The Real Story About The Terracotta Warriors


According to the South China Morning Post (via Xinhua) on July 6, 2005:

The life-sized clay figures unearthed three decades ago in Shaanxi province are starting to fall apart and Chinese and US scientists have launched a two-year research project to study the impact that indoor air pollutants are having on the Emperor Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum in Xi'an.

Cao Junji, executive director of the aerosol and environment division at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Earth Environment and head of the research team, said it was time to take action to save the relics.

If nothing is done now, in 100 years the warriors may have corroded to such an extent that the pits will look just like a coal mine and not have any aesthetic value, he said. 

According to an article reprinted in MediaInChina, Dr. Cao Junji was interviewed again on July 8 after the article appeared and he was none too pleased.  I would have liked to say that "he was fit to be tied," but unfortunately the published record does not support such a statement.  However, I imagine that was how Cao felt.  Here is the translation of the relevant section:

When Cao Junji was interviewed by the Hong Kong reporter, they ran an experiment to collect air particles.  During the experiment, they took a piece of clean filter paper and placed an air pump behind it to draw air through the filter paper.  After 24 hours, there were many particles collected on the filter paper.  Cao Junji told the reporter that this was just an experiment that drastically accelerated the natural process with the air pump and this represented what might happen over a very long period of time in real life.

When the article appeared, it omitted the qualifications that Cao placed on the experiment.  Instead, it became: "A scientist put a clean white piece of filter paper inside the terracotta museum and after 24 hours, the paper was filled with grayish-black coal particles."  The article also quoted Cao as saying, "Dr Cao said that the damage caused by corrosion was often minor at first, but larger features of the statues - their noses, for instance - could shrink as the surface was worn away.  He said the individual features of the warriors - such as a moustache or certain hairstyle which indicate age or rank - might become less noticeable over time, eroding the figures' cultural value."

As for the headline, "The terracotta museum will become a coal pit in a century" was written by the editor of a Hong Kong newspaper to gain attention.  The Hong Kong news reporter has apologized to Cao for what occurred.

By the time that this news report appeared in Beijing Youth Daily (via Ming Pao), there was now an additional claim that 1,400 of the unearthed terracotta warriors have been attacked by more than 40 types of mold.  This claim did not appear in the original article in Hong Kong.  Again, the Chinese editors decided to add the claim to gain even more attention.  Were there molds in the museum?  This was an old story back in 1994 when molds were found.  This was an easy problem to fix since an anti-mold spray took care of the existing problems, and temperature-/humidity-control prevented their recurrence.

Will there be any consequences for the editors/reporters?  Well, their enterprises are doing booming business through such techniques, so why would they impose any sanctions?  If a government department (such as the Central Propaganda Bureau in China) intercedes, you can bet Reporters Without Borders will be howling about censorship and loss of freedom of press.  So this is where we are.