Xian: Who’d be a Farmer? (and how to spot a fake) China, March 2013

The gentleman stuck behind the table won’t make eye contact with me. I’m sure he’s heard the introduction given by our guide hundreds if not thousands of times – “the man who discovered the Terracotta Army”. It’s not easy to tell what he’s thinking, but he doesn’t have the look of a man with great job satisfaction.  I wonder if he ever regrets the life-changing discovery of that first statue.


With an estimated 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, each having its own intricate and unique details, the extent and the detail of the terracotta army of Emperor Qin is incredible, but I find this man’s story just as fascinating.  When the significance of the findings from March 1974 became known, I’m sure that he and the six other farmers credited with making the discovery thought they had found an escape from some of the realities of life under Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Almost 40 years ago, a team of seven farmers were drilling a well in Xiyang village, 35km east of the provincial capital, Xi’an. Their names: Yang Zhifa, Yang Quanyi, Yang Peiyan, Yang Xinman, Yang Wenhai, Yang Yanxin and Wang Puzhi.

Yang Zhifa is regarded as the first to make a discovery, uncovering a piece of old terracotta and thinking he’d found a kiln. When the shoulders and torso of a statue were unearthed, the farmers realised that this wasn’t a kiln, and perhaps they had found a temple.

Further discoveries resulted in three cartloads of statues and fragments being taken to a local museum for analysis, and possible sale. These were dated as Qin dynasty, from the 3rd century BC, and the farmers were paid CNY10 (yuan) per cart – the equivalent of one year’s salary.  As required by law, they were required to hand over this sum, and in return they received 13 fen (a fen being a hundredth of a yuan) that they could use to buy food or other goods.

As excavations over the next few years uncovered further warriors, chariots, horses, military officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians, land that for centuries had provided the village with its livelihood was claimed by the government to build a museum on the site. Families were forced to move to new homes a mile away and had to pay for the construction. Homes were demolished to make way for exhibition halls and gift shops, and the 2,000-year-old village was all but obliterated.

In an interview with Swissinfo at the time of an exhibition in Bern, Yang Zhifa admits to having received 5,000 yuan in compensation for his 167 square metres of land. He was given a three-room flat in Qinyong, but the hostility from other villagers blaming him for the disruption to their lives caused him to move again.

Yang didn’t return to the Terracotta Army until 1995 when the manager of the museum’s gift shop asked him to autograph books. His initial salary was 300 yuan a month, which had increased to 1,000 per month by the time of his retirement. Hanging on the wall next to him would be a huge photo of former US president Bill Clinton meeting him in June 1998.

Yang Zhifa

Yang Zhifa

Yang Zhifa and Bill Clinton

Yang Zhifa and Bill Clinton

Knowing the President would want to talk to the man who discovered the army, Yang was taught a few English phrases. On the day of President Clinton’s visit, instead of asking “How are you?”, he asked the President “Who are you?”. President Clinton’s response? “I’m Hillary’s husband.” Yang had been told to expect the reply “Fine”, so replied in turn with “Me too”.

Poverty and ill-health were making life intolerable for other members of the original team. Wang Puzhi suffered from heart disease but had no money to pay for medicine, and hanged himself in 1997. Within three years, the two youngest members of the team had died in their 50s, jobless and penniless.

Yang Zhifa and friends

Yang Zhifa and friends

Yang Zhifa’s increased celebrity status and earnings was making the other farmers envious. ‘”I found the soldiers,” asserted Yang Quanyi to the New York Times in 1998. ”Don’t believe what other people tell you.”

”If he can claim he found it, so can you!” was Yang Zhifa’s reply. ”You really want to know the truth? Ask him what time of day the discovery was made. Eh? Ask him what day and what time, and see what he says.”  The farming team from 1974 had clearly become not so unified.

“Officials and businessmen have made a lot of money from the Terracotta Army, but not us,” said Quanyi, who had been signing books for nine years, having spent three months learning how to write his own name. Villagers say almost all the compensation paid by the government was siphoned off by officials. “We got nothing for the discovery.”

Yang Quanyi

Yang Quanyi

In 2007, then 79-year-old Yang Quanyi told the Daily Mail that he and the other surviving farmers were earning £2 a day for their signature services.

Now that Yang Zhifa no longer works in the souvenir shops, new faces who have nothing to do with the discovery claim to be the original farmers. Yang Xi’An sits underneath a banner describing himself as the man who made the discovery of the Army, and to prove it, he has  a large photograph of him shaking hands with former President Clinton during his 1998 visit.

Yang Xian.jpg

Yang Xian

Yang Xian on sale now

Yang Xian on sale now

According to the Daily Mail in 2007, more than a dozen people were interviewed in Yang village, confirming the man as an impostor.  The conveniently named Yang Xi’an was the Manager of a factory making replicas of the Terracotta Army in 1998 and also received a visit from President Clinton. The image of this handshake has been convincing and conning gullible tourists ever since.

And this is the face that I see, but who won’t look at me. Yang Zhifa is still alive, but it’s several months before a google search will show that it’s Yang Xi’an in his seat today. Some things you can’t control in China.

Yang Wanted

Yang Wanted

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15 Responses to Xian: Who’d be a Farmer? (and how to spot a fake) China, March 2013

  1. Jordan says:

    Great info. I heard about this situation when I went there, but didn’t have as much intel as you did. Thanks for sharing and for stopping by my site.

  2. hcyip says:

    Very interesting read. I knew about the guy who found the warriors and that he used to be at the terracotta museum, but not about all this. Thanks for liking my post too.

  3. Wow! Very interesting 🙂

    • westiedad says:

      Hi Cristin – it was very strange in the bookshop when our Guide was introducing him, because he just seemed too young to have been a farmer in the early seventies. It would be interesting to see who’s there signing books in 30 years. Some other guy called Yang I guess.

  4. mikethepsych says:

    Great story and pictures, thank you

  5. Our guide told us the book was being signed by the original finder of the warriors. One of the other farmers was signing in another building. Shows you can’t believe everything you are told, even by your trustworthy guide. We only have a photo of the back of his head and the colour of his hair is black, not grey. Thing is he looked just like the photo on the wall in the other building of the original guy. It certainly made me buy the book so their strategy worked. I’ll put it down to experience and send our guide (who comes from Xian) an email.

    • westiedad says:

      Hi Linda – sorry to take so long to reply. Life can sometimes take over blogging! It’s a shame when you’ve been duped, but I hope you still enjoyed Xi’an. We had a great time in China, and we were made very welcome everywhere. For us the “signature swindle” was just one of the challenges of travel, and it didn’t spoil anything. Mind you, I didn’t buy the book! I hope that your book brings back good memories – of the soldiers, if not the signatory 🙂

  6. Pingback: China; a Journey of 5,000 Years | elliottsinkorea

  7. Great blog and wish I had read it before we were conned! I’m intrigued though to know if the guides that spruik the story actually believe it is the original farmer or also know it is an imposter. With the tight control of information in the country, I could not be sure if our guide genuinely believed it or not.

    • westiedad says:

      Hi Elliots – I enjoyed your post on China. You sure do find the weird and wonderful in that antiques market in Beijing. And It certainly is hard to know what to believe sometimes, especially when the locals aren’t exactly encouraged to question too much. Despite that, we still enjoyed ourselves. We had some Wall to ourselves, we stayed in a hutong, and ate some very weird meals. It was a shame about the stunt farmer in Xi’an, but he probably doesn’t have a lot of say there either.

      I look forward to following your blog

  8. kalison0515 says:

    I enjoyed this story! I wish the farmers had been compensated fairly and that the state paid for the villagers’ relocation. Unbelievable that they had to move at their own expense.

  9. Sylvia says:

    I wasn’t conned – I expected they had a daily Rota of “Farmers” to sign the books and have their picture taken with tourists. The one in my picture was definitley too young to be the original. Goes to show how the guides give all the spiel with straight faces which no-one could believe is true ! We just laughed and hoped some of the money spent gets to the locals.

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