Sometimes there is nothing for it but to send out the troops. Doubtless frustrated by the slow pace of progress toward unification with its “renegade province” of Taiwan, China last week announced plans to do just that. A small force of soldiers, it said, is being prepared to cross the Formosa Strait ahead of a three-month visit to — or occupation of — Taipei’s renowned National Museum of History.

As everyone knows, this museum is home to the bulk of China’s historical and artistic treasures, which were deposited there in 1949 by Chiang Kai-shek’s fleeing Nationalist government. So, is this mission from the mainland meant as a demonstration of good will or as a highly original form of reconnaissance? There’s a twist to the story that makes its import particularly hard to pin down. There are only 14 warriors and, given the fact that they are some 2,200 years old and made of terra cotta, they are understandably fragile. Theirs is a delicate assignment in more ways than one.

The soldiers are an elite contingent from the estimated 8,000-strong army protecting the vast underground tomb of China’s first sovereign emperor, Shi Huangdi, near the modern city of Xian. Shi Huangdi died in 210 or 209 B.C., and his burial place lay apparently undisturbed for over two millennia, until a peasant brigade of well-diggers stumbled upon the fabulous subterranean chamber in 1974. Most of the astonishingly individualized, life-size figures of men and horses remain partly entombed, facing east in perfect battle order, but the 1,400 or so that have been dug up so far have become almost more famous than the man they guarded. The tomb compound was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in l987 and is now one of China’s biggest tourist attractions, drawing up to 50,000 visitors a day at peak periods.

But this has only contributed to conservationists’ headaches. Once excavated, the figures rapidly lose their vivid mineral coloring, but also, and more importantly, they are vulnerable to some 40 different types of mold — aggravated, experts say, by heat, humidity and sweaty crowds. Not surprisingly, very few of the frail terra-cotta veterans have been on a road trip before, let alone been posted abroad, which only makes the Taiwan sortie all the more significant.

Last week, observers on both sides of the strait were busy trying to figure out exactly what was being signified. Mainland government officials and Taiwan museum officials paint the trip in sunny colors as a good-will exercise with the potential of soothing prickly relations between Taipei and Beijing. The magnitude of the loan, they suggest, merely reflects the magnanimity of the lender and the depth of Beijing’s wish for friendship. The message goes something like this: These extraordinary artifacts represent our common cultural heritage; let them draw us closer together.

Skeptics could, of course, also read that message as a none-too-subtle confirmation of Beijing’s one-country mantra. It’s a gesture of friendship, maybe, but a gesture with teeth. Talks between the two sides are currently on hold until Taiwan formally acknowledges the unification formula. The situation remains so tense, in fact, that scenarios of invasion by real mainland soldiers, backed up by missiles and jet fighters rather than spears and cavalry, are seriously entertained by both sides and their sympathizers. In that context, nothing about the terra-cotta soldiers’ visit is likely to reassure any Taiwan citizen who is in favor of the island maintaining its distance, if not its technical independence, from China.

Nor has the symbolism of the clay warriors’ origins escaped observers in Taiwan. Who was Emperor Shi Huangdi, after all, but the man who masterminded the first unification of the Chinese empire, overrunning six rival Chinese states to the south and beginning construction of the Great Wall to fend off invasions from the north? Although he has been depicted by historians ever since as a cruel and superstitious despot, there is no denying that the centralized bureaucratic and administrative structures he put in place had an influence on all subsequent Chinese dynasties — even, arguably, on today’s fraying totalitarian state. A spent dynasty still intent on extending and consolidating its rule could hardly have come up with more appropriate emissaries than a squadron of guards from the tomb of the country’s first ruthless consolidator.

But a symbol, as W.B. Yeats said, is like a bell with many echoes. In this case, the emissaries with feet of clay almost certainly suggest different things to the different parties involved. So should the recollection, sure to be prompted by this visit, that the empire put together by Shi Huangdi imploded a mere four years after his death.

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