The Terra Cotta Warriors of Qin Shi Huang March Into the Bowers Museum

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©Wang Da-Gang

Feats of Clay
The Terra Cotta Warriors of Qin Shi Huang March into the Bowers

When you're first confronted by Qin Shi Huang's famed, life-sized, terra-cotta soldiers, your Hollywood-damaged brain is tempted to see them as re-creations, as fiberglass props. They're like something from one of the Indiana Jones movies, sculptures guarding the ancient treasure, seemingly inanimate until our hero steps on the wrong floor panel, and then all of the figures suddenly creak to life, centuries of dust and dead bugs falling away as they reach for their stone swords.

They can't possibly be real, these warriors built to defend the glory of a man who has not breathed since before the time of Christ. And yet they are real, and they are here, next door to the Kidseum. Legendary fighting men who have been locked away for dozens of lifetimes while the world waged endless wars around them, they smell of dust, of history, of grandma's attic.

A whole platoon of these crumbling commandos, 14 men strong, has trooped into the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art for the "Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor" exhibition, bringing with them a full-sized horse and other animals—more than 100 objects, the largest-ever stateside show of artifacts from the First Emperor's tomb. Each figure is unique, constructed from modular elements like some kind of colossal, mix-and-match Lego kit. The figures are ranked, with the generals being the largest. They stand in rows or crouch low, ready for anything you've got to offer. Once upon a millennium, they were all painted in lifelike colors. Today, those colors are long gone, and all that remains is the fiddly detail of their original sculpting: the rivets of their armor, the little ties in their braided hair (don't call 'em bows), the rusted remnants of chain mail, the individual hairs of their mustaches.

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And those eerie, serene little smiles. The smiles actually make the warriors far more creepy than they would be if they were snarling or (no pun intended) stone-faced. They relish your intrusion. They lurk in the semi-darkness, lit by spotlights that cast sinister shadows across their faces, making them look like they're quietly calculating your every weakness.

Qin Shi Huang became a king at 13 and declared himself emperor at 38, uniting China and, in the process, systematically killing anybody who got on his nerves. But despite all his power, there was one foe that Qin Shi Huang could never defeat: the Grim Reaper. He decided that dying would serve as the gateway to a new world for him to conquer, and he put thousands of men to work building an entire tomb kingdom with towering palaces, offices for important post-life business and, by some accounts, whole rivers of mercury. He was buried with more than 8,000 stone figures: horses, chariot riders and his terra-cotta terrors—many of them facing east, as though to hold back any invaders from the warring states he had conquered in life. He also had his concubines and some unlucky tomb builders buried alive with him, so he wouldn't have to worry about them giving away the secrets of his treasures. Even in death, Qin Shi Huang remained an ostentatious, world-class son of a bitch.

The Bowers announced this show more than a year ago, but then Chinese officials had second thoughts about sending these treasures clear across the globe, and the show very nearly didn't happen. Anne Shih, vice chairwoman of the museum's board of governors, traveled to China six times and tapped every connection she had to bring the warriors to America. Once arrangements were made, Paul Johnson, the Bowers' director of exhibit design and fabrication, faced a desperate scramble: He and his crew had a week to set up an exhibit space that normally would've taken nearly a month. This was all a tremendously expensive process, and as a result, the weekend admission for adults is $27. That's only slightly less gouging than a terra-cotta blade between your ribs, but it's worth it. (Fridays between 4 and 7 p.m., 100 people will be admitted free.)

Qin Shi Huang wished to build an empire that would stand for all eternity. Now his city of the dead has been plundered, his warriors dispersed, his dreams of universal conquest a footnote in the history books. But stand face-to-face with one of his earthenware soldiers, look him right in his tranquil, unblinking eye, and you will feel a little shiver of the fright the First Emperor was so desperate for you to feel.

"Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor" at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600; Open Tues.-Thurs. & Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri., ?10 a.m.- 8 p.m. Through Oct. 12. ?$19-$27; children under 6, free.

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