by Duncan Allen
Since its opening-up to the West in 1978, China’s tourism industry has witnessed a massive surge in popularity. Foreigners flock to China’s numerous ancient landmarks, from the Great Wall to the Shaolin Temple to the Summer Palace. Many Chinese citizens’ livelihoods depend on the fifty million or so laowai’s (foreigners) who come to the country each year. In China, like in any country, tourists’ lack of caution, unfamiliarity with local customs, or inability to understand the Chinese language make them easy targets for overcharging and scams.
I had the pleasure of experiencing the Chinese tourism industry firsthand during my study abroad orientation this summer, where our host university treated my fellow Tufts students and I to three days in the ancient city of Xi’an. While there, we were accompanied by a local tour guide who took us from landmark to museum to restaurant everyday, all the while informing us on each location’s rich history.
One particular story that stood out from the trip was about the farmer who discovered the legendary terracotta army in 1974. Our tour guide told us the farmer and his entire village were rewarded handsomely by the Chinese government for their discovery, and the lucky farmer even had the honor of meeting U.S. President Bill Clinton during one of his visits to China. According to the story, the farmer could barely speak any English, and when meeting Clinton, mistakenly asked “who are you” instead of “how are you”. Clinton chuckled and said “I’m Hillary’s husband” to which the farmer replied “me too”.
Our tour guide then informed us that the farmer still lives in the village where the army was discovered, and on occasion signs books and shakes hands with tourists who pass through. If we were lucky, we might be able to meet this man, she told us.
And lucky we were. Inside the very first village gift shop sat a weathered old man who looked to be about seventy. A banner strung up behind him proudly declared he was Yang Zhifa, the first farmer to discover the terracotta warriors. All around the shop were photos of the man shaking hands with various people, including Bill Clinton. A few of my classmates actually bought books about the terracotta army, which he graciously signed. He even gave them a “generous student discount”.
As it turns out, the man inside the gift shop was not Yang Zhifa. The story of the discoverers of the terracotta army is much less pleasant than our tour guide led us to believe. Yang, who discovered the first terracotta warriors while digging a well with his brothers and a family friend, is now well into his eighties and lives about a kilometer away from the village. Though he and his family were given a stipend by the government as a reward, it is reportedly rather small, and Yang still lives in relative poverty. Within months of the discovery, Yang’s village was seized by the government and transformed into a museum and tourist attraction. Though the villagers were compensated, many remained angry at Yang for causing their displacement from their ancestral home. Two of Yangs brothers died penniless in the 90s, and the family friend who witnessed the original discovery hanged himself rather than burden his family with medical bills.
Their eviction from their land by the government has transformed the lifestyles of the remaining villagers. What was once a farming commune is now a completely commercialized tourist hotspot. Restaurants, food stands, and gift shops line the streets. McDonalds and Starbucks are here to stay. And on almost every corner is another Yang Zhifa.