I stood inside of a massive structure the size of four football fields laying side by side in a quad. Crowds of Chinese people meandered about speaking Mandarin, and I leaned against the cool metal railing and looked down on a sea of terra cotta men.
My eyes stared a line to the gaze of one of the many statues as he looked outward at nothing in particular, his face frozen in a permanent smile, his facial hair resembling something of a Van Dyke. He wore his hair in a top knot, and his heavy, slatted armor hung on his body like a burden of slavery. If he held a weapon, it had long rotted away. He stood in a line with his thousands of brothers as they all looked in the same direction, as if to start marching toward me any moment.
“What do you think?” asked Dennis, my Xi’an native friend. He had sidled up next to me and probably thought about closing my jaw for me. I still felt it was nice he adopted an English name so I wouldn’t butcher his Chinese one.
“I’m amazed,” I managed. “None of these soldiers are the same? They are all different?”
“Yes,” he said as if he had said these words millions of times before. “Each soldier is unique and they are still finding them. The first was discovered in a well in the ’70’s by a farmer.”
“Yeah, I saw him.” I replied. “He’s signing autographs in the gift shop near here.”
“It is his job now.”
We stood there for a bit, letting the tourists mill by us, taking pictures, video, phones out texting. I turned and looked at Dennis, and had to look up because he towered over me like Yao Ming.
“What do you think about all this?” I asked.
He paused for a moment to look down into the pit where these warriors all stood in perfect rows and columns. He took a deep breath and let it out.
“It is a monument to oppression,” he said, his dark eyes looking into mine. “These soldiers, horses, chariots and other things were made by thousands of slaves who worked for an Emperor who could not take any of this with him when he died. It is a tragedy.”
I did not speak.
He smiled then with his polite smile, and turned to join the rest of my tour who had long since moved on to see the rest of the exhibit. I turned and faced the warriors again, in awe of the spectacle of their existence. But I couldn’t help seeing these warriors with Dennis’s eyes. Each of these men had to put their faces in the mud so that their emperor would be immortalized, but it is not the emperor’s image that is remembered. It is theirs.