Xi’an and the Terracotta Army

Last weekend we flew to Xi’an, the old imperial capital, about 1000 kilometres northwest of Shanghai. It is the home of the Terracotta Army – or bing ma yong (soldiers horse clay) in Chinese.

Our first impressions of the city were not good. The 40 kilometre drive from the airport took us through roads lined with tower blocks, many under construction or simply empty, signs of the speculative building so characteristic of many of the big cities. But it wasn’t just the urban sprawl that was disheartening. There was also a heavy pawl of misty pollution making everything seem grey and dirty; trees and shrubs were covered in fine dust. The guide book had warned us that Xi’an’s heavy industry makes the city notoriously polluted, and that many visitors are disappointed on first arrival. We were no exceptions.

However, for me, there was immediate compensation. I could understand quite a lot of what was being said, from the taxi driver to the hotel staff, or even just walking down the street. This is because I am learning Chinese as it is spoken in Beijing, and Xi’an is near enough to Beijing for me to be able to hear a difference. Northern Chinese is much more guttural, with rolled ‘rs’; Chinese down here in the south is much softer and more sibilant.

The main purpose of our visit to Xi’an was to see the Terracotta Army, and we had organised a taxi for the day to take us to the site, located about 30 kilometres east of the city. The site is the mausoleum of Emperor Qin, famous for having united the warring states in the 2nd century BCE to make what is now eastern China. Qin dynasty China makes up most of the populated states of China, leaving out the vast areas to the west where only 6% of the mostly non-Han population live today.

The three ‘pits’ or archaeological digs which reveal the Terracotta Army are a truly magnificent sight, especially pit 1, which is thought to contain 4,000 life-size male figures. About 2,000 are visible. The pit is massive – 230 metres by 62 metres. The front ranks of soldiers consist of about 65 life-size men standing in four rows. Behind them, 10 corridors of men standing four abreast, between earthwork partitions, disappear into the distance. Rows of horses are also visible among the soldiers – these once drew wooden chariots. The men were armed with spears, but now stand with right fist outstretched around an invisible spear shaft; the wood has decayed although many bronze spear heads have been found.

The army is not presented to the visitor as a work of art, but that is surely what it is. Although the bodies of the soldiers are made from the same moulds, each face is different. While the shapes of heads and types of headdress can be grouped, each head is unique, with individualised features, hairstyle, expression, facial hair and so on. For me, the army expressed the essence of Chinese art, that is the repetition of a basic form with tiny changes and subtle differences giving each sculpture its uniqueness.

For the Chinese government the Qin mausoleum has other purposes. Primarily it is presented as an additional ‘wonder of the world’ (we have Jacques Chirac to thank for this description). It expresses Chinese nationalism, as Qin, much admired by Mao, is seen as the great unifier – never mind his obvious narcissistic and tyrannical tendencies. In one display area, the visitor is reminded that it was the Communist Party that built the enormous compound and hangar-like roofs over the Terracotta Army and supported the excavations from the 1970s.

In fact, it is interesting to note that the site was reportedly ‘discovered’ by a peasant farmer in 1974 during the Cultural Revolution – i.e. during the period when much of Chinese culture was being systematically destroyed. There is a persuasive argument that the convenient discovery of the site allowed the CCP to redeem itself somewhat by promoting the Terracotta Warriors as an international tourist site after a difficult period. The male soldiers can be seen as ‘the people’ (women don’t count) of the PRC. Religion and class are mostly absent, although there are some signs of hierarchy with officers and a few generals in evidence.

A visit to the Warriors also brings up the issue of authenticity and comparative approaches to archaeology. The visitor is made aware of how many figures and horses were found in fragments and then how Chinese archaeologists go about reconstructing the figures from these bits. You can see the process – some figures are wrapped in what looks like clingfilm as they undergo repair. But this also makes you wonder how much of what you are looking at in the pits is ‘real’ and how much is reconstructed. How many complete figures existed or are they all mended? Does this really matter? It is the sheer number of life size, standing figures that create the unforgettable experience when you are there. Would it be the same if the visitor only saw trenches of broken bodies? I don’t think so.

The next day we had planned to cycle around Xi’an’s city walls, but the pollution discouraged us. Instead, we wandered around the Muslim quarter and bought walnut sweets and dates and found an excellent restaurant that made wonderful spicy deep-fried prawns for lunch. I don’t think we will go back to the city, unless the pollution magically disappears, but seeing the Terracotta Warriors was probably the most intense and memorable cultural experience we have had so far in China.



