China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy

The Asian Art Museum kicks off its 10-year anniversary with an epic exhibition from one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in modern times—don’t miss it! The exhibition will be on view from February 22–May 27, 2013 at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. 

China’s Terracotta Warriors presents ten life-size terracotta figures — the maximum number permitted outside China in a single exhibition. Accompanying the figures are 110 rare objects from underground sites surrounding the First Emperor’s tomb and early Qin dynasty burial chambers — some newly discovered — from bronze weapons, sculptures of waterfowl, and a ceremonial limestone suit of armor to tiny gold animal-like figurines, all of which create an evocative picture of the First Emperor’s obsession with eternity and the afterlife. 

The exhibition also includes a multimedia tour (which may be rented at the museum or downloaded for free), and the museum’s first-ever iOS app, which will offer visitors a 3D-augmented reality experience of several exhibition objects

First unearthed in 1974, the burial complex of Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of the short-lived Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), is an astonishing discovery, an archaeological find on par with the tombs of Egypt’s great pharaohs. At nearly 250,000 square feet — more than four American football fields — it includes a scale replica of the emperor’s imperial palace, complete with stables, offices, an armory, and even a zoo. The burial site tells the story of a young emperor whose quest for immortality inspired his massive military campaigns to conquer territory and time. The burial complex, with its magnitude and diversity of treasures, has earned recognition as the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the First Emperor’s burial complex has attracted millions of visitors.

“In 1994, the Asian Art Museum, then located in Golden Gate Park, was among the first institutions to present the terracotta warriors to a US audience,” said Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum. “The 2013 exhibition offers a new generation the rare chance to view the figures up close. Visitors will also discover new secrets from the tomb complex, all lending vivid detail to the fascinating story of the First Emperor’s reign and his quest for immortality.”

According to Zhao Rong, director of the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau, the core of the exhibition is drawn from recent excavations and comes from thirteen museums and archaeological institutions in Shaanxi and beyond. He says the two-thousand-year-old objects are precious cultural relics that reflect the splendor of Chinese history and culture. 

The entire first floor of the museum will be dedicated to China’s Terracotta Warriors, and visitors are invited to create their own pathway through the exhibition, tailoring their experience to their own interests. Three exhibition galleries are organized by theme: the emperor’s search for immortality, the creation of his vast empire, and the terracotta figures themselves. 

Lee Gallery: Quest for Immortality 

The story of the terracotta army begins with the First Emperor and his quest for immortality. Immediately on his rise to power at the age of 13, the eventual emperor, then a king, began to commit vast resources — enormous numbers of laborers, mass quantities of precious metals — to digging his subterranean tomb structure and its terracotta army, including chariots, horses, fittings, weaponry, and ritual vessels. Although he conquered and unified neighboring regions, he was most intent on vanquishing death.  

Most of the objects on view in Lee Gallery explore the theme of immortality, illustrating Chinese belief systems from the First Emperor’s era. Visitors will discover items used in rituals, such as a ceremonial sword (cat. 32) from the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE). Unearthed from an aristocratic tomb, this delicately ornamented sword likely belonged to a chief commander, who would have used it in rites conducted for victory in war. 

Lee Gallery will also showcase artifacts from a pit discovered in 2001 containing fifteen terracotta musicians and forty-six life-size bronze water birds. Some archaeologists believe the pit represents a royal park or sacred water garden. Such items as a bronze crane (cat. 82) from 221-206 BCE suggest that the emperor hoped to replicate earthly objects in the afterworld.

Other objects in the gallery reveal a tradition of human sacrifice, including forced and voluntary burial of living people during construction of the burial complex as a means of providing companionship to tomb occupants in the afterlife. The cavalry and horse (cat. 57) from the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) is an example of such objects.

Hambrecht Gallery: Empire Building

Of all the accomplishments and innovations during this period, the unification of China under the First Emperor is among the greatest. Born in a time of turmoil in China’s history, known as the Warring States period (475-221 BCE), the First Emperor founded the short-lived Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), during which he merged the seven states into a single entity. His legacy of a centralized and bureaucratic state persisted in successive dynasties for thousands of years. Many objects featured in the exhibition — bronze tools, gold and silver ornaments, and palace architectural components — reflect the inspiration and influences of the Qin state.  

