"Let the show begin," declared Asian Art Museum director Jay Xu as he welcomed guests to a preview tour of "China's Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor's Legacy." The next day a Twitter post put it even more succinctly: "OMG! They're Here."

Yes, they're back, 19 years after the Asian Art Museum, then located in Golden Gate Park, was among the first to present a smaller selection of the terracotta warriors to American audiences. This time, there are eight life-size warriors, two horses and more than 100 other artifacts -- all over 2,000 years old.

There's been plenty of hoopla, including the appearance of a performer dressed as a warrior, complete with brown makeup, who "escaped" from the collection to roam the streets of San Francisco.

But for all the anticipation, the exhibit itself is not circuslike or overwhelming. It's a thoughtful, scholarly, yet often dramatic survey of ancient Chinese art and history.

The museum's renowned stagecraft comes into play in the stunning display of the terracotta figures in the largest of the three galleries for touring exhibits. The collection arrived from 13 museums in China via the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which organized the show.

"You'll never get so close to these warriors, no matter how often you see them," Xu said. Indeed, you could reach out and touch the figures -- of course you won't -- grouped together in the darkened gallery, as if they were protecting the first Chinese emperor's afterlife in his ancient tomb.


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The armored general, military officer, cavalrymen and archers are, up close, both intimately detailed and mysteriously distant. The superb installation puts visitors into the midst of the scene. On one wall is a photograph of the burial mound of the first emperor's tomb. Facing it, behind the warriors, a wall-size video presentation swoops across and into the excavation of the burial complex, where more than 2,000 warriors have been unearthed.

It may be the closest experience to being there.

There's more to discover. Most striking is a digitally restored image of one of the warriors, which would have been brightly painted originally, with a uniform of red, gold, purple, blue and green.

Yet the terracotta figures on display, a deep gray-brown after centuries of burial, are more haunting than the pageantlike painted images. As visitors to their "encampment," we can read more into them.

Interactive displays offer more details about the discovery of the burial complex in 1974, when workers found shards of terracotta as they were digging a well. Eventually unearthed was the colossal burial complex of Emperor Qin Shihuang (259-210 B.C.)

Terracotta Warriors are on display in front of projected photographs of the original excavation scene in a new exhibit, "China’s Terracotta
Terracotta Warriors are on display in front of projected photographs of the original excavation scene in a new exhibit, "China's Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor's Legacy" at the Asian Art Museum on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 in San Francisco. Only 10 sculptures are allowed out of China at any one time. (Karl Mondon/Staff) ( Karl Mondon )

Well beyond the scale of the Egyptian pharaohs' burial sites, the complex covers more than six acres. The "army pits," meant to provide protection to the emperor in the afterlife, are estimated to contain at least 7,000 warriors, 140 chariots, 560 chariot horses and 1,243 cavalry horses. Thousands of weapons have been unearthed, some still razor sharp.

Wall texts and videos explore ancient Chinese metal technology and military weaponry, the discovery and excavation and how the pits and their contents were crafted. The emperor had quite a labor force -- an estimated 800,000 workers over 40 years.

There was an army to protect the emperor in the afterlife, but what would he do for pleasure? Among the recent discoveries is what appears to be a royal park or sacred water garden, complete with menagerie. The Asian Art Museum show includes some of these artifacts, notably a bronze crane, a swan and two wild geese parading diagonally across the exhibit's first gallery.

The terracotta warriors display makes up only a third of this exhibit. There is far more to explore from Emperor Qin Shihuang's era, and even earlier, in the other galleries.

There's a remarkable balance in the selections. Tiny harness ornaments contrast with the big terracotta horses. An elaborate gold and turquoise sword handle makes up one display, the worn fragment of a bronze roof support another. The sword, by the way, is one of the few objects on display that suggests Chinese aristocratic splendor.

Many of these pieces were unearthed from the emperor's complex, many from other burial sites, which may explain how they have survived for more than 2,000 years.

A cavalryman on a horse, a mere 8 inches tall, is remarkable for its simplicity and its suggestion of similar earthenware figures from other cultures. Painted ceramic vessels, some with flamboyant and fragile detailing, were ritual objects created to mimic more expensive bronze. Many of the ceramics look surprisingly modern.

The bronze survivors are superb, among them a stunning, 27-inch-tall bell with an elaborate decorative pattern and four openwork flanges depicting intertwined dragons. It is one of a set of three discovered in 1978 in the region that served as the Qin capital as long ago as 714 B.C. On display nearby is a delightful ritual water kettle, with a spout and handle in the form of animals and a puzzled-looking bird perched on top as a lid.

Some of the more intriguing artifacts are the least "splendid." They were discovered in the 1970s among a cluster of palace foundations in that Qin capital. (A drawing shows a palace reconstruction.) On display are floor tiles, the decorated ceramic endpieces from tile roofs, and a bronze fitting that would have held together horizontal and vertical wooden building supports. It's the kind of design that's still being used today.

Amid all the art and artifacts, don't miss the five-sided earthenware drainpipe, about 20 inches wide, which, according to the exhibit catalog, suggests a drainage system "with unprecedented sophistication."

Not meant for the afterlife, it was one of the day-to-day necessities underground at the royal palace.

'china's terracotta warriors: The First emperor's legacy'

Through: May 27
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday
Admission: $8-$22; $10 Thursdays after 5 p.m; 415-581-3500, www.asianart.org