The 2,000-year-old mausoleum of China's first Emperor Qin Shihuang has been a talking point for visitors ever since it was first discovered in 1974.
Today a two-year-old debate over whether to list the mausoleum on the stock exchange has flared up again, causing heated discussion on the fate of this historic site.
While tourism officials support the proposal, culture officials worry development and the influx of more visitors could harm these fragile historic relics.
The key question is how to balance economic development in Shaanxi Province in Northwest China, where the mausoleum is located, with cultural preservation.
A plan to have the terracotta figures listed on the stock exchange was initiated in 1998, when the Shaanxi provincial tourism administration adopted a resolution to promote local tourism.
In the proposal, the administration suggested that, as a way to restructure the local tourism industry, the Shaanxi Tourism Group should go public by including cultural relics and other hot tourist spots, such as the museum housing the terracotta warriors, the Famen Buddhist Temple, Qianling Mausoleum and Mount Huashan as their assets.
The provincial tourism administration hopes that the management for these popular tourism spots can make use of capital markets to expand the local tourism industry and contribute more to local economic development.
The departments of culture and cultural heritage emphatically said "no" to the possibility, while the departments of tourism and State assets have generally applauded the idea.
After the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) consulted with the Ministry of Construction and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage about the possible listing of the terracotta figures, the commission clearly stated "The cultural relics cannot go public."
At that point, efforts to list the terracotta figures ended. But the issue was not over.
On May 18, 1999, the Qin Terracotta Figures Tourism Co Ltd -- a direct holding company of the Shaanxi Tourism Group, reconstructed by the provincial tourism bureau -- was founded, with its primary goal to get the company listed on the stock market. The Terracotta Warriors are the company's most valuable asset.
The Shaanxi Tourism Group has total assets of more than 2 billion yuan (US$240 million). In June of 2001, the group announced that it had completed its "guidance period of listing."
The Qin Terracotta Figures Tourism Company's main economic returns come from the sale of entrance tickets to the Qin Terracotta Museum but it is the museum's responsibility to protect the cultural relics, which needs much funding.
There is no problem with those roles, according to company sources who claim that if they proceed from the point of protecting cultural relics and developing tourism, it will surely benefit the development of the western region.
Once again, the news generated heated debates. Opinions have been widely divided as to whether the company's going public will benefit the protection of the precious relics.
The tourist department has its own view. "Who can imagine the market value of the eighth wonder of the world?" said the provincial tourist bureau spokesman, who requested anonymity.
Many scholars and experts, however, have expressed their concerns.
"I took part in the clearing work for Pit No 1 of the terracotta figures in 1974," said an expert with the cultural relics system in Shaanxi Province, who declined to give his name.
"I still remember the beautifully-colored terracotta warriors that had just been excavated. But today, the colors have faded away. Also, when people develop parts of the museum grounds, they inevitably occupy and destroy the surrounding areas which also contain cultural relics."
"The protection of tourist areas with cultural relics is our work priority," said an official in charge of tourist spots with the local city construction department.
"We believe if we allow even a little flexibility in cultural relics protection work, a place with historic cultural relics could be destroyed or even disappear in a short period."
The various opinions focused on the conflict between making money and cultural relics protection.
Some departments responsible for local economic development consider the forming of the terracotta company to be a fundamental strategy for economic restructuring in the province.
"The purpose of our demand for listing of the terracotta figures is not financial, but a measure to reform the local tourism industry away from its current sluggishness and lack of awareness of the commercialization of resources," said an official who declined to be named.
Wu Yongqi, director of the Qin Terracotta Museum, said the museum could market its management services, such as catering and beverage services and the development, production and sales of souvenirs.
He stressed, however, maintenance of the museum and relics protection require professional expertise and many years of experience. Opening management of the cultural relics operation to the market will likely result in unprofessionalism and misconduct in relics protection.
For example, the recent cleaning of the Confucius Temple in Qufu, Shandong Province, under the direction of its new tourism management, caused damage to the ancient building and the relics inside, he said.
Wu noted that museums are public facilities and not a commercial institution. As early as 1970, the World Museum Association explicitly stipulated: Museums should not aim at making profits. As a member of the international organization, China took part in drafting that principle.
He said that economic performance is not only reflected in the entrance tickets, which are just one way of showing the value of the cultural relics. The direct economic benefits are reflected by the auxiliary services -- dining, shopping, and souvenir sales enjoyed by tourists during their visits to the museums.
The many visitors to the terracotta museum have also helped promote the local service and communications industries.
While the debate continues, the local tourism company in Qufu has been reprimanded for its damage to the Confucius Temple. However, more and more tourism companies have taken over scenic spots -- some rich in cultural relics.
In view of this growing trend, Zhang Wenbin, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, has stated on many occasions: "Some local governments and institutions have transferred management rights of the cultural relics protection institutions without authorization. Some have even invited tenders and contracted with parties at home and abroad on the management rights of cultural relics in the name of so-called separation of ownership and managerial authority.
"We strongly object to the practice," he said.
In his letter to the state cultural relics department, Fang Ji, a senior expert, writes, "Every country in the world with an ancient civilization prohibits their cultural relics from going public.
"Cultural relics are the telling witnesses of history," Fang wrote.
Cultural relics protection in the country remains plagued with problems as construction projects spread across the land.
Although the Qin Terracotta Museum has done its utmost to preserve the excavated relics, the natural scenery and environment in the mausoleum district still face protection problems since there are residents living in the area, he noted in his letter.
In July 2001, the Ministry of Culture and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage released a joint document prohibiting altering the management system of cultural relics protection institutions by a legally binding decree.
As a direct result of the controversy, the current Qin Terracotta Figures Tourism Co Ltd will be renamed Shaanxi Tourism and its claimed assets exclude the terracotta warriors, according to local media.
Meanwhile, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, after more than five years of work, will submit the amended national Cultural Relics Protection Law for discussion early this year.
The amendment includes clauses that will strengthen administration and law enforcement, reinforce the management structure, improve the management system, standardize the circulation of cultural relics and the law enforcement system of job responsibility, and increase funds for cultural relics protection.
Last year, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage convened two informal work conferences on "overhauling and standardizing the cultural relics market" in order to strengthen administrative law enforcement and ensure the healthy development of the cultural relics market.
(China Daily January 16, 2002)