06/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

China Journal, May 16, 2009: Terra-Cotta Soldiers, Islam, and Pollution

China Journal, May 16, 2009

We have been tourists for the last two days, traveling from Guangzhou to Xi-an, site of the capital of China for 1,300 years for 13 dynasties and known as the city of Kings and Emperors.

Crowded two and a half hour flight; we were the only Westerners on board.

Tourism has grown tremendously here since the discovery of the Terra-Cotta soldiers, in 1974 (the site was opened in 1979). Whatever photographs one may have seen of this site, they cannot convey the enormous scope of this terra-cotta army, which was constructed between 2221 and 2006 BC. Pit #1 is the size of two football fields. At one end, there are rows of reconstructed soldiers, some as high as eight feet, (averaging 6–7 feet) divided by clay barriers. Behind them are the remains of broken soldiers, and behind them are the covered soldiers, not yet unearthed. All the soldiers, chariots and horses were destroyed when a marauding army of angry farmers, tired of being taxed, rebelled against the Emperor and burned the wooden roof, which covered the army. The roof collapsed breaking everything into millions of pieces. It is expected that 6,000 pottery soldiers and horses will eventually be unearthed there. This is a real army, with weapons, officers, and guards—ready for battle. The Emperor wanted to be sure that he would be fully prepared to remain victorious in the afterlife.

The soldiers were discovered by a farmer who was digging a deep well during a drought and came upon some fragments. He immediately reported his discovery to the government (legend had it that a curse would fall on anyone who revealed this site) who treats him like a national monument. He is now 80 years old and can not read or write, but learned to write his name and shows up at the site from time to time. We were lucky enough to meet him and he signed his name in the souvenir book, an unassuming, quiet man. The sign next to him said, "no photos."

What to make of this eighth wonder of the world?

Emperor Qin may have been the first, but not the last to create a huge military-industrial complex. Some 7,000 workers and craftsmen labored for 37 years to build this huge construction site which contains two other pits and an untouched mausoleum which looks like a mountain—all for the afterlife.

Farmers paid an 80% tax and each family had to provide a man to work for to the Emperor. No wonder they rebelled. The Emperor was an egomaniac, so much so that he searched for a magical elixir to enable him to live forever. Unfortunately, he thought he discovered it—a blend of mercury, gold and jade dust. It killed him at the age of 50 while he was touring his kingdom. He is credited with uniting China with a single alphabet and currency.

The effect of entering this archeological site is magical. The figures, each one with a different facial expression, come to life. Every detail of their armor, shoelaces, hairstyles, and scarves is cast and carved with perfect detail. Those who are still partially buried seem to be waking up from a long dream, their heads rising from the clay blanket in which they seem to be wrapped. The bodies of the warriors and horse were cast, but the heads were chiseled and added last. The models were thought to be their fellow workers. Some have wry smiles, others are proud; none look afraid. The archers, both standing and sitting, are caught in mid-motion, ready to release their crossbows. They were originally painted in bright colors, but even now, in their light brown clay (unique in China, taken from a river-bed) they seem alive, monumental and powerful.

Such a crazy idea, to put all that wealth and energy into a tomb for the afterlife, and yet, that idea is now a gargantuan work of art that gives us a clue of a civilization that existed almost 5,000 years ago.

China, which has been so quick to tear down the old and build up the new, no matter what the social or environmental cost, recognized this treasure for what it is—a link to a great past. There are a series of photographs of world leaders who have visited the site, including Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton, who came here in 1998. They were given the privilege of entering the pit and standing between the soldiers. Entry is usually restricted to archeologists who painstakingly search for each tiny shard to put it in the right place. The result is, ironically, an afterlife, if not for the Emperor, then for the soldiers themselves.

Our next stop was to a Moslem neighborhood and a revered Mosque, which looked more Chinese than Muslim. I had not expected to see this blend of the ancient Arab world and Chinese cultures here. To get there we went through narrow streets lined with a bustling market, women in head scarves turning large walnuts in a round metal pot with salt to increase the flavor, sticky rice sold from push carts, leeche nuts, dates, pyramids of ripe fruit, and all sorts of kites made a pattern of beautiful colors.

As we wended our way to the mosque, parts of which go back to the opening of the Silk Road, men wearing white round hats were leaving from prayer. Moslems form the biggest minority population in China and they seem to have religious freedom. Only Moslems could go inside the prayer hall, which looked just like a typical ancient Chinese building except for an Arabic sign over the door, and which can hold 700 people. We just caught a glimpse of the brightly colored prayer rugs lining the floor.

Our next stop was the Xi-an museum and the Big Wild Goose pagoda, surrounded by a peaceful garden and filled with sweet smells, a refuge from the smog filled city. Xi-an, unlike Guangzhou, has preserved some of its character—there are two cities, one inside the wall and the other outside. The inner city has made an effort at historic preservation requiring that buildings inside the wall retain a Chinese character. The extent of building outside the wall was only made clear to me when we went to the airport and saw a new "high technology" center that had sprung up just a few years ago—one high-rise after another—apartment buildings and offices seemed to multiply like tall rabbits.

The extent of pollution is evident here as well. I thought it might be better in this part of China—if it is, the difference is barely noticeable—no stars.

Paul Krugman's visit to China, which coincided with ours, focused on the rapid increase in green house gas emissions here and the disastrous consequences. China is not likely to change its policy soon. Four hundred new cars are registered every day in Xi-an, a city of 8 million, our guide told us. Yesterday's headline in the English language China Daily read, "China Stance on Climate Talks Firm, Nation urges rich countries to cut gas emission by up to 40%."

Discouraging news. China claims it is a developing nation and has the right to continue to develop full speed ahead. This is the position they are taking to the UN Conference on climate change in Copenhagen in December. How they can be blind to the destruction this is causing is hard to understand.

The paper today announced a visit by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in June. Describing Chinese-American relations, the heading read, "Two grasshoppers by one string."

Interesting what stories make it into the Chinese press. Three columns, half a page long, were filled with a picture of President Obama giving a diploma to a blond graduate at Arizona State with the full story about how the university did not think he had yet completed a body of work.

Lunch was a special treat; an imperial dumpling banquet. Amazing small dumplings, some shaped like chickens, some like flowers, and one delicious one in the shape of a walnut, filled with sweet chopped nuts. They were works of art for the eye and the palate.

It will be hard to go to a Chinese restaurant in the US after tasting the food here. Lots of fresh vegetables, intricately spiced flavors, all delicate and delicious. Our guide told us that southern Chinese food is different from northern, where we are now.

She said with distaste that it is known in southern China, they eat everything with four legs, except the table and chairs. "We never eat cats and dogs," she said.

The Chinese are superstitious—mostly about luck, happiness, death, and fortune. There is no fourteenth floor in buildings. Instead in our hotel there was a floor marked 13A. Four is an unlucky number because it sounds like death. The best number is 8, which means big fortune, 6 means happiness and 9 longevity.

Our Xi-an guide told us we were going to modern China by going to Beijing. Modern is just five to six hundred years ago.

Xi-an, on the other hand, is 5,000 years old. We were reminded of its age when we went to the Xi-an Forest of Stone museum "which is like a book" and holds several thousand stone tablets, going back to Confucius. Our guide told us several times that the Chinese do not revere him because of his religion but as a philosopher.

The final stop before lunch and the ride to the airport was at a jade museum. Xi-an is known for its special jade from the riverbed. Jade has been valued for thousands of years, it is the connection between God and nature, water and mountains, and helps "keep away evil," the museum guide told us. It seems we believed him because my husband bought me a beautiful translucent jade bracelet.

This was originally posted at Chelsea Green.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.