Curse of the warriors

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 September, 2007, 12:00am

In modern China, with its brutal pace of development, it was an unremarkable death. Racked with disease and with no money to pay for medicine or a visit to the doctor, peasant farmer Wang Puzhi waited until his family were out, slipped a rope around his neck and ended his suffering.

Before his suicide, however, Wang's life was far from unremarkable. He was one of seven men who, while digging a well on their communal farm in 1974, stumbled across the most priceless archaeological discovery of modern times: the 2,200-year-old terracotta warriors. It was a discovery that has brought millions of foreign tourists to Xian in northwestern China. It has also made many businessmen and, it is claimed, local officials extremely rich. But for the farmers who found the buried army, and the ancient village they grew up in, the warriors have proved to be more of a curse than a blessing.

Ahead of the biggest overseas exhibition of the terracotta warriors - which began at the British Museum this week - we tracked down the surviving men who discovered the stone soldiers and found them bewildered by the greed and destruction the warriors had brought to the surface with them. Their farmland has been claimed by the government, stripping them of their livelihoods; their homes and those of their neighbours have been demolished with little or no compensation to make way for exhibition halls, coach parks and gift shops; and their village with its 2,000-year history has all but disappeared.

Within three years of Wang's suicide in 1997 at the age of 60, the two youngest members of the well diggers - Yang Wenhai and Yang Yanxin - died jobless and penniless at home, unable to pay for a visit to the doctor to even diagnose their illnesses. Both were only in their 50s.

Today, the four remaining men - Yang Quanyi, 79, Yang Peiyan, 78, Yang Zhifa, 69, and Yang Xinman, 69 - are paid about 1,000 yuan a month to sit in official souvenir shops and sign photo books for queues of tourists who come to see the army that was built to protect China's first emperor in the afterlife.

'Officials and businessmen have made a lot of money from the terracotta warriors, but not us,' said Yang Quanyi, who has been signing the books for nine years, after three months spent learning how to write his name. 'We got nothing for the discovery,' he said. 'It was the days of collective farms and we were given 10 credit points by our brigade leader for finding the warriors. That was the equivalent of about one yuan in our pay packet at the end of the month.'

While digging a well in March 1974, Yang Zhifa hit something about 15 metres beneath the surface. Thinking he had found a bronze relic that his work team could sell for the price of a few packets of cigarettes, he used a hammer to break off the head and took it back to the village.

'Everyone was afraid to touch it,' Yang Quanyi said. 'We thought it was a temple statue - a Buddha perhaps. We were frightened the Buddha would punish us. The women thought it might bring a curse down on the village.'

In fact, the farmers had found one of the more than 8,000 terracotta foot soldiers, archers and charioteers that were buried with Qin Shi Huangdi in the third century BC in a vast mausoleum covering several square kilometres. When the significance of the find became apparent, archaeologists and officials poured into the village. In the years that followed, a huge swathe of land that for centuries had provided Yang village with abundant crops of corn, wheat and pomegranates, was resumed. The central government handed out large sums in compensation, but villagers say almost all of it was siphoned off by officials at provincial and county level.

Yang villagers received just 300 yuan for each 600 square metre piece of land. With the mainland still a relatively closed and the tourism boom years off, three of the men sank deeper into what was to prove fatal poverty. 'People here can't afford to go to hospital,' Yang Quanyi said. 'Yang Yanxin died of a skin disease that caused his body to rot away. Yang Wenhai died in great pain at his home. Neither had money for medicine or help. We have no idea what killed them.'

Yang Luocheng, Wang's stepson, said he had heart disease. 'He couldn't bear the suffering and didn't want to be a burden to my mother and me. One day, when he was alone in the house, he hanged himself. My mother found him when she came home from work. She died a short while later. It is very painful to talk about this, even now.'

In recent years, as the mainland has opened its doors to tourists, the site at Xian has expanded, leading to the demolition of more homes in the village. Families have been forced to move to new homes a few kilometres away and have had to pay 8,000 yuan per person for the homes to be built. There are now plans to further expand the site and destroy the remaining houses. 'The government has taken away our land and our livelihoods and left us with nothing,' one villager said. 'People in Yang village are simple farmers. They have no idea how to set up a business. Only a handful - maybe 5 per cent - have been able to make any money by selling food or souvenirs to tourists. But 100 per cent of the local officials here have become rich. It is difficult for us to make ends meet. We have no land. We have no skills to set up businesses. The young people have left the village and become migrant workers in faraway cities.'

When a group of villagers travelled by bus and train to Beijing to petition the central government for compensation for what they claimed was theft of their homes and land, they were sent home with nothing.

But more than money, what the villagers want most is for the farmers who found the terracotta army to receive the recognition they deserve. Not one of the group of seven is named or photographed anywhere within the complex in Xian - they are alluded to only as a band of peasant farmers. To add further humiliation, men who have nothing to do with the discovery pose as the farmers, signing books for tourists at gift shops around the complex.

One is Yang Xian, 60, who sits every day under a banner describing himself as the man who made the discovery in 1974, alongside a blown-up photograph of him shaking hands with the then US president, Bill Clinton, during his visit in 1998.

According to more than a dozen people interviewed in Yang Village, the man is an imposter. He was a manager of a factory making replicas of the terracotta warriors visited by Mr Clinton and used the image of his handshake to make money from tourists, they said.

'It's a complete lie,' Yang Zhifa said. 'He isn't even from our village and he was nowhere near us when we made the discovery. There are many people like him, and we are powerless to stop them. If the government gave us certificates to prove we are the real finders of the warriors it would be different.'

Yang Zhifa and others of the original team also sign books for tourists, but with a monthly income of 1,000 to 1,500 yuan, they earn less than the young girls who work as shop assistants. 'If I ask for more they can easily find an imposter to take my place,' Yang Zhifa said.

A manager of one of the gift shops said the complex was full of bogus discoverers conning tourists. 'Only four of the original discoverers are still alive,' he said. 'The shops here sell thousands of books every day and everyone wants them signed by one of the men who first found the warriors. How can shops sell enough signed books to pay the rent to the government unless they employ these imposters?'

In 2004, a lawyer from Xian offered his services for free to help the four surviving men gain official recognition. 'He wrote to the local government for us, asking them to recognise us officially - but the government didn't even respond to the letter,' Yang Quanyi said. 'It is unreasonable, but what can we do? We are weak and the government is strong. We never asked for money. All we ever wanted was recognition.'

When the Post asked why the men had been denied official recognition, a spokesman for the Shaanxi provincial relic and cultural bureau said: 'It is not important who discovered these relics. Our job is to take care of these relics and to protect them.'

As the last of the day's visitors drifted away, Yang Quanyi returned to the simple home he built in the old village after his family home was demolished. 'I'm not angry,' he said with a smile. 'The relics belong to our country - we only discovered them.' He appeared to be a man at peace. But his wife, Liu Xiqin, 70, said he still worried that the men did something wrong by discovering the warriors and had vowed never to set eyes on them again.

'He's afraid they might have brought misfortune in some way - and does still wonder if maybe the soldiers should have been left beneath the ground.'