Ancient army in modern China

March 16, 1997|By Patricia Meisol

BALTIMORE, March 1997:

From China, they have come. Soldiers of the earth. They guarded an emperor's tomb in an ancient capital. Made of clay by court artisans to spare peasants the holy duty of being buried alive with their emperor. Here they are now, these warriors, in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.

Each face so different. Each pose unique. Two thousand years ago, they might have been red and green. The majesty of the feat is evident, though the samples here only hint of the huge underground battlefield from which they come. Up close, the detail is thrilling; such fine eyebrows on the general. Today, a Saturday, is family day at the Walters, and on the floor a picture of the general is being colored by my 2-year-old.

Xian, China, June 1980:

From the scaffold I see a chariot. The horse's ear is raised, as if to trot. His master's bow is at the ready. Behind is row after row of soldiers. It has been eight years since a peasant digging a well near the tomb of the First Emperor of China felt something hard at the end of his shovel.

Only a year and a half has passed since President Jimmy Carter normalized U.S. relations with China. Years of letters to the Chinese government from American editorial writers have paid off: My group of journalists is among the first invited to inspect China's campaign to modernize.

The work in the tomb is daunting. The way they figure it, there could be 8,000 earthen figures down here, all arrayed in battle formation. Knock. Knock. Knock. The archaeologists are noisy. It's dank in here, and not very crowded. Offers of foreign help are rejected; we can unearth our own treasure, thanks. But first we must retrain archaeologists banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. No pictures, please.

While I stand here spellbound by China's past, China is trying to take back its future, a future put on hold by domestic chaos in the last years of Mao Tse-tung. Signs of change are everywhere in this ancient capital:

In the marketplace, a woman has set up a stand and is selling tea. Vegetables from private plots were snapped up first this morning - why pay more for the state-sponsored variety? On the sidewalk, colorful print fabrics break up the monotonous blue and gray Mao suits. Wake up, Xian. Maoism is over.

"Storefronts filled with goods. More colorful displays. Streets not so crowded," I write in my notebook that day. "Children: easy to fall in love with."

Xian has 2.5 million people. The Han dynasty here fell to peasant uprisings. Eleven dynasties followed. The city is filled with trees but polluted by coal.

China is shockingly poor. Farmers in wide-brimmed hats pull heavy carts of garbage down dirt roads. Dust is everywhere. Occasionally oxen haul mounds of old metal - rusted pipes, reused old pieces of iron on their way to another life. Alone in my party, I avoid severe illness. A prosperous woman welcomes me into her living room. The dirt floor is immaculate. The only light is a single 25-watt bulb. Her happiness humbles me. Toilet? A hole in a corner of the rice fields. I walk gingerly, thankful for the wide straw hats that hide faces from the sun.

I did not expect to find a land so close to my imagination of China. Here are the vestiges of a feudal society. It is exotic. Mysterious. Deep. Sad. Sacred. I am aware that China doesn't appreciate the Western view of itself as exotic. To the Chinese, it is condescending.

Baltimore, February 1997:

The news today: Deng Xiaoping, paramount leader of China, is dead at 92. Can it be almost 17 years since he promised to retire?

Is it really possible he lived to see the fruits of his labors? From a country in ruins, a generation of its best and brightest stunted by forced labor in the countryside, Deng built a solid path to modernity. Surely and solidly he pushed, guarding against wars or internal chaos that would set back China hopelessly.

At home I find the photograph of him given me by the Chinese government: In the picture he is smiling. I am laughing. Concerned that I might be taller than Deng, I had bent too far as I extended my hand and nearly fallen over.

Beijing, June 1980:

The few hotels here are overbooked. I am staying in a room outside the city, in barracks formerly occupied by Soviet army officers.

"China is weak, a poor but not insignificant country," Deng is saying. Everywhere, its backwardness is plain to see. "But you can tell the spiritual mood of people by their facial expression," he says. "So it is my hope you will look around."

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