Last week we nearly lost some more of our clothes; our cleaner accidentally dropped one of Fintan’s shirts down onto the drying rails below. She rushed downstairs and knocked on the door of flat 303, but there was no one in. I retreated to my study and thought no more about it. But Xiao Wu wasn’t to be defeated. Half an hour later, she had retrieved the shirt by constructing a ‘fishing line’, from some knitting wool she had found in my sewing bag. My story of Little Cat goes Fishing helped us to share her creative solution.
This is a simple example of the vibrant ingenuity and inventiveness which is much in evidence all around us. It came to my mind when I chanced on an article by the renowned Harvard educational psychologist, Howard Gardner. Gardner is a champion of creativity in education. His article was sparked by the experience of a hotel receptionist in China insisting on showing Gardner’s toddler how to post their door key fob into the slot correctly, rather than letting the child discover how to do it himself. For Gardner this was a paradigm about the differences between Chinese and American pedagogy. The former is all about learning basic skills and getting things right, while the latter is about creative thinking and critical skills. Theoretically, the Chinese approach shouldn’t lead to a nation of individual entrepreneurs, or to people who, if their driving is anything to go by, are very reluctant to follow rules. And yet it seems to.

The contrast between learning styles is ever present this year in my Mandarin class. The students from Korea and Indonesia are the best at Chinese. They listen hard, repeat what the teacher tells them and do the homework assiduously. The British students, meanwhile, refuse to say the required sentence if they don’t completely understand the grammar or the unfamiliar constructions and word order. They frequently question the teacher. For example, in Chinese you can make a sentence that literally means, ‘Room can surf the internet.’ One student objected to the confusion this could cause. For him it sounded like an abstract novel. The teacher and the East Asian students look mystified. Of course, given my western background, I can’t but help ask questions too, but as time goes by I realise that the best way to make progress in Chinese is to suspend your disbelief, forget creativity, put your head down and just learn it! Rote learning is necessary because until you know about 500 characters (we are on around 200) you can’t deduce meaning from new words.

Today I went to visit our local primary school (1,400 pupils) located just at the south gate of the compound, to find out if I could work there next semester. I was accompanied by Alice as my interpreter. I cycle past the school every morning and it was exciting to actually get through the serious security gates guarded by two janitors, and enter the school yard. A deputy with responsibility for the curriculum talked to us. It took some time to convince her that I didn’t want to teach whole classes (45 children in each) on my own or be paid for my work. My main aim was to support the English teachers. She gradually warmed up and agreed to take my CV, although it wasn’t in Chinese, and said she’d talk to the head teacher and get back to us. If the internship comes off, I am hoping that I will be able to see first-hand how children learn Chinese and other languages. Of course, there will be many other things to observe, not least the attitude of the staff and pupils to me as a foreigner and native English speaker. Maybe we will also get to talk about creativity!


Last Sunday night, just after we got back from Japan, we were disturbed by the sound of extremely heavy rain – it seemed as if we were somehow caught in the middle of a waterfall. We knew that typhoon Fitow was on its way across the South China Sea and although there was no wind, we had obviously been caught in the outer areas of the storm.
On Monday morning we looked out of our balcony to see large puddles forming on the compound’s paths and roads. There was some movement and we ventured forth rather optimistically on our bicycles, intent on cycling the three miles to the university campus. While we were fully dressed for the weather in sensible waterproofs, locals were in shorts and flip-flops. Their attire was actually much better suited to the conditions, especially as it was still about 30 degrees.
Once we had crossed the first main intersection, we realised our foolishness. Cars and buses were still driving on through about a foot of water, but cycle paths were impassable. The camber of the road meant the cycle lanes filled up with water, quickly becoming shallow canals. At the end of the mall we stopped and watched e-bikers becoming submerged in waist high water. The new development had somehow created a large hollow and hadn’t included sufficient drainage. We turned back.
The rain continued fairly relentlessly during Monday and Tuesday. News came back from the university. The river on campus had burst its banks, flooding the High Street (the row of student shops) and even the provost’s house, which is built picturesquely, but impractically on an island. The power system was likely to break down and there was no hot water in the student dorms. I received a message from Student Affairs, which warned me not to attempt to touch ‘broken high voltage wire.’ Some classes were cancelled, if staff lived off campus. The Ningbo authorities closed down schools, construction stopped and buses stopped running. One of the unexpected benefits of the flooding was the unusual silence – it made me realise how much local noise is caused by traffic. The air also felt a lot cleaner – presumably the rain cleared the air and there was far less pollution from cars and building works.
The higher education zone, including our university campus, is built on a newly developed, flat area to the south of the city, criss-crossed with rivers and canals. The rain, combined with unusually high tides, meant that these drainage channels quickly burst their banks, and even as the weather improved, the flooding got worse.
By Wednesday we were suffering from cabin fever and Fintan asked his PA to try to arrange transport for us. Our usual car company refused to come – it had already ‘lost’ a couple of cars. Eventually Alice found a taxi and we mustered at Metro gate, with another colleague. The car was a people carrier, which sat quite high off the ground, but the driver was timid and didn’t want to risk a wet engine. When he considered the road was too wet he did a quick u-turn to find another route, or sometimes climbed up onto the pavement and dodged between trees and the odd pedestrian and e-biker. By the time we reached the campus, the water was only about 6 inches deep and we sailed through at a stately pace.
Once good weather returned at the end of the week, the water disappeared surprisingly quickly. We had friends arriving at the airport on Thursday, and there was no problem in arranging a car to collect them. However, they told us that the view from the air showed that large areas of the province were still covered in water. Indeed, a colleague’s PA who lives about 20 miles south of Ningbo, told him that she was searching for a boat so that she and her family could go and buy some rice. We suburbanites had clearly got off lightly. The worst shortage we experienced was for bottled water. The water shop family acted out to me how they couldn’t get water delivered because of the depth of the flood. Nevertheless, it was cause for reflection that something as apparently straightforward as heavy rain could bring the mighty march of Chinese urbanisation to a halt.

