Museum Hours
Thu: 1 PM–8 PM
Fri–Mon: 10 AM–5 PM
Tue–Wed: Closed
200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

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

Feb 22, 2013 – May 27, 2013

Terracotta Warriors

The First Emperor, Qin Shihuang (259–210 BCE) conquered much in this life, but his driving purpose was even greater: He sought to conquer death.

In order to achieve immortality, he built himself a tomb — a vast underground city guarded by a life-size terracotta army including warriors, infantrymen, horses, chariots, and all their attendant armor and weaponry.

First unearthed in 1974, the underground burial complex of the First Emperor is a revelation for the ages, an astonishing discovery on par with Egypt’s mummies and elaborate tombs. Contemporary observers continue to be enthralled by his legacy, and it is through this ongoing interest that the First Emperor did indeed achieve immortality. This exhibition includes ten figures — a representative sample of the actual army, which is estimated to include more than 7,000 life-sized figures and over 10,000 weapons.

The First Emperor's Legacy

The underground terracotta army found in the First Emperor’s burial complex is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable and mysterious discoveries from the ancient world.

A sprawling citadel has been unearthed, complete with gardens and stables, bronze ritual vessels, jade jewelry, and a wealth of gold and silver ornaments.

Besides revealing much about an ancient way of life, observing the physical construction of the underground complex and the methodical production of the figures reveals a set of themes from which we gain a window of insight to the First Emperor’s worldview and enduring influence. By viewing the exhibit through the lens of these themes — immortality, innovation, archaeology, and unification — we see more clearly Qin Shihuang’s extraordinary vision, insatiable quest for power, and his contribution to historical and modern-day China.


The First Emperor leaves behind a controversial legacy — he was a leader willing to kill in the name of unification.

He is also known for stunning innovations that consolidated his rule through modernization. During his reign, he introduced the standardization of currency, writing, measurements, and more. He connected cities and states with advanced systems of roads and canals. He is also credited with continuing the construction of the Great Wall, which is perhaps the most widely known symbol associated with China to this day.

Sword, 475–221 BCE. China. Bronze. Baoji Municipal Institute of Archaeology, Shaanxi, EX 2013.1.033.

He is regarded as a military genius, and while his methods included massacre and destruction, some claim that his ultimate success at bringing the states together justifies the violence, a necessary cost of nation-building. We will also see, under the archaeology theme, incredible advancements that represent the first assembly-line style production in the creation of his terracotta warriors, horses, and chariots.


Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the burial complex is what it suggests about the young Emperor’s obsession with immortality.

Driven to conquer death itself, the eventual First Emperor ascended to the throne of the Qin state at age of 13 and immediately began to plan his burial, and more importantly, his underground palace, a mausoleum attended by an army including over 7,000 terracotta warriors horses, chariots, and weaponry intended to protect him in the afterlife. The First Emperor envisioned a subterranean domain that would parallel his worldly existence after corporal death.

According to Han-dynasty historian Sima Qian, the First Emperor lined his burial complex with a treasury of riches and piles of precious gemstones said to represent the stars, sun and moon. He was deeply concerned with the universe and looked to the cosmos as a guide for crossing over to an immortal existence.

Excavation also revealed other mysterious findings, like strangely high levels of mercury and evidence that the poisonous substance coursed through an intricate system of underground troughs, replicating the topography of the actual rivers and seas carving the surrounding landscape. Some suggest that the emperor believed mercury had life-giving power and so surrounded himself with the toxic element, believing it was yet another way he might live forever. While the initial excavations tell us much about this fascinating character, such mysteries surrounding his true beliefs and intentions abound.

Unification of China

Of all the accomplishments from this extraordinary period, the unification of China is, without question, the greatest symbol of the Qin dynasty’s power and influence.

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). By 221 BCE, he merged the seven warring states into one nation and took the name Qin Shihuang, which means First Emperor. He left a legacy of a centralized and bureaucratic state that would be carried onto successive dynasties over the next two millennia.

Prior to his taking the throne, the Qin state had been in existence for over half a century — under the single clan Ying though never under the despotic rule of one individual. The rulers of the State of Qin had gradually expanded their domain of neighboring states over the centuries, but the slow effort culminated in ultimate victory when The First Emperor succeeded — through any means necessary — in uniting the once-divided empire. Many of the objects featured in the exhibition, like bronze ritual and jade artifacts, gold and silver ornaments, and palatial architectural components, illustrate and celebrate the emergence of the Qin State.


When the burial complex was first discovered by farmers in 1974, archaeologists set to work on one of the most astonishing ancient sites on record.

The excavation uncovered a sprawling citadel with thousands of warriors, each designed with a unique face and clothing. In addition to the warriors themselves, the dig uncovered horses, chariots, bronze ritual vessels, jade jewelry, and gold and silver ornaments. According to historian Sima Qian, the emperor so feared that his artisans “might disclose all the treasure that was in the tomb . . . [that] after the burial and sealing up of the treasures, the middle gate was shut and the outer gate closed to imprison all the artisans and laborers, so that no one came out.”

The story of the burial complex is also fascinating because it was conceived by such a very young individual. Court records reveal that, despite taking the throne at the age of 13 (in 246 BCE), the eventual emperor ordered construction to begin almost immediately. Enormous numbers of laborers worked on the project, which was halted as the dynasty neared collapse. To date, four pits have been partially excavated. Three contain terracotta soldiers, horse-drawn chariots and weapons. The fourth pit was found empty, a testament to the original unfinished construction.

