Split image: Karen Carpenter in performance on one side and a close-up of terracotta warriors on the other

Karen Carpenter and the Terracotta Warriors

The Xi'an Skyline from the   Xi'an Old City Wall Photo by Charles Cottle
The Xi’an Skyline from the Xi’an Old City Wall

Several years ago I visited Xi’an, China. A city in central  China located approximately 760 miles from Shanghai (more than 900 miles driving distance), Xi’an is the destination of thousands of tourists each year. With a population of more than 8,000,000 inhabitants, Xi’an is famous for being the location of the army of terracotta warriors. The warriors are part of the tomb that was  built by Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, in the third century B.C.E. Apart from some 8,000 warriors, each with unique facial characteristics, the site  contains horses and chariots, underground chambers, and numerous sculptures depicting court life at the time. This remarkable archaeological site was discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974. The farmer now lives on a generous pension. The warriors are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the site is regarded by many as the most important archaeological find of the twentieth century.

Like many tourists, I was in Xi’an with a tour group. In my case I was traveling with a university group for which Xi’an was just one stop among several on our three week trip. We arrived in Xi’an the evening before our tour of the Emperor’s mausoleum  and checked into a state owned and operated hotel. The accommodations were in no way luxurious, but they were comfortable and pleasant.  The following morning I arose early, bathed, and got dressed while looking forward to a leisurely breakfast. I left my room in search of the restaurant about 6:45 a.m.

Terracotta Warriors - Xi'an, China Photo by Charles Cottle
Terracotta Warriors – Xi’an, China

The hotel, like many tourist hotels in China, maintained two restaurants during breakfast hours, one each for Chinese and western cuisines. Earlier I had learned that Chinese breakfasts diverged considerably from western tastes. Instead of coffee, bacon, and eggs, the Chinese breakfast often consisted of pickled vegetables and millet or rice gruel. I found a sign near the elevators indicating that the western breakfast was on the top floor. l pressed the up arrow and went to the top floor of the hotel.

When the elevator door opened, I emerged on to a well-lit, sunny floor with tall glass panels everywhere along the exterior wall. Chairs and tables with white tablecloths were placed alongside the windowed wall that overlooked the city of Xi’an. As it turned out, this was a revolving restaurant. Later investigation revealed that revolving restaurants are popular in Xi’an and a number of hotels have them.

Perhaps because the hour was still early, I was the only customer in the restaurant.  I saw several staff preparing a large breakfast buffet of scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, bacon, sausage, various fruit juices, and so forth. As the buffet was not yet ready, I found the cups, served myself a cup of coffee, and sat down at one of the neatly prepared tables beside the windows overlooking the city. Traffic was now moving in the city, and I could see people on their way to work riding bicycles, motorbikes, and driving cars. The shadows cast by the buildings were still fairly long as the morning sun was not yet high in the sky.

When I entered the restaurant, it was completely silent. After a bit, however, background music began playing through the speakers in the ceiling. I surmised that one of the staff had spotted me, and had decided that the lone customer in the restaurant needed some background music to start the day. Initially, I ignored the music, barely aware that it was there. At some point, however, I started listening and immediately recognized the melodious voice of Karen Carpenter. She was singing:

Every shalalala, every whoaohohoh

Still shines
Every shingalingaling that they’ve started to sing
So fine

When they get to the part
When he’s breaking her heart
It can really make me cry
Just like before
It’s yesterday once more

On hearing Karen Carpenter sing these lyrics, I sat transfixed.

There are moments in our lives so strange we wonder if perhaps we are not in someone’s movie or play, definitely not of our own making, but in which the script and the setting have been written for us by an anonymous author. For me this was one of those moments.

Karen Carpenter in Performance with her Brother, Richard Photo Credit: Unknown
Karen Carpenter in Performance with her Brother, Richard
Photo Credit: Unknown

I grew up in a world in which China might as well have been on another planet. Ordinary citizens were not allowed to go there. Ideologically, we knew it was an evil place. Simply to be there at all was a radical experience for U.S. citizens of my generation. And yet, there I was, waiting patiently for breakfast in a revolving restaurant atop a hotel in Xi’an, with the purpose of visiting the terracotta warriors who were created in the third century B.C.E. To me, all of this was remarkable in itself. Adding the voice of Karen Carpenter singing her “shalalala’s” and “whoaohohoh’s” seemed so incongruous as to make the event seem almost beyond belief.  Worlds from vastly different historical periods and cultures had collided, yet strangely, remained unchanged. The moment seemed scripted, as if part of someone’s imagination. In no way did it seem normal.

The spell of the moment was soon broken with the arrival of more customers. In short order the clatter of silverware and china, combined with the hubbub of breakfast conversations, relegated the Carpenters to the background. The customers dined, and revolved.

Wide view of terracotta warriors in several columns
Terracotta Warriors – Xi’an, China

Several years have passed since I sat atop that hotel listening to Karen Carpenter sing while I gazed over the city of Xi’an. Yet the passage of time has not erased the connection between her and the terracotta warriors.  If I think of her, I think of them. In my mind they are forever linked. And whenever I see images of the cold-faced, yet life-like, terracotta warriors, I am immediately reminded of the sweet, sweet voice of Karen Carpenter.

2 thoughts on “Karen Carpenter and the Terracotta Warriors

  1. Great personal story about personal experience and about unexpected, though entirely rational, connections in our globalized world. And I love your picture of the warriors, Charles.


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