(Dear reader: It is said that there’s no sound so precious as that of one’s own name. Then imagine my surprise and emotions when years ago I was introduced to a large audience of Chinese students as “Mr. Joke.”  Somehow, the moniker has stuck. And after six trips to China, I am still addressed in this fashion — a self-deprecating aberration of Jock that I have come to value for its summation of the lesson every “Stranger in a Strange Land” should embrace: Don’t take yourself too seriously, kiddo.)

 

There are world-famous places that you’ve looked forward to seeing all your life — but when you actually get there, they disappoint — either because they’ve been over-hyped or your expectations were too high.

Such is not the case with the Army of Terracotta Warriors at Xi’an.

I first heard about the discovery of the 2,000-year-old tomb full of thousands of 6-foot-tall pottery soldiers back in the mid-‘70s when I was running a small newspaper up in the N.C. mountains and building my log cabin.

The Army of Terracotta Warriors came to light in 1974 when a farmer, digging a well on his farm near the central Chinese city of Xi’an, accidentally broke through into the tomb, revealing the silent clay army in vast vaults below.

National Geographic magazine’s photo-spread made special note of the distinctive fact: that the face of every single soldier was individual and different — each face a one-of-a-kind piece of art. Eight thousand individuals, buried for 2,000 years.

That’s enough to get the Indiana Jones in me doing back-flips.

Because in a society that historically devalues individual rights, and places the individual at the service of the state, how is it that these clay faces were all so clearly (and poignantly) personal and individual?

Back in the ‘70s, looking at those Nat Geo photos and wondering about it all —  it never crossed my mind that someday I’d ever get to teach in China, much less see this archeological wonder.

Yet here I was.

On a teaching gig to nearby Northwest University in Xi’an, I had told my host that I wanted very much to visit the Army of Terracotta Warriors. And as irony would have it, my host, Prof. Lei, a local, had never visited the site, either. So the two of us were both first-timers — one American from 9,000 miles away, and one local from “just down the road,” as we say in the Old North State.

From my reading (Lonely Planet: China) and other research, I learned more of the back-story: that 200 years before the birth of Jesus, the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Hwang, employed 220,000 men to work for 26 years to construct his grave. Only it was more than a grave. The tomb of emperor Qin Shi Hwang included 8,000 warriors, all made of terracotta pottery, presumably to protect the ruler from his enemies in the spirit world. When Emperor Qin finally died, he allegedly took with him 40,000 artisans (to protect the tomb’s artistic secrets) and a host of concubines. Buried alive, so says the Lonely Planet guide.

 

In the footsteps of Mr. Mountain

Word to the wise: If you ever come to Xi’an, secure the services of one of the many experienced, English-speaking local guides to talk you through the site. Our guide, a wiry, sun-darkened 25-year veteran of guiding here, told us what to call him.

“My name is Mountain,” he said, emphatically, and off we went on our two-hour hike through the tombs.

Credit the Chinese for the authentic and faithful presentation at the site, designed to give the visitor a tiny glimpse of what the first explorers must have felt when the thousands of figures were unearthed: The original discovery site is housed in a vast open, high-ceilinged structure as large as an aircraft hangar, ringed by an elevated walkway allowing visitors to gaze down at the thousands of marching men of clay.

Our guide also answered one of my main questions: that of the individuality of the faces of the figures. Mountain said that each warrior was a self-portrait of the individual artist creating that terracotta figure.

So there were 8,000 different artists? To that I didn’t get a solid answer.

Mr. Mountain also declared that the site was the 8th wonder of the world — a claim with which the thousands of tourists, who throng here daily to gawk at the sight and buy the trinkets hawked in the adjacent stores, probably agree.

But no amount of tawdry commercialization could take away from the real thing.

And that’s what I had come to see.

 

Just me and them

When I first approached the balcony overlooking the first main excavation pit where the first 5,000 soldiers stand in mute choreography, the intensity of the moment moved me close to tears.

Meanwhile in the chaos, hundreds of Chinese tourists were pushing, shoving, shouting, jostling to get to the front — no queuing up in China, of course— and meanwhile, Mr. Joke is having his own private little religious experience. In retrospect, I must have looked pretty silly.

But once I spied the terracotta warriors for the first time, all the noise of the maddening crowd went silent to me — and it was just …us.

 

I suppose that pronoun says it best. Me and these men of clay, 2,000 years apart, but somehow mysteriously joined. Go figure.

Why do these pottery figures move me so? I’m still grappling with that mystery, but there it is. These are my guys, that’s all I know.

Maybe I was some emperor in a previous life, eh?

Emperor Joke.

As emperor, the first decree I’d make would be to establish a free press.

Uh-oh. Now I’m in deep ka-ka.

 

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