On a recent Saturday, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco was as packed as I've ever seen it. Out front, tour buses idled, unloading scores of pilgrims who had journeyed to Civic Center to see ten of China's famous terracotta figures, the maximum number, we're repeatedly told, the Chinese government allows to leave the country for display in a single exhibition. Inside, little children hugged the legs or clutched the hands of their parents, gaping at frozen archers, infantrymen, generals and their horses, while sullen teenagers, exercising their uncanny ability to be selectively exhausted, sprawled on gallery benches, faces down, wondering how much longer they'd be forced to endure all this boring fuss about some dead guy who thought he could achieve immortality by commissioning a 250,000 square foot burial site guarded by some 8,000 statues.
While the figures are the obvious stars of China's Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor's Legacy, on view through May 27, 2013, the crowds appeared equally smitten by the 110 other objects on view in this handsomely designed exhibition.
Armored kneeling archer, 221 - 206 BCE
The first treasures are revealed in the Lee Gallery, where the roots of Emperor Qin Shihuang's "Quest for Immortality" are explored. The first object we see is a bronze "Bo" bell made some time between 770 and 476 BCE, as much as half a millennia before Qin's brief reign. Bells are related to the spirit world because it was thought the sound attracted one's ancestors. As for the bell's serpentine, decorative flanges, they were thought to amplify the instrument's sound.
Iron sword with gold and turquoise hilt, 770 - 476 BCE
Another highlight of this lovely room is an iron sword, whose gold and turquoise hilt is a Tetris-like tangle of dragons. But the gallery's show-stoppers are the life-sized pair of incredibly realistic bronze geese, who, along with a bronze swan and crane, appear to be making their way diagonally across the small, darkened space. Their naturalistic positioning in the gallery mimics the way in which they were discovered in 2001, almost three decades after the first terracotta figures were unearthed by farmers in 1974.
The next gallery, devoted to the emperor's unification of China's seven warring states, features a collection of ceramic roof tiles and other architectural elements from the emperor's palace, as well as examples of knife- and spade-shaped coins, which circulated before the young emperor standardized coinage into the familiar circle shape (a symbol of heaven) with a square hole in its center (earth). Don't miss the decorative belt buckles (I loved the little jade duck), but even more interesting are the modest, lacquered earthenware funeral vessels that were sometimes used in tombs instead of fancier, more expensive, bronze pieces -- many of those are also on display.
Decorative gold tiger for horse harness, 475-221 BCE
But the objects that are certain to lure most people to the museum are in the Osher Gallery, whose dim, dramatic lighting and cool temperature are your first clues that this is the place. As you peek past the throngs, there they are, the famous warriors, standing or kneeling, mute and staring into space. The warriors are as lifelike as you'd expect them to look but so lifelike as to cause you worry they might spontaneously animate. On the day I attended, every other person seemed to be taking a non-flash photograph, either of the figures or of themselves posed in front of them. And yes, people were counting, to make sure they had gotten their full complement of ten terracottas for their $22 weekend adult ticket price. (For the record, there are eight warriors and two horses, one used in cavalry, the other to pull chariots.)
On the way out, don't miss the suit of armor and helmet made of rectangular limestone plates, which are "sewn" together with strips of copper. Too heavy for battle, these suits, which have been found in the thousands, are thought to have been created exclusively for funereal purposes.
Limestone suit of armor, 221-206 BCE
In the end, the lengths to which Qin Shihuang went in his quest for immortality, to say nothing of the suffering his people undoubtedly endured to achieve it on his behalf, are remarkable. Whether the emperor succeeded or not we'll never know, but more than 2,000 years later, his legacy, at least, is very much alive.
China's Terracotta Warriors runs through May 27, 2013, at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit asianart.org.