Age of Empires

When I met Yang Zhifa in 2013, he was living well off the proceeds of being ‘the man who found the Terracotta Army.’ Tall for a Chinese, he was sprightly for a grandfather nearing 80. What was left of his white hair was shorn off in a neat burr, he affected a blue Mao suit and an ostentatiously long cheroot holder. A week did not go by without a journalist or film crew wanting to talk to him about his place in history, and Yang was ever ready to oblige for a fee – my time with him cost about £100.

There was very little clue from Yang’s demeanour that he could pull down a week’s wages just by getting out of bed in the morning, at least, not until one was close enough to look in his eyes. The dark irises were limned with the faintest edge of blue, a telltale sign that the old farmer sported contact lenses.

With up to two film crews a day hanging on his every word, and tourists eager to get his signature or calligraphy, Yang was a jealous guardian of his status. He had been in something of a feud with several other Yangs, who wanted to claim equivalent status as co-discoverers – I still suspect that he and his cousins once took turns to sit in the museum shop and sign autographs as ‘Mr Yang, who found the Terracotta Army.’ He cherished a photograph of himself with a grinning Bill Clinton, and still scowled at the memory of articles that had claimed the American President had met with an ‘illiterate peasant’. He clutched his adze proudly, showing me the seal of government authenticity that pronounced it to be the very tool that had struck at that fateful terracotta fragment in 1974.

Yang’s version of events featured a degree of self-figuration – first-person I’s and me’s about what the record usually describes as a group effort, but nonetheless came from the horse’s mouth, in a Shaanxi dialect so thick that I often had to ask him to repeat himself.

‘It was hot and it was dry. It was March and there had been no rain all winter, and we needed to sink a new well. There was some low-lying ground with persimmon trees on the plain, and I figured that the water there would be sweeter, so we started digging. When we got down a couple of metres, we hit something. It looked like the top of a pot, the lip around the edge, so we stopped digging.

‘I said: “Look, if this is a pot, we might have found an old kiln from the Han dynasty or something. Those pots are still good to use. Let’s keep digging.” So, we edged around it and saw that it wasn’t a pot. It wasn’t a pot because it was decorated really weird, like a suit of armour, and then we found an arm.

‘So this is a problem, because the elders hated it when we uncovered old temples or graves. That’s really bad for the feng shui. They made us go back that evening with joss-sticks. We lit incense and chanted prayers in case we had disturbed earth gods or something. But I said to the elders: “You shouldn’t worry that this is something to do with the First Emperor. I mean, it’s two kilometres away from his grave, this can’t possibly be anything to do with that. There’s no way it could be that big.”

‘So we went to the cultural office at the museum, and they said oh yes, that looks very Qin dynasty. Bring us the terracotta bits and we’ll give you some cash. They offered me 10 kuai [£1] for every wheelbarrow-load of pottery I could bring them. So we edged around the well and hauled up three cart-loads of the stuff. I took it to the museum and got 30 kuai, but then I had to share it with the other members of the crew and the village. At the end of it all, I got 1.3 mao (13p).’

The Yangs’ well-sinking exercise had transformed into an archaeological dig and gained him another rival. At another museum on the edge of town, the local Party official also happily signs himself as the ‘man who discovered the Terracotta Army’, on the understanding that Yang didn’t know what he was looking at, and that in an intricate semantic sense, the Terracotta Army was only ‘discovered’ by the person who identified the pottery as a Qin artefact. At the time, however, nobody seriously considered that the pottery uncovered by the Yangs was directly related to the First Emperor’s distant mausoleum. For centuries it had been assumed that the First Emperor’s mausoleum centred on Mount Li itself, and yet the finds of the well diggers were far from it. The well now forgotten, the soil from the initial dig was sifted, unearthing more terracotta pieces, and the fragments of what might once have been crossbow trigger mechanisms.

By that June, the news was out. Something had been found near the site of the First Emperor’s mausoleum, and if a find of the magnitude of the Yangs’ was present so far from it, the size of the necropolis itself may have been grossly underestimated.

