Road warriors

Times Staff Writer

On Sunday, an army of ancient Chinese soldiers who were buried for 2,000 years will march into Santa Ana's Bowers Museum, the result of the largest loan of terra cotta figures and artifacts to visit the United States since their astonishing 1974 discovery.

Actually, the 14 life-size human figures are already in town, having landed May 4 at Ontario International Airport and been transported, complete with police and helicopter escort, to the museum. The warriors -- not only fighters but also court officials, acrobats and generals, though no females -- will be on display through Oct. 12 in "Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor," a sample of the contents of the vast tomb complex of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

The warriors came toting plenty of "luggage" that would never fit in the overhead: about 100 sets of objects including weapons and armor. Also on board: a life-sized terra cotta cavalry horse, as well as a bronze crane and swan.

After closing on Oct. 12 at the Bowers, the show -- earlier presented at the British Museum in London, with a different title and curatorial plan -- will travel to Houston's Museum of Natural Science and the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C.

With a price tag of $2 million, the show represents the Bowers' most expensive presentation, which will be reflected in the top admission price of $27, also an all-time high for the venue, though the ticket includes an audio tour.

Museum officials said it's impossible to predict attendance but hope it will exceed the numbers for past blockbusters, including 2000's "Forbidden City" exhibition (120,000 visitors in nine months) and "The Holy Land: David Roberts, Dead Sea Scrolls House of David Inscription" show in 2001 (more than 70,000 visitors in three months). Since 1982, when four terra cotta warriors and horses were displayed at the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., warrior collections have turned up at various museums worldwide, including the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1998. The objects coming to Santa Ana are from 11 institutions located near the emperor's tomb, including the Museum of the First Emperor's Terra Cotta Army and Horses, the Lintong Museum and the Xian Institute for Archaeological Protection.

Bowers President Peter C. Keller said that insurance -- including earthquake insurance -- drives costs skyward. He added that there are more curators on board than unusual, including three visiting from China. And, Keller added, the museum has renovated its special exhibition galleries for the warriors with upgraded floors and security systems.

Often called "the eighth wonder of the ancient world," the terra cotta warriors rank in the top 10 of tourist attractions in China, along with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Construction of the tomb took 38 years and is said to have involved 700,000 workers who used an assembly-line method. Each figure is noted for having a unique facial expression.

Meet the warriors:

Warrior history: It's enough to make Tut turn over in his tomb: Farmers digging a well near Xian in the Shanxi Province found a terra cotta head -- and that discovery led to one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of its time: an underground vault containing columns of life-sized warriors in battle formation. The 8,000 figures, including musicians, acrobats and animals, were buried to protect and serve the emperor in the afterlife, to help him rule for all time. More than 1,000 life-sized figures have been unearthed, and the excavation continues.

Credited with unifying China and launching the initial construction of the Great Wall, Qin Shi Huang remains a controversial figure. His ambitious projects, including the mausoleum, were built at the expense of many lives. He outlawed Confucianism and buried many of its scholars alive. Obsessed with his immortality after numerous assassination attempts, he downed life-extending potions and launched a massive naval expedition to search for the elixir of life.

Shipping and handling: Would you believe United Parcel Service? Why not, said UPS spokesman Dan Mackin. After all, UPS, which donated transportation services, has moved hospital equipment, pandas, giant whale sharks and, once, an iceberg for a museum exhibition.

In Shanghai, the crated warriors were loaded onto a Boeing 747-400F cargo jet, made a stop in Anchorage, then continued to Ontario International Airport. The ground crew had to be specially trained to deal with this type of aircraft, which had never landed at Ontario before. "The entire nose of the aircraft opens," Mackin said.

Mackin estimated that more than 100 people were involved in the transport, including engineers, meteorologists and a load master to calculate speed and fuel needs based on weight; the warriors, from 60 to 72 inches tall, can weigh more than 600 pounds each.

You bought it, you break it: Longtime Bowers exhibit designer Paul Johnson wanted to show visitors what the warriors looked like before restoration; most were cracked when the roof of the tomb collapsed. So he bought some new terra cotta warrior replicas -- and broke them.

"We didn't want to break them into smithereens, so I set some foam outdoors along our back delivery yard and just pushed them over the way they probably would have gotten hit when the roof caved in," Johnson said.

The 60-inch figures were provided by China Star, a wholesaler of Asian cultural products for museums and general gift ware. China Star Vice President Geoffrey Carroll recalled that when he quoted the hefty packing costs to Keller, the museum director replied: "We appreciate your care and consideration, but we're going to break the darn things anyway." Still, the items were packed with the usual care so Johnson could do his strategic damage on site.

Get one for the patio: China Star's Carroll also noted the ubiquity of the terra cotta warrior; replicas of all sizes, materials and levels of authenticity can be found at home improvement outlets including Expo Design Centers and Armstrong Garden Centers -- in fact, Keller noted that a neighbor has a couple of warriors flanking the backyard barbecue.

China Star supplies the life-size terra cotta warrior copies that guard the chow mein at P.F. Chang's China Bistro restaurants. Carroll added that, due to the machismo factor, warriors have always been popular Father's Day gifts -- though with a retail price of $1,400 to $2,000, a life-size warrior will run you more than a tie or coffee mug that reads "world's greatest dad."

Lucky 8: Keller said that the Bowers negotiated hard to make sure the museum would be the first of the three to present the show, thus opening in 2008 rather than 2009. Why? Partly to exhibit the Chinese treasures in the same year as the Summer Olympics in Beijing, and partly because the No. 8 is considered good luck in China. In Chinese culture, numbers are thought to be auspicious or inauspicious because of the Chinese word that sounds similar to the word for that number. Eight (pinyin) sounds similar to the word that means "prosper" or "wealth." Olympic planners took the concept to heart: The Games will open at 8 p.m. Aug. 8, 2008 (08-08-08).

Is that you, Jarry? From the dictionary of unusual career choices: Performer Zheng Chi Chang, known in the West as Jarry, has been doing "live statue performance art" in Taiwan for more than a decade. The statuesque Jarry will appear as a warrior at the exhibition's opening gala tonight and members' reception Thursday so attendees may guess who is terra cotta and who isn't. Hint: If you see a warrior, say, sipping Champagne, either it's Jarry, or time to get out of that museum before dark.

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diane.haithman@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday, May 28, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 116 words Type of Material: Correction 'Terra Cotta Warriors': An article in the May 17 Calendar section on the Bowers Museum's exhibition of 14 of China's ancient terra cotta warriors said that since 1982, when four terra cotta warriors and horses were displayed at the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., such collections have turned up at various museums worldwide. Some warriors had previously appeared as part of an exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The article also misspelled China's Shaanxi Province as Shanxi Province. In addition, the article gave "pinyin" as the Chinese word for "eight." Pinyin is the phonetic system by which a Chinese word is registered in our alphabet. The word for eight is commonly rendered as "ba."
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