In March 1974, Yang Zhifa, a farmer, along with his five brothers and their neighbour Wang Puzhi, were digging a well in pomegranate and persimmon fields an hour’s bus ride northeast of Xi’an, capital of China’s Shaanxi province. Their shovels hit a terracotta head they mistook for an image of the Buddha. Within months, teams of archaeologists and officials arrived on the scene.
What the farmers had stumbled upon proved to be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th Century. Buried below the fields were thousands of life-sized and deftly sculpted terracotta warriors dating from the 3rd Century BCE reign of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a united China.
Perhaps it was lucky that this subterranean army had been discovered at the tail end of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. In 1969, zealous Red Guards had made a manically destructive raid on the underground tomb of the Ming emperor Wanli (1563-1620) outside Beijng. The skeletons of the emperor and two of his empresses were dragged to the door of the tomb, publicly denounced and burned. This was some years before the People’s Republic began investing in tourism and new museums, some 4,000 of them since the red star set on the Cultural Revolution in 1976.
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