Amid China's clay warriors As 9-day visit begins, Clinton to review first emperor's army

June 25, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

XIAN, China -- China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, was so worried about his many enemies that he ordered workers to craft some 7,000 life-size terra-cotta soldiers to protect him in the afterlife.

As President Clinton arrives in China's ancient capital today to begin a nine-day state visit that has become the most controversial of his presidency, he may feel equally besieged.

Human rights advocates have accused Clinton of selling out American values by agreeing to attend a welcoming ceremony on Saturday across from Beijing's Tiananmen Square, site of the pro-democracy demonstration crushed by Chinese soldiers in 1989.

House Republicans have urged Clinton to call off his trip until they get to the bottom of allegations that secret U.S. satellite technology was improperly provided to the Chinese, which could threaten national security.

In Xian, there have been recent demonstrations -- unrelated to Clinton's visit -- by various groups, including people protesting the government's failure to provide new housing after evicting them for a redevelopment project.

With the tight security that authorities have wrapped around Clinton's visit, the president is unlikely to see evidence of popular discontent.

Tomorrow, he is to visit Emperor Qin's army, which lies about an hour's drive northeast of this city in Central China and is regarded as one of the great archaeological finds of the past quarter-century.

Along with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, the terra-cotta warriors are one of China's most popular tourist attractions and drew 1.5 million people last year. The last president to visit was Ronald Reagan in 1984.

The figures -- 14 of which were displayed at the Walters Art Gallery last year -- were crafted more than 2,000 years ago around the time Qin united China in 221 B.C. A ruthless autocrat who burned Confucian works and survived two assassination attempts, Qin is credited with standardizing written languages as well as weights and measures.

His terra-cotta army was, in some respects, a huge public works project. Over more than three decades, about 700,000 workers are believed to have labored to mold the warriors and construct Qin's massive mausoleum, which has yet to be excavated.

Elaborately carved with different faces and hairstyles, the soldiers stand shoulder to shoulder in shallow pits as if waiting for an attack. The largest pit, the size of several football fields and inside what looks like an airplane hangar, contains more than 2,000 reconstructed warriors. Many of the soldiers were fTC destroyed and partially burned by rebels when the dynasty collapsed after Qin's death in 210 B.C..

The figures show remarkable attention to detail. On the sole of an archer's shoe is an elaborate tread composed of several hundred circles. Archaeologists have found evidence suggesting that each terra-cotta infantryman held a wooden bow and carried a quiver of arrows. And at least 85 potters etched their names in the clay armor of the warriors they made.

In addition to soldiers, there are charioteers, horses and generals, at least one of which stands about as tall as Michael Jordan. The figures are far larger than Chinese men of 2,000 years ago, who are thought to have stood about 5 feet 5 inches tall on average.

After the terra-cotta army was finished, workers covered it with a timber roof and the site eventually disappeared beneath the soil. Over the centuries, people have unearthed pieces of the warriors without seeming to realize their historic value.

In the early part of the 20th century, villagers dug up the head of a terra-cotta figure while trying to sink a well. When they failed to find water, they blamed the head and hung it from a tree, where it was whipped and eventually smashed.

Villagers digging another well in 1974 came across clay shards as well as a brick floor and arrowheads. This time, news made it to the head archaeologist in the county. The farmer was rewarded with a few farm implements and the grand excavation began.

Given the cultural significance of the site, graverobbing was inevitable. In 1986, a man stole the head of a general from an excavation pit and was caught trying to sell it for about $60,000. He was put to death in a much-publicized execution.

"After he was shot, this place was very peaceful," says Wu Yongqi, director of the Museum of the Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses, as the site is officially called.

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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