For two millennium, an entire army of soldiers made of terracotta lay buried under the rural hills outside of the city of Xi'an, China. The first emperor of China - Qin Shi Huan - put them there in the year 210 BC because he believed he could continue to rule his empire from beyond the grave as long as he had his army with him.
Therefore, he had a replica of his actual army assembled, complete with armor, horses, weapons and all the military accompaniments.
And, he had a massive underground tomb built to house it all. More than 700,000 servants, slaves and laborers sweated and toiled away all those centuries ago to create more than 8,000 individual warrior figures. The size of the army is stupefying enough, but it really boggles the mind that each of the soldiers also bear an individual face - modeled after actual members of the Emperor's army.
Discovery Leads to Tourism
Following its rediscovery in 1974 by a farmer digging a well, tourists from all over China and every corner of the world now come to see the army, contemplate what it would have taken to create and bury the figures and ponder why it was done in the first place. My wife and I were among those tourists in May 2008. We viewed the army and saw the farmer who discovered it - a man who as a measure of this quasi celebrity stats today wears Harry Carey-like glasses and signs books about the warriors in the exhibit store.
Suffice it to say that we were impressed by the whole experience. Because it is an iconic symbol of China, I would recommend visiting it to anyone making the long trip to China. You've gone that far...see the warriors.
The Chinese Peasantry Will Have Its Say
However, I there is more the royal regiments of yesteryear can tell us than just its size and status as an ambassador from a different time. Rather, I think the story of the Emperor, the army and how it was discovered lend themselves to understanding today's China - namely, the Chinese peasantry will have their say.
Turns out, it wasn't just the Emperor who believed he would rule his kingdom from beyond the grave with the help of the buried army. Indeed, our guide informed us that the local peasants felt the same way too and they weren't too keen on the idea. Unlike recent centuries, it was no big secret that the tomb existed or where it was for the locals in the area had been enslaved in the thousands to build it all. These people knew where the army stood and where the entrances were.
So what did they do? With the help of a couple enterprising generals eager to succeed the now deceased Emperor, the locals destroyed the tomb and the army within (see picture, below). They broke in and - instead of smashing the soldiers one by one - they lit the
overhead wood beams on fire to collapse them onto the army. It worked. In fact, only one warrior survived unscathed. You can
see that one archer figure today (pictured above right) in the on-site exhibit.
A new Emperor came of course, along with his own all-too-real army to lord over the land. But, that one spasm of collective uprising helped usher in change. The violent action is an example of how big change traditionally happens in China. Far more people lived in the Chinese rural areas than do the cities, so the Emperors know they had to in some way pacify or dominate them to minimize their desire or ability to do any harm to the dynasty. When they didn't, "regime change" followed. When poverty, hunger, taxes, corruption, conscription and other problems become unbearable, the millions in the countryside rise up against the government. And they have over and over again throughout China's history.
This remains true in recent history too. The communist revolution that culminated in 1949 was started, built and propelled from the countryside - not the cities.
Is Today's Government the New Terracotta Army?
Flashing forward to today, the government of China has to find a way to appease rural dwellers lest they decide they've had enough and repeat history. One reason put forth for why the 1989 uprising at Tienanmen Square in Beijing did not go further was that it was confined to the urban area of one city and was instigated by students and intellectuals. Those in the country were actually enjoying some improvements at the time, so there was no motivation to link up with their urban brethren to really make the uprising stick.
Today, the opening up of the Chinese economy has meant members of farming families can find much better paying jobs in the cities. So, that deflates tensions now. However, corruption by local officials, crushing poverty, lack of healthcare (yes,despite being a communist country there is no guarantee healthcare) is still prevalent. The potential for a rural uprising still exist, and despite the power of the current Chinese army, the countryside has the population to do something if they want. For example, of China's 1.3 billion citizens, 750 of them live in the rural areas. The numbers are huge.
What will happen next? Will the government buy off rural dwellers with the promise of better paying jobs and a westernized future? Will those dwellers buy in? Or, with the Chinese communist party become the terracotta warrior army of the 21st century - doomed to be destroyed by the locals in a bid to unshackle themselves fro their overlords?
All this remains to be seen, but as change continues at a rapid pace in China, I will be watching what happens in the hills, valleys, mountains and meadows of China as much or more of what happens in Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong.