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.
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’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.”
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.
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.