When China's first emperor ordered a tomb more than 2,200 years ago, he was just a teenager planning ahead. By the time he died nearly 40 years later, his burial complex was a vast underground city three miles wide and equally long. In its dark tunnels, row upon row of terracotta warriors -- 7,000-some archers, cavalry officers, generals and their lieutenants -- stood guard against tomb robbers and assaults from the realm of spirits.

According to legend, booby traps, poisons and rivers of deadly mercury reinforced their bulwarks.

It worked for centuries. Then came the well drillers. In 1974, farmers sinking a well pulled up shards of terra cotta. Soon, word of emperor Qin Shihuang's ghostly realm electrified the world.

Eight life-sized terracotta warriors and two horses from the tomb will star in a show opening Sunday at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "China's Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor's Legacy" includes life-sized bronze birds, architectural fragments, ritual vessels and gold ornaments on loan from 13 Chinese museums.

While excavations in the central Chinese province of Shaanxi have been going on for 38 years -- exactly how long the original tomb construction took -- much of the exhibit's material came to light recently and some has never been shown outside China. It will travel to San Francisco's Asian Art Museum after closing in Minneapolis Jan. 20.

Curse of the emperor's tomb?

Guarding a dead ruler for two millennia was no picnic, and neither was the trip to Minneapolis.

"We've gone through just endless problems," said Liu Yang, the show's Chinese-born curator. Liu started planning in June 2011 immediately after he was picked to chair the institute's Asian Art department. With a doctorate in Chinese art and archaeology from the University of London, he knew the turf and had even organized a 2010 show from the emperor's hoard. Even so, he was nearly flummoxed by bureaucratic snafus.

After visiting the 13 museums that have contributed to the show, he chose objects, negotiated loans and submitted a list to the Chinese agency that oversees international expos. The list was approved. He wrote catalog essays on each of the 120 items. Institute staffers began making shipping arrangements, checking insurance policies, seeking sponsors, designing publications and planning the installation.

Museum shows typically require four years of preparation; the 16-month schedule for "Warriors" was extremely fast-track.

"Then in December I learned that half of the works were taken by other shows," Liu said. "I had to fly to Shaanxi and fight to get some works back from a show in Hong Kong." He was accompanied by Jay Xu, director of the San Francisco museum. Together they pulled strings.

"Through our connections, we actually got better works, so I am very happy with this show," Liu said. Nevertheless, he had to write new catalog entries for half the exhibition, and the publication was further delayed because photos weren't available until late summer. (Catalogs are scheduled to appear next week.)

The art arrived last week and the museum's staff spent the weekend unpacking and installing objects. Everything had to be carefully inspected to assure there was no damage in transit, and the fragile warriors had to be reassembled from their separate parts -- heads, torsos, arms, hands, legs and feet.

Hassles aside, the show may have been improved by the delays. China's official policy for foreign exhibits sets a 20 percent limit on the proportion of rare, top-quality antiquities.

"But you can get around that, and in this show we have much higher than 20 percent," Liu said. "In China, a rule is a rule, but there are also personal ties or relationships that sometimes make things more easy. But that is true in many places, is it not?" he added with a smile.

The warriors

About 6 feet tall and clothed in knee-length tunics and chest armor, the warriors are resolutely noble figures. Faint traces of paint still animate their baked clay bodies, marking blue sleeves and neck scarves, red tassels, green leggings, a bit of white in an eye. Although they were mass-produced from molds and then kiln-fired, the figures are also individualized. Infantrymen have hair tied in topknots, generals wear squarish hats, cavalrymen all sport small caps. Their actual armor would have been made of leather, probably riveted together with metal buttons.

One figure is especially striking -- a kneeling archer whose weapon is long gone, as are the staves and spears that other soldiers once clutched. Scholars speculate that tomb robbers may have stolen the weapons for use in the rebellions that later roiled the kingdom. Or perhaps they merely rotted away, or were destroyed in a fire that at some point ravaged part of the tomb, destroying its wooden ceiling and collapsing some tunnels.

Pointing to the upturned sole of the archer's shoe, Liu said its finely quilted pattern reminded him of childhood. "My grandmother made shoes for us from worn-out clothes that she sewed together in layers. The stitches were very similar."

The emperor

The exhibit is unusual in providing background for the First Emperor's 15-year reign (221-206 B.C.). During the preceding 250 years, smaller kingdoms squabbled for dominance. Qin unified the country politically, initiated the Great Wall, launched a canal system, developed a vast capital city and invented a centralized bureaucracy.

Qin was ruthless, too, and under his rule "the country became virtually a huge prison," Liu said. His endless building projects sapped resources and manpower. About 800,000 people were ordered to work on his tomb complex, more than the combined population of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Fearing that intellectuals were plotting against him, he burned literature and philosophy books (but not engineering or medical texts) and had 400 people buried alive.

"Some saw him as a revolutionary and others as a tyrant because he killed so many people, so he remains a controversial figure," Liu said.

Only peripheral areas of Qin's tomb have been excavated, and the Chinese government has no plans to dig the central mound under which his body was probably placed. No one knows what treasures it may contain, or whether the emperor still slumbers there.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431