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Falling Under The Spell Of Emperor Qin's Ceramic Guard

January 12, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

XI'AN, China — We had endured a bad night, arriving late on a delayed flight from Peking at the dingy, Russian-built People's Hotel and finding it populated with far more cockroaches than people. The crusty little critters marched up the walls in platoons, fanned out on the ceilings, raised their kids on the bathroom floors and lolled around in the bed linens.

Fastidious Americans, we had launched an all-out attack, whacking the bugs with plastic slippers provided by the hotel, scaling sturdy chests of drawers to reach the highest climbers and sharing a single can of Raid proffered by a knowing traveler.

Finally admitting defeat, we had joined the roaches in bed, though most of us slept in our clothes and curled up in tense little balls, vainly hoping that we might shrivel into smaller targets.

A gray morning eventually dawned and with it the news that liquor was a more effective bug killer than human violence. Several dead roaches were floating in my unfinished glass of sherry, provided the preceding night by gracious neighbors.

"Take that, you creeps," I hissed at the corpses as I prepared for a journey that had brought me 9,000 miles from Los Angeles. On that long-awaited day, our bus driver--whose persistent horn-honking could qualify him for an American wedding motorcade--would take us another 21 miles to the 2,200-year-old, life-size terra-cotta army of China's first emperor. Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC) directed the creation and interment of this ceramic imperial guard, which was only discovered in 1974.

On the way to the astonishing archeological dig, we would drive through such a fascinating slice of life in China that the night of the roaches would be forgotten. It was Sunday, country market day, and rural residents had brought their wares to the sides of the narrow road. They had live pigs stuffed under their arms, goats on leashes and towering bicycle loads of everything from onions and greens to baskets, toilet bowls and huge pieces of furniture.

"Free enterprise," declared our Chinese guide, who also insisted that the dogs and cats being sold would be kept as pets, not eaten.

Beyond the roadside spectacle, we saw women doing their laundry in a river and a constant parade of construction--brick houses rising, mortar sand being thrown against screens to sift out rocks. Industry, thy name is China. Curiosity, thy name is America. More blurry photographs were shot from the windows of that bus than in the Forbidden City.

As we walked from the bus to the site of the long-buried army, children clamored around, beseeching us to buy crude clay replicas of the soldiers at slippery prices--all under a dollar. More orderly salespeople peddled larger warriors with slightly bigger price tags from rows of tables. This sea of souvenir hawkers, so uncharacteristic of China, was our first inkling of what the 1974 discovery of the ancient ceramic army had done to this once-quiet countryside in Lintong County.

Inside the museum grounds, we were ushered into a large room and given historical background on the archeological wonder. Farmers discovered the pit of 6,000 soldiers while drilling for water. Two smaller pits of life-size figures were found two years later, and in 1980 came the stunning discovery of a pair of four-horse chariots and drivers, exquisitely crafted in bronze at about a quarter of life-size. All these finds were strategically located near Qin's tomb, which is in a mound awaiting excavation.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang, a ruthless strategist and brilliant administrator, was the first to bring the feudal empire of China under one ruler, and his list of accomplishments is staggering. Along with unifying the government, he standardized law, weights, measures, currency, written language and even the axle length of ancient vehicles. He built a network of tree-lined roads and connected separate fortresses in an 1,800-mile wall, which was doubled in length by subsequent dynasties. Qin also constructed legendary palaces for his lifetime activities, but nothing has preserved the emperor's memory so well in contemporary minds as the preparations he made for his burial.

It took 700,000 workmen 36 years to build his mausoleum and the underground army that would protect him after death. The largest retinue of soldiers--about 6,000--was buried in a rectangular pit the size of three football fields. Arranged in 38 columns, divided into 11 rows of four figures abreast, the military entourage is partitioned by earthen walls that once supported wooden beams and roofs of woven mats, plaster and dirt. This colossal grave, now covered by a hangar-like structure, was opened as a museum in 1979. Though only about 1,000 of the figures and 24 horses have been unearthed and repaired, the sight of them is thrilling.

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