Japan and dark tourism

The Chinese government do their best to incite popular hatred of Japan among the public, orchestrating demonstrations against Japanese products when they need a diversion from unpopular policies at home. It is often said that one of the reasons the government is able to do this is because of the perception that Japan has not apologised for the atrocities it committed during the occupation of China in the 1930s and 40s.

We have just spent a week on holiday in Japan on Kyushu, the most southerly of its four largest islands. We took a day trip to ill-fated Nagasaki. From the station you can travel on the reconstructed ‘street car’ – a replica of the early 20th century tram – up to the Atomic Bomb Museum. This is located 200 metres from the epicentre of the explosion of August 9th, 1945. The huge crater is now the Peace Park.

The museum gives an unflinching view of the moment of the explosion – 11.02am – and its aftermath. This is history from the point of view of the victims. There is a replica of the bomb itself and the crew of the plane that dropped it are pointedly named. Exhibits include contorted tram lines and girders, blistered roof tiles, shadows burned onto wooden panels, melted bottles and coins and many photos and models of the terrible destruction. Close-up coloured photos show examples of the scarring that developed on the 75,000 wounded. Another 75,000 people died instantly.

But what of the context for the bombing? What about some acknowledgement of Japan’s actions leading up to 1945? This was difficult to find. The museum included some video footage of interviews with POWs and newsreels of the invasions forces sent to China, Burma and Malaysia, but this was sparse. Once through the harrowing rooms about the bombing itself the visitor is swept into displays about the number of A-bombs throughout the world and various non-proliferation treaties. Nagasaki now leads on peace initiatives to get rid of the atomic bomb.

Although the tone of the museum was, inevitably I suppose, anti-American, you only have to go outside and walk down the street to see how Japan benefited from its traumatic encounter with the super power. The widespread affluence and high standard of living is striking, especially in contrast to a similar sized Chinese city. People look healthier and more confident, presumably the result of 60 years of better food and widespread education. I imagine that the school children we saw on the tram, despite having to wear 19th century style school uniforms, would be pro-America.

The city sits at the western edge of Japan and has a long history of trade and interaction with the west, even when the rest of the country had been closed to outsiders. We next visited the Glover Garden, a series of western style houses set in beautiful parkland above the port. American ships arrived at the end of the nineteenth century, apparently bringing a less destructive encounter for Nagasaki with the west. However,one house in the garden belonged to Thomas Glover, an entrepreneur who introduced railway engineering to Japan, and is said to be the setting for Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’. It was easy to imagine the abandoned geisha gazing out over the stunning view towards the ocean and dreaming that her heartless lover would return.

The second half of our week was sent in rural Kyushu at a small spa town beside the sea, called Ibusuki. We stayed in a ryokan, a hotel full of traditional Japanese rooms (tatami mats and futons), serving local food and with its own baths supplied by the local hot springs. Ibusuki is famous for its sand baths – you lie on the naturally heated sandy beach and are buried in hot sand for about 10 minutes. A strange but relaxing experience, which seems to get rid of all muscular aches and pains and certainly increases your heart beat.

We hired a taxi for the day and were driven up into the mountains above Ibusuki. After visiting seven small and exquisite gardens, built by local samurai in the 18th century, we continued our excursion into dark tourism at the Museum for Kamikaze pilots. This area trained young men to fly on kamikaze missions as a last ditch attempt to defend Japan at the end of the war, against the US navy as it advanced up through the Pacific.

For me, this experience was more moving than the Nagasaki atomic bomb museum. Each of the 1026 young pilots was commemorated by a stone lantern outside the building and by a photograph inside. These black and white photos -about A4 size – lined the walls. Pull-out trays beneath contained their final letters and prayers. There was almost no commentary in English so we couldn’t understand much of the nuance of what was being presented. On the one hand it seemed to be a poignant memorial to a terrible episode in Japanese history; on the other the planes and uniforms on display could have been said to glorify war and sacrifice.

The tourist leaflet assured us that the agenda of the museum was to ensure that the death missions could never happen again. Is that what people thought as they went around? How did the museum differ from say the Imperial War Museum in London and Manchester? How can any museum full of the equipment of war avoid glorifying it?

We noticed a significant scattering of Chinese tourists in Japan. Clearly the Chinese government propaganda is not entirely successful, and with their new money Chinese people are able to travel and see the old enemy country for themselves. I wonder what they make of it and if they think Japan has come to terms with and faced the consequences of its military past.