One of the most extraordinary features of the terracotta warriors is that each appears to have distinct features — an incredible feat of craftsmanship and production. Despite the custom construction of these figures, studies of their proportions reveal that their frames were created using an assembly production system that paved the way for advances in mass production and commerce.

Armored kneeling archer (detail), 221–206 BCE. China. Terracotta. Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, Shaanxi, EX 2013.1.078.

This archer figure retains traces of the original pigment. The nature of these pigments is one of the recent discoveries made during ongoing excavation of the burial complex.

Archaeologists estimate that the objects, including figures, horses, and weapons, number in the thousands, though the true total may never be known.

Lost Warrior

We found the lost warrior, thanks to all of you

On January 23, 2013, a terracotta figure became separated from his cohorts as they were en route from China to San Francisco. He and his seven fellow warriors, along with two life-size horses, were scheduled to appear in the special exhibition China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy which was to open on February 22. We issued a plea seeking the public’s assistance in locating this missing warrior, as his timely return was of utmost importance.

2,112 years old, 5’ 5” tall, mud-colored, and not speaking a word of English, we suspected he would stick out in a crowd but were concerned for his safety. People were encouraged to inform us of any sightings by posting photos to Twitter, Instagram, or our Facebook wall —a nd tagging their posts with #LostWarrior so we could track his whereabouts.

We received an overwhelming number of kind responses from the community. Those who spotted the lost warrior pitched in by participating in social media, lighting up the online map which allowed us to make educated guesses on the warrior’s trajectory. On the morning of February 20, Moses Carbins, an erstwhile homeless man, discovered the roaming warrior at the United Nations Plaza Farmers’ Market in Civic Center. He personally led the warrior through the museum’s front doors where they were both greeted with warm fanfare.

Thanks to everyone who lent a helping hand. Here are some more details on the wayward warrior’s happy reunion with his troop.

Updates from the museum

2/20/13 – Lost Warrior Found
2/13/13 – Sergio Romo and Martin Yan Join Search for Museum’s Lost Warrior
2/8/13 – KTSF spots the Lost Warrior in Mountain View
2/7/13 – News coverage from KNTV
1/25/13 – Media Alert: First Sighting of the Lost Warrior
1/25/13 – SF Ballet’s Yuan Yuan Tan asks for your help.
1/24/13 – Director Jay Xu makes a personal plea for your help.
1/23/13 – The Asian Art Museum issued an urgent alert today for residents and visitors to be on the lookout for a Chinese Terracotta Warrior wandering the Bay Area.


Media Alert: Lost Warrior Found

Figure rejoins troop in time for big exhibition.

SAN FRANCISCO, Feb 20, 2013—The Asian Art Museum today announced that its “lost” Chinese terracotta warrior, reported missing and wandering the Bay Area, has been found. Moses Carbins, an erstwhile San Francisco homeless man, discovered the roaming warrior at United Nations Plaza’s Heart of the City Farmers Market on Wednesday, Feb. 20, and personally led the warrior through the museum’s front doors at 200 Larkin Street.

On Jan. 23, the museum announced that the terracotta figure had become separated from his cohorts en route to San Francisco. He and his seven fellow warriors, along with two life-size horses and more than 100 other ancient artifacts, are scheduled to appear in the museum’s special exhibition, China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy. (Feb. 22–May 27). Museum officials sought the public’s help locating and directing the lost warrior to the museum before the exhibition opens this Friday.

“I know our city well, and it’s not every day that you see a 2,112-year-old, mud-colored figure roaming the streets,” said Carbins. “In fact, until recently, I lived on the streets—actually not far from the museum. I had no real home for more than twenty years. So I know a little something about helping people find their way off the streets.”

Carbins is the subject of Moses, a documentary film currently in production by Fran Guijarro Hernandez, a San Francisco filmmaker and instructor at Academy of Art University. The film tells the fascinating story of one man’s on-again, off-again, on again recovery from living on the streets of San Francisco. More information about the film can be found at

“On behalf of the Asian Art Museum and the entire city, I thank Moses Carbins for escorting our lost warrior to the museum this morning,” said Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum. “Like his biblical namesake, Moses has delivered our warrior, allowing him to rejoin his troop on view here in our galleries—just in time to welcome our first visitors. Nearly 23,000 people, including more than 14,000 school children, have already reserved their tickets to see the exhibition.”

To help with the search for the warrior, the museum created a special interactive website,, to track his movements. Over the past few days tipsters uploaded photos of warrior sightings at the de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences, Pier 39, Contemporary Jewish Museum, SFMOMA, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, M.Y. China at Westfield Centre, Hotel Rex, Hotel Carlton, and San Francisco Symphony, among other locations. He was also photographed at Union Square with a gaggle of Cathay Pacific flight attendants, and strolling Dolores Park in the Mission District.

Organizers & Sponsors

This exhibition was 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. Images: Armored General, Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE). China. Terracotta. Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, serial number 002747.


Fred Eychaner
Timothy and Virginia Foo
Douglas A. Tilden—Education Programs Sponsor


Robert Tsao
Silicon Valley Bank
Pacific Gas and Electric Company