Peeling Onions

There’s the story; then there are the stories.

In 221 B.C.E., or there about, Qin Shi Huang united the then very sparse and warring kingdoms of the Far East. Qin led the unification of what would later be hailed The People’s Republic of China. Qin did that. He became China’s first Emperor. That was the Qin dynasty.

I ask Johnny, our guide at the Terracotta Army Museum, if Xi’an is cold in the winter. It’s September and over 35°C outside. Inside, the clay warriors are dressed for real winter: heavy boots, long and stiff garments, scarves tied tight at the neck.

“Back then there were less people,” Johnny says, “so it was much colder, and the rivers were much wider. Now they are small.” Johnny is quick to respond to my questions. He’s an expert on Xi’an, a guide for over ten years. His feet are just as fast as his responses. I have a hard time keeping up with him, which has been my experience in China in general. China’s like New York City on Methamphetamine. I kind of love it.

When I ask Johnny why there are no women warriors, he sort of grins and cups his hands over his mouth, like he’s got a secret to tell, but then blurts, “At that time, you know, the woman is a slave. You could have many wives. Qin had more than 3,000 concubines.” There are terracotta horses and carriages and warriors and commanders and generals, but no terracotta women. That’s the story.

Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the Victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. On a television outside a megamall on North Street, just by the Bell and Drum Towers in Xi’an, I watched the victory parade for a few minutes with a gathering of other passersby. There’s a three-car procession down the center of Beijing, passing Tiananmen Square and the large portrait of Mao Zedong at the front of the Forbidden City. Mao’s portrait is like sign language. President Xi Jinping stands, always stoically, out the roof of the front vehicle. His suited torso, carefully parted hair, and steady head stays still, almost like he’s a hologram. Or a clay statue. There are no people on the street. Only straight lines of tanks and tankers and missiles and more tanks and soldiers and crisp blue skies. Xi’an is grey. As the President’s car passes, he yells to the soldiers, only his lips move, and they reply on queue with shouts and sternness. It’s all in Mandarin. I only watch for a few minutes. This is not my parade.

Later that night I watch the Gala Event on CCTV 1. It’s a show. There’s another procession. This time there’s a very content, but composed Chinese crowd. Parading are foreign diplomats and state VIPs. I see Putin; he’s walking at the front with Jinping. I try to guess where the other delegates and diplomats come from. I see Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, maybe. I don’t see President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry. There are Chinese war vets: hunched and humble and smiling and wearing heavy, military green garb. Are they the modern day Terracotta Army? The diplomats shake hands on the way to their seats. They settle, and the theatrics begin. There’s dancing and singing and more dancing and singing. I think there might be more dancers than soldiers in China. I’m awestruck, really; the VMAs and the OSCARS and the GRAMMYS got nothing on this show. The most compelling part is the choreographed dance about the Rape of Nanjing. It’s a massacre: against all Chinese women, it appears. It’s intensely beautiful, but I don’t think about China or Japan. I think about humanity. Stories.

In 1974, a Chinese farmer, trying to dig a new well, struck the mighty, clay figures. He didn’t know what they were. He called his neighbors. They thought they must have been cursed. It must be bad luck. A few more calls. Government officials investigate. Archeologists bring their brushes and trowels and shovels. No, no, no, this is them: the mystical and mythical figures who were carved and kilned two millennia ago to commemorate and protect China’s first Emperor. Qin Shi Huang longed for immortality. The warriors face east, toward the rising sun, and are a part of Qin’s larger Mausoleum and tomb in the Lishan Mountains that faces the setting west. After the mighty Emperor’s death, his son was, “a stupid leader,” Johnny says. One dynasty ended, another began, and the Terracotta Army were forgotten, lost in history’s scrolls.

Today, the museum has three buildings. The first, and largest, is the size of two football fields and holds the most original and restored warriors. Each face is different. The torsos are hollow. Johnny says, “sometimes the artists are smart.” In the kiln, the hand-carved clay figures had to exude heat and fume or they would explode within the extreme temperatures: hence the hollow torsos. The heads were added later.

Johnny explains how the actual clay was brought to this part of the region. “Slaves carried it here from the south.” The women, I think. Today, archaeologists send the extra, crumbled clay to a factory to make replicas of the warriors. They deliver to America, if you want. Johnny says, “When President Clinton visited, he was offered a free one.” Clinton refused, saying he wanted to pay for it. I ask Johnny how much it would cost to buy a terracotta warrior. He said 10,000 RMB. About 1,500 US dollars. I cannot confirm President Clinton has one in his house, but Johnny is pretty certain he does. It might be at their front door. Maybe in the office. Stories.

I wonder about China, which is to say I wonder about my country: the United States of America. Original and restored and replicated. Stories. What about reenactments? What about retribution? What about the Trail of Tears and Tuskegee and Katrina? What about flags? Infamous stories. What do you do with the infamous stories? What about Donald Trump? That’s the best you can do, America? Donald Trump? Rich, white men jockeying for immortality. Stories: past, present, and future.

They all look the same, the Terracotta warriors. Today, I could have purchased an exact replica of a warrior made of the same clay, from the same land as the original warriors. I’ll take a woman warrior, please, on a horse, carrying a bow and arrow, shooting his story. How’s that for reenactment?

Peel stories, like onions.

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