This gallery explores the story of the First Emperor’s rise to power and his rule over a unified China. His successes extended beyond the battlefield. The emperor implemented sweeping legal reforms, including regulations for city planning, a standardized writing system, and a single currency, among other breakthroughs. A variety of objects paints a picture of Qin culture, from early state-building to the great age of unification. Featured objects include ritual bronzes and vessels for holding food, drink, and water. 

Inscriptions on many of the objects help identify their function and the nature of rituals, including the celebration of military success, marriage, harvests, and, most often, ancestral spirits. The variety of forms and decorations in this gallery testify to the artistic flourishing of the Qin empire. 

Osher Gallery:  Underground Army

The colossal burial complex is the ultimate expression of the First Emperor’s obsession with life in the afterworld. By the time of his death in 210 BCE, the burial site had been under construction for more than three decades. Historian Sima Qian (145–90 BCE) writes that the burial complex took nearly forty years to build. Today, thirty-nine years after the tomb’s discovery, excavation continues. The emperor’s tomb remains unopened, and its contents a secret. 

According to historian Sima Qian, fearing that the artisans “might disclose all the treasure that was in the tomb,” the emperor sealed the gate to “imprison all the artisans and laborers, so that not one came out.” Perhaps because of this, the terracotta army remained unknown. Its chance discovery by farmers in 1974 took the world by surprise. 

The scale of the army — nearly 8,000 terracotta warriors are estimated at the site — is unprecedented. Also remarkable is the fact that the army includes warriors of all ranks (each individually constructed in part, with no two faces alike), as well as acrobats, musicians, and horses. 

Additional excavations of the burial site have uncovered a complex of offices, reception halls, stables, sacrificial pits, an armory, an entertainment arena, and an imperial zoo.

Osher Gallery presents the army that guarded the First Emperor in the afterworld. Here, visitors can see terracotta warriors of varying ranks, including an armored general and an armored kneeling archer, as well as weapons and battle fittings, including a limestone suit of armor (cat. 91). Also in this gallery are numerous intriguing objects that accompanied the military guarding the First Emperor’s tomb — two terracotta horses, intricate horse fittings, bronze helmets, and weapons. 

China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy is organized by the Asian Art Museum in partnership with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau and Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Centre, People’s Republic of China. The Asian Art Museum’s presentation is curated by Li He, associate curator of Chinese art at the Asian Art Museum. The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive catalogue featuring essays by Liu Yang and other leading scholars, plus a full schedule of exhibition related public programs.


Adults $20 (weekdays) $22 (weekends); Seniors $16 (weekdays) $18 (weekends); College students with ID $16 (weekdays) $18 (weekends); Youth aged 13-17 $8. Asian Art Museum Members and children 12 and under are FREE. These prices include general admission. General admission is free the first Sunday of every month, thanks to Target Stores. ($10 dollar surcharge for special exhibition still applies. Tickets are available on a first come, first served basis.)

Advance reservations are recommended. Tickets can be purchased online at Reservations for group tickets are available at  All online tickets include a $1 handling charge. 

Information: 415.581.3500 or

Location: 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA 94102 

Hours: The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. From February through October, hours are extended on Thursdays until 9:00 pm. Closed Mondays, as well as New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

General Admission: FREE for museum members, $12 for adults, $8 for seniors (65+), college students with ID, and youths (13–17). FREE for children under 12 and SFUSD students with ID. Admission on Thursdays after 5:00 pm is $5 for all visitors (except those under 12, SFUSD students, and members, who are always admitted FREE). Admission is FREE to all on Target First Free Sundays (the first Sunday of every month). A surcharge may apply for admission into special exhibitions.

Access: The Asian Art Museum is wheelchair accessible. For more information regarding access: 415.581.3598; TDD: 415.861.2035.


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