A silhouette of a statue on a stand with a photo of the clay soldiers inside the lines
Miki Lowe

The Day I Saw the Emperor’s Clay Soldiers

Published in The Atlantic in 2008

Farmers were digging a well near Xi’an, China, in 1974 when they found fragments of clay that turned out to be terra-cotta soldiers. In the years since, excavators have turned up an army of 8,000, each with a unique, detailed face and a life-size body. Historians believe they were meant to accompany the nation’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, into the afterlife. More than 2,000 years later, seeing pictures of so many of them side by side—ancient, delicate, humanlike—makes me feel overwhelmed, and weirdly emotional.

I’d bet the poet Jonathan Musgrove knows what I mean. When he first laid eyes on them, he implies in “The Day I Saw the Emperor’s Clay Soldiers,” he realized how our lives eventually disappear into an infinite stretch of time, leaving only the rare relic. He saw his ancestors in those soldiers: “hollow men” once fleshy and breathing but now no more alive than the stiff clay men beyond a museum’s velvet rope. His forefathers are unreachable too. This is where a life ends, he seems to say: in “blank faces” that—however lifelike—cannot be reanimated.

As the poem goes on, though, Musgrove loses his initial certainty about “the end of things.” The clay soldiers, after all, are still standing there—stirring him, as well as others. Musgrove’s ancestors, in a way, are present too; by thinking about them, he’s brought them back to life. If it’s possible to reach across time in this way, then is there an end at all?

Eventually there is, Musgrove says. One day the exhibition leaves; viewers in another city will get to be transported, but for him, the soldiers are gone. Perhaps, for a few brief and lucky moments, we get to time travel. But we can’t make it last forever. We get a glimpse, and then the lights change, the stands empty, and we go home.

The original magazine page with the poem and a photo of two of the clay soldiers side by side

You can zoom in on the page here.