One big hoax?

Prior to leaving on my travels, my dad had described to me his experience of visiting the city of Xi’an in China, and more specifically; the terracotta warriors and museum. He was curious as to the viability of the tourist attraction, and was interested as to what I would think after having visited.

He described to me the order and organisation of the place. How all the warriors were lined up strategically and seemingly in pristine condition. There was the opportunity for him to meet the farmer who had first stumbled upon the warriors whilst farming on his land back in the 1970’s. You are not allowed to take photographs of the man, BUT; if you buy a book about the terracotta warriors you can get the book signed by the farmer himself. Dad’s guide at the time had exclaimed that the farmer was very rarely there and that they would be very lucky to actually see him. So when they found him there – with an element of surprise – they then felt obliged to buy the book and have it signed by him. I think the way in which the tourist attraction was all laid out was what made him feel dubious and uneasy about it all. 

So it was with the above in mind that I embarked on my journey from Hong Kong to Xi’an to see the impressive terracotta warriors and museum.

Other than the old part of the city of Xi’an being surrounded by an old wall and various small bell towers; for a tourist I can safely say that the warriors are the main attraction to this city. On my first night however, I did go to a cultural show which included sampling amazing dumplings and a brief timeline through the Chinese Qin dynasty through the medium of song and dance. Other than this though the city was like every other place I had passed on my 8 hour high speed train (over 300kph) from the south of the country.  I am simply staggered by the amount of construction that is going on in China. This lack of sympathy for anything old. I watched a documentary not so long ago that showed the creation of a city from nothing within 6 months. It was shown through the eyes of local farmers that had had to evacuate and watch their homes being destroyed and a city grow up around them. I barely saw a patch of landscape that was simply landscape with no human interference from Guangzhou through to Xi’an. A distance that spans over approximately 1860km. But then I guess this is no surprise considering I am in a country that holds 1 fifth of the entire world population. 1.351 billion to be exact.

I had a private guide around Xi’an and the museum itself. This meant I could really get talking to her about the possibility of this potential conspiracy theory. But first off i wanted to judge for myself.

Driving out to the museum was a good hour out of the city. Once there it was a very well spaced out museum with ultimately 3 large halls containing 3 excavation sites where they have found the warriors. The first hall we went into was enormously crowded, but when I finally broke through the crowd to the front I was pretty blown away by what I saw. Very impressive lines of terracotta warriors stretching far back to the end of the hall. It looked very regimented. These warriors are 2200 years old and yet they are standing and look as though some of them could have been made in the last 200 years. I suppose this is a credit to the people that have worked on the warriors and restoring them to their former glory.

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Onto the next hall. Again very impressive. I decided to talk to my guide about the conspiracy theory idea. Firstly she didn’t know what a conspiracy theory was. I explained about other conspiracy theories. You know like 9/11 and whether we ever actually landed on the moon… And then I explained that some people feel there maybe an element of conspiracy involved in the terracotta warriors. She was mostly flabbergasted by the other conspiracy theories – having never heard of them before – so it took a while to return to the subject of the warriors.

Now, my guide has been to the terracotta warriors museum (she says) over hundreds of times. This is where she lives, and this is her job after all. She said that not once had anyone broached the subject of conspiracy with her. But when she came to think about it she began talking of this huge level of secrecy surrounding the initial excavation. From this she started talking about her government and moving onto all the secrets they surely must cover up or lies they must tell. I felt bad for placing the idea of these sorts of thoughts into her head. But I don’t think it will have done any harm. There is a noticeably innocent and massively naive nature to all the Chinese I have met so far on my travels that haven’t ever traveled outside of their country. Its quite astonishing how introverted and seemingly self absorbed they come across. I mean this is a HUGE generalisation I know (and meant in the nicest way possible) but either way, through perhaps no fault of their own they seem to have no clue about life beyond their borders. I found it both aggravating, endearing and saddening.

Anyhow, back to the warriors. As we left the 3rd hall my guide explained to me how opposite us in that building (she was pointing) there was a souvenir shop, and perhaps if we are lucky we may be able to meet the ACTUAL farmer who stumbled across the warriors back in the 70’s. “But he is never usually there…”. I decided to keep my mouth shut on this one and with fascination wandered over to the building with her. First of all it was swamped in there. Secondly as with many tourist like attractions in China, or indeed Asia I found myself being carefully herded towards items I could buy. Careful because it wasn’t necessarily harassment, but I certainly had no other choice of going anywhere but where they would direct me.

And so I was led to the farmer. I bought a book about the warriors and then was shoved to my left where the old man took my book methodically, and without looking up, signed it and handed back over with not so much as a glance in my direction. I attempted at one point to take a photograph, I was swiftly notified “nor fortor, nor fortor” and they practically frogmarched me out of the building.

It was an interesting day. My conclusion on the terracotta warriors: There is no doubt in my mind that they are real, and that they were made some 2 thousand years ago. I mean, why would China go to the extreme effort of making them all from scratch (some 6000 odd). Having said this, I went to go and visit a factory where they make terracotta warriors in the “exact process as they did 2000 years ago”; and this made me feel a tad dubious far more than anything else. Some had even purposefully been left wonky or incomplete to give the purchaser a souvenir that has actual likeness to those warriors that had been excavated. Which in my mind begged the question as to why they didn’t just leave the warriors how they found them. I mean I know its incredible to see them all lined up and how they would have been over 2000 years ago, and for archaeologists its like the world biggest jigsaw. But to me I ask the question as to whether it all becomes a little historically inaccurate or less viable when we start tampering with it?

I think what my dad was really getting at wasn’t necessarily about the potential viability of the warriors though. They are phenomenal and one of China’s biggest tourist attractions. I believe that it is the epic historic way that I was handled as a tourist that made the place seem bizarre. The technique of “you may see the farmer, or you may not”. The “if you’re lucky” term used to draw you in to some sort of mystery. I mean it does work, you become intrigued. But its almost condescending and definitely patronising. As with many places in China, tourism is still very much in its infancy having only been opened up to the rest of the world in the last 20/30 years.

The film ‘prestige’ is about magicians a long time ago. There is a definite routine to how they put on a show. An etiquette. An impossible task is introduced to the audience, then a claim that they can achieve the task, an audience member volunteers to take part and finally the trick is performed with maybe an ‘accidental’ hiccup halfway though to keep the audience on their toes. However over time this routine has evolved along with everything else in our western world… What I’m getting at here is that perhaps the seemingly archaic way in which I was spoken to as a tourist is simply because China is somewhat behind with regards to its tourism industry. Furthermore this is what makes the whole day out to the terracotta warrior museum feel like I was at a kids birthday party with a nanny watching my every move and a magician to entertain me. It is within this context that I can completely understand the dubious and unsettling feelings my father had towards the place, and indeed my echoing unease. Nevertheless; it will evolve, and it’s not as if I was treated badly or anything. It was just very different.

Oh, and its definitely all legitimate.

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