By Humphrey Hawksley
In central China amid the lush and rolling countryside around Xian, lies one of the world's most intriguing archaeological mysteries.
In 1974 peasant farmers working the fields discovered life-size terracotta warriors on the east side of the tomb of China' first emperor Qin Shi Huang. As the land around was excavated, more and more warriors were uncovered - archers, kneeling and standing; fighting men in battle robes, cavalry soldiers and chariots.
Many remain buried, but it's thought there could be some 8,000 soldier in the terracotta army together with 130 chariots drawn by 520 horses. The craftsmanship is so skilled that no two figures are the same. Each has individual movement and facial expression - the horses neighing, the reins hanging loose, the sleeves of the warriors fluttering in the wind and the strings of the archers' bows, taught and ready to fire. The work is intricate enough to show an umbrella holder in a chariot and the mechanism of a crossbow whose engineering was thirteen hundred years ahead of similar weapons invented in Europe.
The terracotta army is designed with the same military formations that Qin Shi Huang used to conquer and unify China more than two thousand years ago (221 b.c).
Across his vast newly-acquired territory, he unified weights, measures, currency and language. He used half a million labourers to build the Great Wall, then even more to build his mausoleum and warrior army to protect it. He raised taxes like a bureaucrat while seeking his own immortality like a god.
But while the terracotta warriors attract a million visitors a year, the tomb itself remains unexcavated. No-one is certain what lies beneath the landmark mound on the Lishan mountain 22 miles east of Xian.
It is as if the body of US President John Kennedy had been kept secretly in a mausoleum surrounded by the trappings of America in the early sixties - nuclear missiles, Chevrolet cars, Marilyn Munroe, Jackie, the Vietnam War, and the space missions - and two thousand years later there was a chance to excavate and find out what exactly had made the most powerful nation on earth tick.
The public debate on excavation of Qin's tomb balances between archaeological curiosity and whether technology is advanced enough to protect the cultural relics found inside. Politics are also involved.
Qin remains revered as a strong ruler. He was a hero Mao Tse-tung, the ruthless founder of modern China, who himself remains an untouchable hero to many despite his record of brutality and destruction. Indeed, the recently fallen mayor of Chongqing, Bo Xi Lai, bolstered his popularity by sending out SMS text messages quoting Maoist slogans
Much has changed in China. Much has not.
We still know very little.
The talk of what's concealed inside the tomb of Qin Shi Huang is of glittering jade, gold and precious stones, of rivers of mercury and of warriors with crossbows ready to fire at any intruder. There would also be the hallmarks of a supreme ruler who craved power and attention. Qin apparently insisted that as his body was taken into the mausoleum, so his living servants, bodyguards and concubines would go with him to be locked inside and die, too.
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