I’ll be at Liverpool’s World Museum on 26th July as part of the entertainments for their Terracotta Warriors exhibition, talking about the place of the First Emperor’s tomb in the history of the Qin state, the curiosities of its construction, and the tragic events that followed the emperor’s death. Apparently there will be canapes.
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.’
Ying Zheng was born to rule the world, claiming descent from gods, crowned king while still a child. He was the product of a heartless, brutal regime devoted to domination, groomed from an early age to become the First Emperor of China after a century of scheming by his ancestors. He faked a foreign threat to justify an invasion. He ruled a nation under 24-hour surveillance. He ordered his interrogators to torture suspects. He boiled his critics alive. He buried dissenting scholars. He declared war on death itself.
Jonathan Clements uses modern archaeology and ancient texts to outline the First Emperor’s career and the grand schemes that followed unification: the Great Wall that guarded his frontiers and the famous Terracotta Army that watches over his tomb.
Published in 2015, this revised edition includes updates from a further decade of publications, archaeology and fictional adaptations, plus the author’s encounter with Yang Zhifa, the man who discovered the Terracotta Army.
I’ll be on PBS on 8th April in a repeat The Emperor’s Ghost Army, meanwhile, here’s a repost of an article I wrote about the First Emperor on film.
Jonathan Clements investigates the continuing fascination Chinese filmmakers feel for both the First Emperor and the man who tried to kill him.
It was a messy, scrappy struggle in a chilly hall, lasting less than a minute. A suicidal assassin pulled a knife out of nowhere and chased the ruler of the Qin dynasty around his throne. Bodyguards watched in frustration, forbidden on pain of death from mounting the steps to protect their leader. The court physician distracted the assassin by hurling his medicine kit at him, and when the man ducked, his would-be victim was finally able to tug his own long ceremonial sword from its scabbard. The murder attempt was over scant seconds later, as the attacker died under a rain of blows from the man who was supposed to have been his victim.
The incident changed history. Now, nothing stood in the way of the man who would become the First Emperor. The would-be killer, Jing Ke, had been the very last man who stood a chance of getting close enough to kill the power-hungry ruler. His failure to do so was a crucial event in the birth of the nation we now call China, and has been dramatised on countless occasions, not the least on film. Continue reading