They are one of the most recognisable symbols of Chinese culture – the Terracotta Warriors, the army of soldiers that guards the tomb of the country’s first emperor. But the 2,000 year-old statues have now become another flashpoint in relations between Beijing and Washington after the disappearance of a warrior’s finger from a museum in the US where it was on loan. The vandalism happened at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in December but only made headlines recently when Delaware resident Michael Rohana was detained by the FBI after footage showed him breaking off the thumb of a statue and taking it home. Shaanxi authorities called for him to be “severely punished” for damaging “a priceless part of China’s cultural heritage”. (CNN estimates the value of an individual Terracotta Warrior at $4.5 million).
The life-sized statues were discovered in 1974 by farmers and are on display at a purpose-built museum in Shaanxi’s provincial capital Xi’an.
Netizens in China were scathing over the museum’s security. “The warriors in Xi’an are kept far away from the public. How come the sculptures in Philadelphia are not displayed inside glass cases?” one asked. But another said criticism should be levelled closer to home: “The Shaanxi cultural relics department really should blame themselves. They lend cultural relics to exhibitions outside the country just for collecting money. They cannot just care about revenue, and not pay sufficient regard to the safety of the relics.”
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