Farming to stamping books, farmer misses feel of the soil


This is Yang Peiyan who found the terracotta soldiers on his farm in Xian. He now sits in the gift shop at the Qin museum stamping and signing the book on his life, how he found the statues and life thereafter.

In 2003, on my trip to China, my college friend Bivash had asked me to visit Xian. I first went to Beijing, stayed there for 4-5 days and took a train to Xian. The tour guides were informed in advance they’d stand waiting with a board with my name written. (Forget my surname, my name though simple to pronounce was different, like my features and moreover colour). Most tourists were European, Americans and Japanese, apart from local Chinese who love to travel. I recollect reaching early morning in Xian and the guide asked me to go rest, as he dropped me to the hotel and said he’d come post breakfast. I was to go to Qin museum and then I’d said I wanted to go to the Mosque, which my friend insisted I should. It was drizzling and cold and I was already in love with China by then. Yes, this trip was a year after my US and judge me, but I was more in love with China than the US.

I can’t remember vividly, you need to forgive me as it its over 11 years now. But some incidents, conversations I distinctly recollect. My hotel was cozy and it overlooked a pagoda and a pond. Later I have unclear memories of going first to the Pagoda, a palace like structure and then over 3/4ths of the day at the Musuem. The guide at Xian, unlike my young student guides at Bejing was impatient with my questions. He’d tell me things and I’d nod with questions. He kept losing his patience, saying “Ma’m I’ve told you before no questions. I will not answer and pl I request you to not ask around so openly.”

Ok, noted, but do not expect me to follow it strictly. I went to the terracotta museum and I fell in love with those statues. Except I felt disgusted with the royal excesses. I mean the emperors wasted taxes and money on such personal luxuries. The army of terracotta statues was made to be buried with First Emperor Qin Shihuang, (the museum is named after this Emperor), which just confirms my belief. Anyway, I remember a huge white gate and i was not wt any group per say, the guide took me around. I made him take my pics near some horse and soldier, which are not to be recognized. But I enjoyed myself thoroughly reading of it and now seeing statues taller than me!

Excavations were on and nobody stopped me, despite police presence and CCTV cameras from grabbing a handful of soil.  Imagine soil which is over hundreds of years old! The guide was aghast and looked away and left my side…haha. He said he will wait out, poor man didn’t want to get into trouble me thinks. After hours of walking, returning to few spots I came out..finally. By then it was bright and sunny and not to my liking. I requested the guide to accompany me to the museum shop and began my trolley of questions. He said he can’t talk on my behalf, we’ll get caught. I forgot to mention, the guide kept looking over his shoulder, just in case there were watchers. Somehow my persistence paid and we approached Yang Peiyan.

As I came to his table I realized all he did was look down at the book, sign, stamp and return it. Many smiled, thanked, but he had a robotic feel to the whole thing. It seemed like he was doing what he had to, may be not enjoying, but I’m sure it paid his monthly bills. I ofcourse couldn’t confirm it directly. All I know is, as the guide said, “This is China, nobody is allowed to talk to foreign press. You will get us all into trouble. Yang will not speak, he is not allowed by the government, he is kept there by the government.” I pleaded and even told him the lady next to him had gone to the loo let’s finish with it.


With the guide as my interpreter I asked does he enjoy what was he doing and whether he missed farming. (point being he would NEVER have told me he did NOT enjoy sitting there). “I am felicitated by the government and I sit here and fulfil that duty. I am a farmer and my hands miss the feel of the soil. I am of no use here but this I what I have to do.” I asked again about farming and he gave a fantastic answer. “I said my hands miss the feel of the soil. But of what use would I be as a farmer today? It is all modernized in China. They use a tractor and machine, I used my hands.”

I requested for pics, he nodded looking ahead or down. He doesn’t look anywhere else. I couldn’t focus properly, in the dim light I had to quickly take 2 pics. His assistant, or as my guide and I suspected, a government stooge stormed in. She saw me click and asked if I’d taken Yang’s pics, I said no, I was just testing and clicked randomly to show her. (This was manual SLR). Immediately I covered the lens and kept it away. She had seen me talk and began snapping in Mandarin to herself and aloud. We all went about our lives as if nothing had happened.

But this was my story and it was real. The guide was initially upset and then admired my spirit to get out something from Yang. We exchanged our readings and interpretations of what he had said. Guide felt he had deliberately spoken of tractors to console himself and convince may be what this job he’d opted for was worth it, though he had NO choice.

Guide said, when Yang found one or two statutes he was surprised and informed the District officials. Once he informed the district officials, the then Chinese government officials came to check, they needed to excavate Yang’s farms and other adjoining ones. The farmers would not have given up for nothing. This was the more conservative, hard-core Communist government. Nobody could dare them. So he gave up his farms, instead he was given the Lotus, the government’s symbol of felicitation, compensated, given a house and promised monthly income of a book which was written for him. He had sit there at the museum during the working hours, the tourists, mostly foreigners who could afford to buy the book, would get it autographed from him and at the end of the day, he would go home, which was given by the government. So there was no way Yang could do or say anything other than what he had just done.

Later the guide opened up. He appreciated my courage and pondering over Yang’s words he shared his feelings about his government and the rules. I asked him do they question the one-child policy, forced birth control and abortions if couples got more than one child? The guide cried. He said they all live in the interiors, while all the opportunities are in the bi said this metros. His daughter too lived in Shanghai and will get married and go. They wanted one more child and he said the forced birth control made men feel impotent. When I asked him why the Chinese don’t question their government, if birth control was successful why had China crossed 1 billion population? He was disturbed. He said the Chinese looked up to India for her freedom and the choice to do things. He left me with an important question unanswered-“you all have so many choices and freedom to make it, why don’t you all Indians make good of it?”

The guide and Yang had left me with 2 pertinent thoughts..