NEW YORK - The Terracotta army of the First emperor of the Qin dynasty, Qinshihuang, unearthed in 1974 in Xi’an, China is regarded by some as the eighth wonder of the world. Numbering some 8,000 soldiers, I was fortunate enough to see ten of these figures up close and personal at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, when Jennifer Biederbeck, Director of Sotheby’s San Francisco, and I attended their Opening Night Gala for the exhibition of China’s Terracotta Warriors on 20  February 2013.

China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, February 22 – May 27, 2013.

The figures are displayed with dramatic light on raised platforms allowing viewers to get up close. Each soldier is unique, and were once covered with bright pigments.

I had seen some of these figures when I visited Xi’an in 2008, but there they were all behind glass. In the Asian Art Museum, the figures are displayed on a raised platform with only stanchions surrounding them to prevent you bumping your nose against them when you lean forward to get a closer look. Each of the figures is individually made with different costumes, hairstyles and facial features, in a variety of poses.

To be offered at the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Auction, 19th & 20th March 2013, New York: (left)  Lot 79, Eight Painted Gray Pottery Figures of Attendants, Han dynasty, Estimate: $8,000-12,000, (right) Lot 80, Five painted Gray Pottery Figures of Equestrians, Han dynasty, Estimate: $8,000-12,000.

The custom of producing sculptures as burial objects to substitute for human sacrifices began in the Shang and Zhou periods and flourished in the Qin (221-206 BC), Han and post-Han dynasties, all the way to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The belief was that objects used during one's life on earth would continue to be used in the afterlife. In the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale in New York on 19th and 20th March 2013, we have some smaller examples of funerary figures from the Han and Tang dynasties.

To be offered at the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Auction, 19th & 20th March 2013, New York: (left) Lot 81, A ‘Sancai’-glazed Pottery Figure of a Horse, Tang dynasty, Estimate: $20,000-30,000, (center) Lot 83, An Amber-glazed Pottery Figure of a Caparisoned Horse, Tang dynasty, Estimate: $10,000-15,000, (right) Lot 82, An Amber-glazed Pottery Figure of a Horse, Tang dynasty, Estimate: $20,000-30,000.

In traditional Chinese culture, death does not separate one from one’s family. Ancestors are venerated because of their ability to communicate with the gods and spirits, and for the continued protection they offer their descendants. Filial piety formed the basis of this belief. In different periods, different types of funerary wares were popular. During the Han, besides human attendants, it was common to find models of houses, wells and animal pens in tombs. In the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty, horses and camels laden with exotic merchandise, along with musicians and dancers, were popular.

(left) Lot 78, A Painted Gray Pottery Camel, Tang dynasty, Estimate: $10,000-15,000. (right) Lot 84,  A ‘Sancai’-glazed Pottery Figure of a Camel, Tang dynasty, Estimate: $30,000-50,000.

By the Qing dynasty, pottery sculptures had been replaced by those made of paper, which instead of being interred with the deceased, were burnt at funerals, serving as the medium by which these objects were transported to the afterlife. This custom continues today. A couple of years ago a vender in New York’s Chinatown was arrested by the police for trademark infringement because he was selling paper handbags intended to be burnt as offerings for the deceased that had Louis Vuitton and Burberry logos on them. My maternal grandmother wasn’t into designer goods, and at her funeral we burnt for her a three-story house staffed with maids and a security guard, a Mercedes Benz with a chauffeur, an airplane, a television and a video cassette player, all made of paper. I remember my mother asking me to write the names of grandma’s favorite television shows onto the paper VHS cassettes. This custom of offering replicas of a deceased loved-one’s favorite things is to me, more personal and thoughtful than offering flowers.

(left) Paper figures of attendants to be burnt as offerings to the deceased to serve them in the hereafter, Hong Kong 2009. (center) Roadside vendor selling paper funerary offerings, including boxed clothing and accessory sets and paper cans of beer, Hong Kong 2009. (right) Paper shoes to be burnt as offerings to the deceased.

Apart from the figures of warriors and horses on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, there are 100 other objects on display, including bronze ritual vessels, and surprisingly realistic bronze figures of birds.

(left) Chariot on display in the North court of the Asian Art Museum. (right) Exhibition of archaic bronze vessels.

The inclusion of these bird figures makes me think that despite his harsh public persona, Qinshihuang had a softer side. The army, horses and chariots were obviously buried to protect him, and the bronze vessels served ritual purposes, but the crane, duck and swan, so gracefully and sensitively rendered, were perhaps birds that he loved while he was alive, and wished to have with him for eternity. The swan and crane are so realistic, that they look as if they are about to move.

(left) Bronze crane. (center) Bronze duck. (right) Bronze swan.

Although funerary objects were the stars of the evening at the Asian Art Museum gala, the atmosphere that night was anything but tomb-like. A three-piece Chinese orchestra provided live music, there were dancers and martial arts performances, live models dressed as terracotta warriors, and a charity auction, that saw a landscape painting by Arnold Chang, former head of our Chinese painting department in New York, bring in $26,000 for the museum after an opening bid of $12,000.

(left) Three piece Chinese orchestra entertaining guests during the cocktail. (center) Dancers entertaining during dinner. (right) An live model dressed as a terracotta warrior.

Throughout his life, Qinshihuang prepared for death, while at the same time seeking immortality. By having the terracotta army made, he accomplished two goals—a fantastic final resting place, and ‘immortality.’ He still lives on in our consciousness today. The terracotta warriors have been exhibited at the British Museum (where they attracted the most visitors since the King Tutankhamun exhibition in 1972), the Forum de Barcelona in Barcelona, the Centro Cultural La Moneda in Santiago de Chile, the United States at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the National Geographic Society Museum in Washington, D.C. More people know of Qinshihuang today than during his own lifetime.  In this sense, his name will live on for eternity.

The Terracotta warriors are now on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco until May 2013.