As symbols go, President Clinton's first stop in China could not be more poignant.
The leader of the world's most powerful country will see the first capital of a unified Chinese empire that, 2,000 years ago, ranked with imperial Rome.
Xian retains striking marks of ancient majesty - an army of terra-cotta soldiers and China's only intact city walls. The image of a US leader paying respect to China's imperial past serves the leaders of both nations by showing that the US must deal with a China reemerging rapidly on the world stage.
Mr. Clinton's visit to China, says a Western official here, will help push the new US effort to integrate China - as an ascendant force - into the rule-based global community.
Bao Tong, a top Chinese official imprisoned for opposing the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, says "stronger links between the two sides will push forward China's opening to the rest of the world, and help the US understand how to best support that trend."
This first trip to China by a US president since the 1989 massacre has drawn fire from critics who see China as a rival superpower or a nation that should be "contained" for its human-rights practices.
But, says the Western official, who asked not to be identified, "The US is moving toward becoming partners with a China that is becoming a much more responsible player on the world stage."
Clinton's policy of "constructive engagement" with Beijing is reinforcing China's own evolution into a more pluralistic and free society, he adds.
A former dissident who was persecuted as a "rightist" agrees: "China's changes have been greater in the 19 years since forming diplomatic ties with the US than in the centuries before that."
When China's first emperor built his capital in Xian, he conscripted tens of thousands of laborers into building one of country's first great walls to prevent infiltration by foreign "barbarians." Yet rising above Xian's ancient walls today are satellite dish antennas. In China generally, the number of Internet users doubles yearly. Young people are plugging themselves into the global village.
While Emperor Qin Shihuang consolidated his rule in 221 BC by burying alive dissident scholars and burning heterodox books, "China's bookshops today are being flooded with translations of Western works," says a liberal-minded official in Beijing.
US officials say few Americans are aware of the steps the Communist Party has taken to loosen its grip over society. "Many Americans see Chinese tanks facing down student protesters when they think of China, and Clinton's trip is aimed at presenting diverse images of how quickly China is changing," the Western official adds.
"Broadcasts from Xian will beam back images of an ancient, mysterious, romanticized China, and they will be followed by pictures of the Great Wall in Beijing and the gleaming skyscrapers and wild stock market in Shanghai," he says.
China is frantically taking measures to airbrush those images before they are aired on American television.
"In the last weeks, Xian's government has cleared the streets of prostitutes, drugs, and pirated [American] compact discs to prepare for Clinton's visit," says a Chinese-American scholar who recently traveled to the city in the middle of China.
Although the party wiped out prostitution and narcotics use in the years after the 1949 communist revolution, many social ills have returned with the market reforms of the past two decades.
Yet China apparently aims to portray itself as being blessed with both the dynamism of capitalist reforms and the moral purity of a state-planned society.
A Xian official contacted by telephone confirmed the recent crackdown, but said it was "part of China's 'Strike Hard' anti-crime campaign rather than preparation for Clinton's visit." The official, who declined to identify herself, added that she was "unaware that any dissidents had been rounded up before the visit."
She said the prime stop on Clinton's tour of Xian would be a trip to Qin Shihuang's magnificent tomb, which is surrounded by thousands of terra-cotta warriors and chariots. Beijing's leaders often refer to China's millennia-old civilization when dealing with the United States - a restless youth on the world stage.
Chinese tour guides may likely tell Clinton that Qin's sculpted army was created 1,700 years before Columbus. But they may not disclose on the fate of the clay warriors' creators.
"For centuries, tales have been passed down by word of mouth that Qin Shihuang ordered the sculptors of the terra-cotta warriors to be buried alive with him," says an art lecturer in Beijing. "The warriors were designed to protect the emperor in the afterlife, and a smaller army of artists was buried with the soldiers to protect the secrecy of Qin's tomb," he adds.
Mao Tse-tung often held Emperor Qin up as a model and once bragged that he had outdone Qin in ruthlessness. But China's current leaders seem to be plotting out a post-totalitarian future. "Today we have more freedom than at any other time in Chinese history to create what we want," says the art lecturer.