They were arranged in formation. Eight thousand of them. Each face telling its own story. Young soldiers gazing into a future full of adventure; older infantry, guarding the flanks, grimmer, determined; cavalry, their hands gripping the leather bridles of solid, sturdy horses; archers kneeling, their bows at the ready. The Emperor surveyed them with pride in his power and conviction that this display would serve him well when he entered the afterlife. He ordered them buried in thatch covered pits, his terracotta army, their bright colours, their chariots, and their weapons, guarding his tomb for eternity.
And two thousand years later, a farmer digging a well discovered them. The rest is history. The Terracotta Warriors are one of China’s major tourist attractions and the city of Xi’an boasts a museum built like three aircraft hangars over the pits where the warriors stood. Thousands, if not millions of people visit them every year, and there is a roving exhibition that has been touring the world for years.
But that’s not the whole story, because when Mr Yang’s discovery was unearthed, every one of those eight thousand terracotta figures was broken, smashed to pieces. The two thousand or so that are on display in the front section of one of the pits are the ones that have been carefully removed by archaeologists; reconstructed, like life-sized three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles; and carefully replaced to stand as they originally stood. Most of the army is still broken and buried, and will remain so until technology develops sufficiently so that removing them will not come at the cost of the deterioration of their beautiful painted colours.
Why are they broken? After Emperor Qin died, there was an uprising. The pits were broken into. The thatched roofs and everything wooden – like the chariots and bows – were burned and every warrior, every symbol of the emperor’s power, every reminder of his war-driven unification of the five kingdoms that became China, was destroyed.
Those broken soldiers haunt me. I wonder who smashed them. Was it vandalism, part of the mass chaos of revolt? Was it the workers enslaved for years to build them, coming back to vent their frustration and hatred of what they had been forced to do? Did some soldiers come back and seek out the hated image of themselves in a role that they didn’t want immortalised? Destroying the person they had become.
Outside Xi’an, there’s a factory where they make souvenir warrior figures and where they demonstrate the actual process by which the life-size figures were made. In the courtyard outside, there is one of those tourist photo opportunity devices where you stand on a step behind a headless life-size warrior and “become” a warrior for the camera. When one of the men in our tour group took his place for the photo, the resemblance was uncanny. With his moustache and dark colouring, he could have been a warrior reincarnated. In that moment I realised that each individual face of the Terracotta Army memorialises a real person, and that the reconstruction of his figure pays a kind of homage across the ages to his service and his sacrifice.
A typically Aussie spin? Terracotta warrior meets ANZAC. Broken soldiers are a sad fixture in our lives these days: some physically damaged beyond repair; some using a hollow bravado, alcohol and medications to hide the cracks.
After sixty years some, like Paul Tibbets, the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb, say they go to their graves without regrets. After forty years some, like Vietnam conscript Barry Heard, in his book Well Done Those Men (Scribe, 2007), can reflect on their experiences and the price they paid, face the reunions, and catch up with fellow conscripts.
These days from Afghanistan and Iraq, from East Timor and the Solomon Islands, they are coming home. We meet them at parties where they drink too much and tell endless stories that nobody wants to hear – again. Unlike their older counterparts who courteously fell apart in silence, they choose the socially less comfortable option of sharing their pain as rooms empty around them. I wonder what they would do if confronted with a life-sized terracotta replica of themselves.
Our guide told us that he has been coming to the museum for years yet he has never seen the archaeologists at work, although he occasionally sees the results of their efforts. There is a work area at the far end of one of the pits and the collection there of partly rebuilt figures and horses evolves over time.
Out of sight, someone painstakingly collects the broken pieces and works to restore them to the truth and dignity of their real nature.
I like that image: working quietly in the background, with love and respect, honouring the truth of the soldiers. Not as broken, but as worthy of and destined for repair.