Set during the late 1960's, thirteen-year-old Ming is approached by three farmers that unearth a broken terra-cotta soldier. Ming's father is out-of-town collecting his paycheck from the Xi'an museum where he sends artifacts discovered by locals. Mao Zedong commanded the Chinese people to dig tunnels, store grain, and prepare for war against the Soviets resulting in unique items found in the ground. Two years later, people are still digging but the flow of artifacts have diminished to almost nothing, threatening the loss of Ming's father's job. Ming questioned the teacher why they were still digging for so long and no one had attacked from the Soviet Union. She responded by persecuting Ming for questioning the government policies. She'd yell at any student that talked to Ming and the result was a lonely boy bullied by a teacher and wishing he could move back to Xi'an, the town he grew up in before Mao began to rid the country of intellectuals. The teacher is a one-dimensional character that is a puppet to the government representing a type of person that can't think for herself. When Ming becomes a hero, then she is his best friend. She is a hypocrite and oppressive authority figure.
The terra-cotta soldier's head comes to life scaring the noodles out of Ming. The stone soldier tells Ming how to assemble his broken stone body fusing it into its previous grandeur. The soldier has flashbacks to the time he was a soldier for Emperor Quin and worked on building the Great Wall before joining the Calvary. The men that fought for China were allotted land by how many enemy heads they chopped off. It was one of the few ways to improve one's economic position in life. The author does a terrific job mixing the flashbacks with Ming's current drama that involves the Political Officer stealing the terra-cotta soldier from Ming. The soldier does not talk to the Political Officer but listens to his plot to raid the Emperor Quin's tomb and blame it on Ming's father. In an Indiana Jones type adventure, Ming helps set traps and slow down the thieves. The fast-paced action interspersed with historical fiction and war is going to engage most readers.
Ming is an outcast at school and at the end he has become a hero and popular kid. Ming doesn't think about how two-faced his teacher is (like I did as an adult), but focuses on how proud his parents would be of him. The family units in Asia is generally different than Western family units because many generations live together and take care of each other. It is taboo to put a relative in a nursing home. Chinese women take care of relatives along with inexpensive help hired mainly from Philippino immigrants. The Taiwanese women I work with take their parents to every medical appointment and are expected in order to be "good" children. They are raised with the expectation of making their parents proud by providing for them. Many even give parents part of their income. The authors capture this Asian mentality in Ming's thoughts and also the desire to make lots of money. In a note in the back, the author, Ying has a picture of herself growing up in China before immigrating to the United States. The reader can easily visualize Ming's village and uniformed students. Food adds flavor to the story as well along with Eastern medicine. When the terra-cotta soldier uses acupuncture or presses a spot on Ming to bring him harmony in a stressful situation, it is an interesting and foreign response to me.
Ming's alienation in society is a common theme found in literature, but here his loneliness is driven by other students' fears of reprisals from the teacher. Harsh reprisals are also dealt to the terra-cotta soldier for not following strict military orders. The lack of freedom the common people have in their every day life and the brutal military discipline seems unjust. However, the soldier willingly accepts his fate, seeming to understand the need for obedience in war situations. The punishment didn't seem to fit the crime for the unit was not endangered. I wished the author hadn't foreshadowed what would happen to the soldier as it took some tension out of the plot for me. I found the contrasts on the subject of freedom interesting: The lack of freedom at school for Ming, the lack of freedom for the soldier in a unit, the lack of freedom for the people under communism. While Ming's motivation is to save his father, he ends up doing more in the process. While Ming can't change the culture he lives in he inadvertently does by discovering the Emperor's tomb for he has brought wealth on the village and improved life for everyone. He has freed the people to some extent from a harsh life and elevated the status of the downtrodden intellectual. In the end it is money, not laws that changes peoples lives in Ming's village.