Image: Sun Zhouyong, Zheng Ning, Julie Lee
Mark Avery  /  AP
From left: Sun Zhouyong of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archeology, Zheng Ning of the Museum of the First Emperor's Terracotta Army, and Julie Lee, Bowers Museum Registrar and Collections Assistant, unpack a sword for the exhibition "Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor" at the museum in Santa Ana, Calif.
updated 5/16/2008 12:49:20 PM ET 2008-05-16T16:49:20

More than a dozen Chinese terra cotta warriors crafted more than 2,000 years ago to protect their emperor in the afterlife have arrived in the United States with a very different mission: cultural ambassadors.

As China gears up for the 2008 Olympics, the ancient life-sized clay statues of warriors, archers and chariot drivers go on display at the Bowers Museum as the largest loan of the warriors in U.S. history.

"Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor" opens Sunday and runs for five months before the warriors travel to Houston, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. over the next two years. It's a debut timed to the Beijing Olympics that was millions of dollars and four years in the making, said Peter Keller, Bowers president.

"This is really the start of the China we know today," Keller said of the ancient Qin Dynasty that produced the intricately crafted warriors. "If you're going to bring something to the United States during the Olympics — forgetting the politics of today — it's really pretty extraordinary."

Curators hope the show will pique the interest of Americans who are inundated with news of lead-contaminated Chinese toys, human rights violations in Tibet and rapid economic expansion — but who know nothing of the nation's ancient and storied past.

"China has changed so much over the years, but even though the warriors are very ancient their influence on today's China is very deep," said Bai Lisha, project manager of Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Center in Xi'an, China. "You can discover a lot about China from looking at these warriors."

The first warriors uncrated at the Bowers last week found themselves in a rather compromising position for soldiers charged with defending their emperor for eternity. Tight straps pinned them inside metal shipping containers and their hands — which once bristled with weapons — were muffled with layers of thick white gauze.

A burly moving crew slid the statues, which weigh about 500 pounds each, out of their crates and gently lowered them 6 inches to the floor as curators scrambled around, pointing out where each warrior should go.

For the Chinese, the clay army represents a critical link to Qin Shi Huang, a ruler who unified China for the first time in 221 B.C. after centuries of feuding among competing states. The emperor created a central government, mobilized hundreds of thousands of workers to build the Great Wall and standardized systems for writing, weights and measures and currency. The word China is even believed to come from the Qin (CHIN) legacy.

As powerful as he was in life, however, the tyrannical emperor was obsessed with his own immortality after surviving three attempts on his life. He conscripted thousands to build an elaborate, 23-square-mile necropolis complete with an army of an estimated 7,000 clay warriors, horsemen, horses and archers to guard him in the afterlife.

Image: Julie Lee
Mark Avery  /  AP
Julie Lee, Bowers Museum registrar and collections assistant, unwraps the face of a horse as terra cotta statues are unpacked for the exhibition "Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor," at the museum in Santa Ana, Calif.
The first of these warriors were discovered in 1974 by farmers trying to dig a well near Xi'an and were later named a world heritage site by the United Nations. Today, about 1,200 of the statues have been unearthed; more recently, archeologists found what are believed to be terra cotta acrobats, musicians and court officials who would have entertained and supported the emperor.

The exhibit at Bowers will feature 14 life-sized figures, including a horseman, a foot soldier, a chariot driver, archers, armored generals and officers, boatmen, a strongman, court officials and servants and a clay horse. Dozens of other items unearthed from the tomb site, including life-sized bronze birds, weapons, armor, pins and pendants and large bells will also be on display.

A similar exhibit last year at the British Museum in London attracted 500 people an hour — so many, the museum hired six psychologists to counsel overworked staffers. So far, the Bowers has pre-sold 13,000 tickets, said Heidi Simonian, museum spokeswoman.

Those who have studied the warriors believe the sculptors used as few as 10 face molds — taken from real people — and then added variations on mustaches, headgear, hairstyles and noses to make each one unique. Some are dressed in plate armor so detailed that dozens of individual rivets stand out; on others, shoes are sculpted complete with delicate shoelaces and soldiers sport strands of hair that delicately curl over their foreheads.

"Emperor Qin Shi Huang, he made everything, he made all these figures and horses piece by piece," said Sun Zhouyong, an archaeologist with the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology. "It makes them feel very real. There are even some soldiers from other areas, from northern China, and their faces look different."

Yet the technology behind the emperor's eternal entourage would not have been possible before Qin's rule, said Paul Johnson, the museum's vice president of exhibit design. During his 11-year reign, the Chinese learned how to make bricks by baking clay, which spurred tremendous innovation.

"A lot of people say that he was a terrorist, that he was a terror to his people, that he subjugated them," Johnson said. "But the creative aspects, the craftsmanship at that time, was incredible. They had the technology and they had the manpower and they put it to use."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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