September 23: These Chinese warriors have survived over two 2,000 years of wars, earthquakes and revolutions, but now find themselves battling against their most formidable enemy yet — a fungal infection. These Chinese warriors are not made of flesh and blood; they have feet – and bodies – of clay, and they are a valued cultural treasure not only for China but also for the world.

Fungus Threatens Chinese Warriors [Illustration by Shiju George]
Fungus Threatens Chinese Warriors [Illustration by Shiju George]

The bad news is that over 7,000 terracotta figurines of soldiers, archers and horses in China’s northern city of Xian (pronounced Shee-ahn), capital of Shaanxi Province, have been found suffering from attacks by over 40 species of mould.

For over 2,000 years, these soldiers have kept watch over the tomb of Shi Huangdi (pronounced Shee-Hwahng-Dee) — the first emperor of the Qin dynasty. Nearly, 1,400 of the life-size terracotta warriors and horses are disintegrating. This was reported in an article in the “China Daily” recently.

Shi Huangdi was only 13 years old when he came to power. No sooner did he become emperor, than he began preparing for his death and asked workers to construct an underground tomb. The tomb stands 15 storey high and covers three acres.

On all sides of the tomb was fashioned a clay army of soldiers, horses, and chariots – on the young emperor’s orders. Just as his real army protected the emperor in life, his clay army was to guard him after his death.

Considered an eighth wonder of the world, the discovery of these terracotta statuettes was extremely significant. Villagers digging for a well accidentally discovered a vault (storage space) containing about 6000 statues in March 1974.

Spread over an area of 20,000 square metres, the entire site, consisting of three pits, was found to contain over 100 chariots, 660 horses, 7,000 warriors and a number of weapons. Very well preserved, the figures of warriors and horses can be seen wearing full battle dress and in full formation. No two figures look alike as each figure has a different facial expression.

To preserve these historic and cultural antiques, the Chinese government has requested Janssen Pharmaceutical NV, Belgium-based specialists in anti-fungal research treatment, to help restore these historic relics. Xian-Janssen Pharmaceutical Ltd, the joint-venture pharmaceutical company in China, will also participate in the project that is expected to take three years.

According to the agreement, scientists and researchers from both China and Belgium will take part in the exercise. The affected terracotta statues will be identified and the Chinese scientists have promised to provide mould samples while the Belgian experts from Janssen will be responsible in finding a treatment for the mould. The two groups will then find out effective means to prevent a similar outbreak occurring in the future.

The curator of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses museum, Wu Yongqi, explained, “Experts from the museum have done a great deal of preparatory work and the whole situation is under control. But because of the diversity of the moulds, it is difficult to kill all of the species without professional help from anti-fungal experts.” Paul Janssen, the founder of the organisation is also quoted as saying that 90 per cent of the fungus could be treated with existing chemicals.

During the three-year programme, Janssen will carry out research for a year and provide 500 kg of curative chemicals in the following two years for treatment against the fungus.
“None of the chemical compounds will pose a threat to the terracotta statues or to people,” a spokesman from Janssen said.

Though the warriors have been unearthed, the actual tomb itself remains to be explored. No one really knows how many more treasures and soldiers remain to be discovered!

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Filed under: world news
Tags: #earthquake, #chinese, #horses, #fungus, #emperor, #fungal, #statues, #museum, #soldiers

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