On our bus ride from central Xi’an to the Terracotta Warriors Museum our tour guide, Helen, shared with us some information about the history of Xi’an and the surrounding area. She cracked herself up when she searched for the English word for rooster and then, giggling, explained that China is shaped like a rooster and Xi’an is the heart of the rooster.
Then she told us this funny story about President Clinton’s visit to Xi’an (in 1998) which didn’t seem funny at all to me afterwards.
“When President Bill Clinton visited the Terracotta Warriors, he wanted to meet the person who’d found the Terracotta Warriors because he said that person should be famous too” she said.
You could imagine the kerfuffle for the officials in charge of President Clinton’s visit – who didn’t know who the farmers were or where they were. According to Helen, the men were still farmers in the area and were found and brought to meet the President.
Mr. Yang is the name of the farmer who, with three friends, was digging for a well when they discovered the largest chamber of terracotta soldiers. He is credited with insisting that the group contact the authorities to report their findings. Apparently, on meeting Mr. Yang, President Clinton asked for his autograph and that really put the cat among the pigeons because Mr. Yang couldn’t read or write.
Helen sounded both shocked and amused as she described Mr. Yang making three circles on the paper to serve as his autograph. Then she explained that after this embarrassment the Chinese government had sent Mr. Yang to work with a renowned calligrapher for six months so that he could learn to write his name and that then they gave him a new job at the Terracotta Warriors Museum, signing his name.
It intrigued me straight away that Mr. Yang had been given calligraphy lessons but not a basic education, which I have to assume would have taken longer than six months.
When we arrived at the Museum, we “met” Mr. Yang, seated at a desk front and center of the shop selling souvenir guides and it made me sad for the poor guy. I am projecting my lifestyle preferences onto someone I didn’t even speak to here, I know, but it’s hard not to. The guy went from essentially being his own boss, working his fields (a hardscrabble existence, I’m sure) to sitting all day signing his name over and over with two minders – well-dressed women in suits – power-selling the guidebooks and his signature to every tourist who comes into the shop.
I wonder if Bill Clinton even knows how his one request so changed this man’s life? I wonder if Mr. Yang is happy or sad with his new job? I wonder what it feels like to have your profession decided for you by the government?
Information on traveling to China with Children.