Surrounded and entranced by the 100,000 Buddha statues carved into caves along the Yi River here, a visitor asked why so many Buddhas in one cave had their heads neatly sheared off.
"Oh, the heads are in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art," said guide Wang Xiucheng.
Around this center of ancient Chinese civilization and more recent American plunder, Communist Party archeologists are tearing up the old, worn-out soil like eager newcomers to the world's greatest treasure hunt. While digging for relics of China's glorious past yet undiscovered, they betray a growing resentment for what was stolen from them before the communist takeover in 1949 and a determination to get it back, one way or another.
A detailed index of Chinese relics now in foreign museums in maintained by authorities in Peking, according to diplomats there. Foreign experts speculate the Chinese may be preparing to get some of their treasures back, perhaps through lawsuits. Up to now their relations with American and European museums remain friendly, despite what was done in the past by Western collectors and Chinese profiteers.
At Xian, west of here along the old fertile river valleys where China began, the Chinese have found a more direct and modern way to compensate for their losses: soak the tourists.
Outside Xian is one of the most spectacular treasure hunts of all, a vast, warehouse-covered digging area where Chinese archeologists are un-earthing hundreds of life-size terra cotta statues of soldiers and horses more than 2,000 years old. The figures were made to be a symbolic burial guard for the tomb of the man who created imperial China, the emperor Qin Shi Huang Di.
They were modeled after the emperor's actual palace guard, who were probably relieved to find they would not themselves be buried along with their ruler. The statues provide a vivid look at Chinese dress, style and armaments in an era before Christ.
Vice President Mondale and his wife Joan were taken to the Xian digs during their August visit. Foreign travel agents are begging to have the place put on their tours. But the Chinese allow no photographs of the digging site, and China traveler Audrey Topping, whose National Geographic article about the dig generated world-wide interest, says her phone rings daily with requests to use her pictures -- all of which she turns down.
"I don't think I should make a profit out of it," she said.
That is left to the Chinese. Television crews accompanying Mondale found the Chinese suggesting enormous sums for rights to photograph. When I visited last month, an official at the dig said that for $66 I could snap two pictures, not at the digging site itself, but in the little museum nearby where a few of the unearthed figures are shown.
Such careful marketing has created an overwhelming demand for the guidebooks sold by the Chinese on the site and for miniature clay copies of the warriors and horses, selling out regularly at $150 apiece.
At the Xian friendship store reserved for foreigners, a perfectly detailed, fullsize six-foot copy of one of the unearthed cavalry men is on sale. The price: $25,000.
The location of the ranks of warriors, slowly being put together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, suggested to Chinese archeologists that there might be other vaults guarding other sides of the huge hill that covers the Qin emperor's tomb.
Archeologist Guo Changzhang said, "Our surveying is still going on, but we have not found any other sites, other than one a little way from this one."
But the great tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di, standing in the middle of a grain field like a brush-covered pyramid, has not been opened for centuries, and may indeed remain untouched. Historical descriptions of the tomb, including a map of 3rd century B.C. China made of jewels and precious metals, suggest its riches could exceed the tomb of Egypt's King Tut.
The Chinese will not say when they plan to open it. They politely decline offers of help from entranced foreign archeologists.
China's effort to recover its treasures abroad may make the most of the friendly persuasion that has marked its diplomacy in the 1970s.
At the Shaanxi provincial museum in Xian, there was, until recently, a sign condemning an "American imperialist" for stealing two of the six magnificent bas-relief carvings that once guarded the tomb of a Han Dynasty emperor. The sign is gone now but a guide said the two carvings were still at the University of Pennsylvania. The remaining four are on display in Xian, showing signs of repair after being shattered, the Chinese say, by the American who tried to remove them.
"What happened to the sign?" an American visitor asked.
Xu Yimin of the China International Travel Service said, "We don't want to embarrass any of our new American friends."