Like ancient Greek sculptures of gods and goddesses, China's terra-cotta warriors, on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, would have been brightly painted.
Discovered by farmers digging a well in 1974, figures of the underground army of China's first emperor had reverted to the earthy color of the clay they were made of in the second century B.C. Nevertheless they are remarkably lifelike as they strike poses in the installation at the Asian.
A general, dignified, standing as if leaning on his sword, is a majestic figure. A kneeling archer, with a keen-eyed expression, seems ready to spring to life.
In all there are eight warriors and two horses, all slightly larger than life-size, on view in a dramatically lighted gallery at the heart of the museum. That is the maximum number of the roughly 8,000 terra-cotta figures allowed out of China at one time.
Accompanying the figures are 110 rare objects from underground sites around the emperor's tomb and early Qin dynasty burial chambers near Xian in the People's Republic. They range from bronze weapons, sculptures of waterfowl, and a ceremonial limestone suit of armor to intricately decorated vessels and tiny gold animistic figurines.
Referred to as the eighth wonder of the ancient world, the burial complex of Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of the brief Qin dynasty (221-205 B.C.) is an archaeological discovery on a par with the great pyramids of Egypt. Larger than four American football fields, it includes a made-to-scale replica of the emperor's imperial palace along with stables, offices, an armory and even a zoo.
The warriors and objects on view tell the story of a young emperor who, at the age of 13, embarked upon a path that would make him the first unifier of China.
The exhibition is divided into three parts: Quest for Immortality, Empire Building and Underground Army.
As soon as he rose to power at a remarkably early age, the king and eventual emperor began to build a tomb complex that would serve as his home in the afterlife. Enormous legions of laborers and massive amounts of precious metals were assembled to construct his subterranean tomb and its guardian army. Included were chariots, horses, fittings, weaponry and ritual vessels all designed to help vanquish death.
Among the items on view in the first gallery are a ceremonial bell (bo) inscribed with text that establishes Qin Shihuang's royal stature. With its numerous flanges that turn into dragons, it's an impressive object, as is a ceremonial iron sword whose haft is inlaid with gold and turquoise.
Among the dramatic items in this gallery is a line of life-size bronze water birds: a crane, symbolizing longevity, swans and geese. They are marvelously wrought, lifelike sculptures. Some scholars believe the pit that they came from represents a royal park or sacred water garden in which the emperor wished to replicate earthly pleasures in the afterlife.
Other objects, including a small sculpture of a cavalryman and horse, relate to the practice of human sacrifice, both forced and voluntary burial of living people during the construction of the tomb to provide companionship in the after world.
Empire building is the theme of the second gallery, which features objects relating to Qin Shihuang's efforts to unify China. He came to the throne in a time of turmoil, known as the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.). During his reign he merged the seven warring states into a single entity, establishing a centralized and bureaucratic state that lasted for thousands of years through successive dynasties.
The first emperor standardized weights and measures, currency and the Chinese writing system. He instituted sweeping legal reforms, made regulations for city planning, and built the first superhighways. Items in this gallery include a heavy weight inscribed with text, roof tiles, bronze tools and gold and silver ornaments.
The third gallery is devoted to the warriors and exemplifies the emperor's obsession with the afterlife. By the time of Qin Shihuang's death at age 49 in 210 B.C., his burial site had been under construction for more than 30 years.
Today, nearly four decades after its discovery, excavation continues. While three pits containing the underground army have been discovered, the emperor's tomb remains unopened, awaiting the necessary archaeological skills to uncover it.
The chance discovery of the underground army amazed the world. The sheer size of the army is unprecedented, and the troops include warriors of all ranks, as well as acrobats, musicians and horses. The warriors were made partially by a process of mass production, but each is individualized with its own facial expression, hairdo and dress indicating rank.
While almost all the color has faded from these noble warriors, the kneeling armored archer retains a faint green pigment on his face and scarf. According to Jay Xu, the Asian Art Museum's director, there are conflicting thoughts about why this warrior's face was green.
Some think it might have been battlefield camouflage, but others believe it marks the archer as a necromancer, one who communicated with the past in order to predict the future. Whatever the case, it is an intriguing figure, as are all the warriors, who were joined at the press preview by a "lost warrior" who had been wandering San Francisco streets for weeks in advance of the show's opening.
A human made up to look like a living terra-cotta warrior, the "lost warrior" wandered through the museum, posing for pictures with the general and looking as disoriented as one might expect a 2,000-year-old man to be after being brought to life.
Organized by the Asian Art Museum in partnership with the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts and the Shaanxi Cultural Relics Bureau and Cultural Heritage Promotion Center in the People's Republic of China, the exhibition, accompanied by a richly illustrated catalog, makes its only West Coast appearance at the San Francisco museum.
Because of the large crowds expected for this show, reservations are recommended.
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays. Through May 27.
Admission: Reservations recommended. $20 general (weekdays), $22 (weekends); $16 seniors and college students with ID (weekdays), $18 (weekends); $8 youths 13-17; free for children 12 and under and museum members. Prices include general admission, which is free the first Sunday of every month ($10 surcharge for special exhibition still applies. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis.)
Online purchase: www.asianart.org
Group reservations: email@example.com. All online tickets include a $1 handling fee.
Information: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org