‘Then they said we’d found something significant, something of national importance, so it all kind of got taken away from us,’ Yang tells me. His role in the site was forgotten for twenty years, while archaeologists sifted the earth. He confessed that he had done nothing but swing a pickaxe for his life up to that point, and his ability to monetise being the ‘discoverer’ of the Terracotta Army turned problematic. He was once flown to Japan for an academic conference, but was able to little more than trot out his well-rehearsed account of that fateful day. Since then, he has observed the slow growth of the museum as a tourist site, and done his best to capitalise on the influx of visitors.

‘It’s brought a lot of wealth to all of us in the village,’ he says carefully, ‘and that cheers me up. Yes, I like being famous. It’s better than not being famous. People come from all over and they want to shake my hand and buy my photograph. It’s better than holding a pickaxe.’

From The First Emperor of China, by Jonathan Clements available now in the US and the UK. The exhibition Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties is running at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art until 16th July.

Norio Shioyama 1940-2017

In case you missed it over at the All the Anime blog, my obituary of the character designer and illustrator Norio Shioyama, who died last week.

‘“I wonder if that wasn’t the spirit of the times,” he said. “Everyone was ready to work their hardest, to do their best. The result made Japan the second-largest economy in the world, but I think we lost something. We got colder.’

The Cosplay Lynch-Mob

shinji-1

It was an odd internet scandal even by the standards of our post-truth age. Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, a man whose grasp of the truth makes Comical Ali look like George Washington, was “outed” in January by the Kotaku fan site, whose minions had been trawling his social media posts looking for something to laugh at. They found it, seemingly, on his Twitter feed for 2013, where he had been enthusiastically hash-tagging a Gundam costume he saw at Katsucon.

Could it really be that, in the year that America jumped the shark, the frowning White House press secretary was a recovering anime fan? And if so, could it be that he was That Guy… you know, That Guy?

spicer-twitter-imageNo, I didn’t know That Guy, but enthusiastic chatter soon enlightened me – a man at American conventions of a few years back, who dressed up as pathological whiner Shinji from Evangelion. What better illustration of his oft-repeated catch-phrase, “I Mustn’t Run Away”, than appending it to a picture of Spicer standing before the press corps, unreliably informing them that black was white, that crowds were much more biglier than people remembered, and that Evangelion 4.0 was sure to be released very, very soon?

Anime fandom was awash with giggly glee as they tried to hunt down five-year-old cosplay photographs. High-level nerds were put to work on facial recognition software. Everybody was mobilised to get him… but I didn’t understand what for.

“Wait,” I asked. “If that’s really Spicer dressed as Shinji, why would you laugh at him? Because he’s a cosplayer? Because he likes Japanese cartoons?” Isn’t that shooting all your fellow anime fans in the feet? It seemed like an oddly mean-spirited and self-destructive form of protest, discovering that one’s enemy was a bit like you, and then laughing at him for it.

Spicer and I are the same age, and the world is a small place – it turned out we had a mutual acquaintance. He’d been a hard-core otaku at the same college as Spicer, and reported that he had zero interest in anime in the 1990s. If he were a fan, he was something of a late bloomer, and these days probably had other things on his mind than assuring people they have five minutes until the planet explodes. But fandom should lay off trying to shame itself.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #161, 2017.

Videosyncratic

Up now on the All the Anime blog, my review of Jon Spira’s Videosyncratic, an account of life in the video rental trade.


“I am already encountering students and researchers with no memories of the media of the 20th century, who never had to fast-forward through a Simon Bates warning; who can pause and rewatch with pinpoint accuracy; who do not appreciate the concept of waiting, of not bingeing. They need to read this book.Spira helps ground his readers in a historical context by rewinding way, way back, to the kind of customer journey his great-grandfather would have had to go on to see a screening of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927. He’d have had to dress nicely, and get the bus into Central London, and sit through the preliminary programme with its Wurlitzer serenade and newsreels, and concentrate really hard because he was unlikely to see it again. And today? As Spira notes, you don’t even have to get out of bed to be able to access a bunch of variant Metropolis movies on your phone. Some of which, you don’t even have to pay for.

“But Spira is interested in his own culture of entertainment. More specifically, the generation spanning 1983 to the early 2000s, the first generation that was effectively given control over exhibition. For people of Spira’s era, the VHS cassette could turn your home into a cinema and your lounge into an archive. It was, as Yasuo Nagayama observed in his history of Japanese fandom, a huge disruption to the nature of film-watching all over the world, equivalent, in his words, to ‘the discovery of time travel.'”