3,700 a piece. At that price, it would cost around $29 million to recreate the terra cotta army in my own backyard (shipping not included).
Fortunately, it is so much cheaper to travel. My ultimate souvenir moment spent with an actual terra cotta warrior in Xi’an will forever outweigh any garden ornament I could ever purchase, or any other thing that I might find in any gift shop in the world.