Friday, October 23, 2009
The Terracotta Hoax
It's probably China's most famous archaeological find - an emperor's burial pits that contain an army of 6,000 life-size terracotta soldiers. The Terracotta Warriors now tour the world in displays to promote China's cultural heritage. The closest we'd been to this phenomenon was in 2003 in Sao Paolo. But the queue at the museum was snaking around the building in temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius and we couldn't face the wait. Never mind - we're in China now. So it came as something of a shock to discover that the Chinese Government admitted the whole thing was a hoax only a few weeks before we arrived in Xi'an. The timing of the announcement was interesting. On the day that the world's press was dissecting the news of Michael Jackson's demise, a government spokesman was announcing the arrest and trial of provincial heads for "intentionally misleading the people of the world". Apparently, Xi'an party bosses, searching for something to boost tourism and the city's prominence, dreamt up the idea of "discovering" the warriors back in the mid 70's. A local farmer was thus paid to dig for a well and, purely by chance, locate the very edge of the largest burial pit. To ensure the elaborate hoax was not called, the perpetrators also went to great lengths to make sure that each terracotta soldier was individually produced - the site is famous for the fact that no two soldiers are alike. Very clever. Indeed it appears that no-one outside of about twenty people realised the truth. Thus, UNESCO even granted the site World Heritage status in the 90's.We visited the huge site anyway. The scale is impressive - buildings have been constructed over the three main burial pits and work is "ongoing". In other words, only a small amount of the estimated whole has been uncovered, reconstructed (all of the soldiers are apparenty in pieces) and displayed. The soldiers stand in situ, in the pits, about five metres below the viewing balcony. This puts you at a distance from the pieces. The Chinese tourists' enthusiasm is undiminished though - group after group push through the entrance and crush up to the balcony. No-one appears to look at what is in front of them - the vital thing is to capture a few photos on camera or mobile before being shepherded off to the next building. There are four soldiers that have been put in display cases for closer viewing. They are magnificent, although none really show the colours that each figure was allegedly originally painted. On the way out we pass a hundred souvenir stalls all selling remarkably good replicas of the Warriors. Mmmm. Bit of a giveaway really.National press coverage of the hoax lasted for a couple of days only, and global coverage amounted to short paragraphs from Reuters and other press agencies. It's estimated that 10,000 people are executed annually in China, more than in the rest of the world put together. Recent death penalties in the news include two men involved in the melamine-in-milk-powder scandal last year, a couple of men trafficking children and nine men involved in the riots and deaths in Urumqi. Party officials involved in corruption seem to get lighter punishment - a proper telling-off and a hundred lines of "I must not take bribes". This might explain why party membership is on the rise. But for the hoaxers of Xi'an this might not be enough to save them.