Terra Cotta Warriors, including the Figure of Kneeling Archer, are on display at the new exhibition "Warriors, Tombs and Temples" at the Bowers Museum. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / September 29, 2011)

SANTA ANA — As a follow-up to its acclaimed 2008 "Terra Cotta Warriors" exhibition, the Bowers Museum has opened an entirely new one covering a much broader sweep of ancient Chinese history.

For the next five months, the museum in Santa Ana is displaying artifacts that date back to as many as 2,300 years ago and have never before been seen in Orange County.

The "Warriors, Tombs and Temples: China's Enduring Legacy" exhibition, which opened on Saturday, comprises some 150 artifacts unearthed from tombs of rulers from three imperial dynasties, which were concentrated in and around the city of Xi'an, in modern day Shaanxi Province: The Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BCE), the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) and the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE).

"The challenge was how to do something that would be a spinoff or a sequel to the 'Terra Cotta Warriors' exhibit … but basically it was to take that very limited time of the Qin Dynasty, which was something like 20 years, and go to the next thousand years in Chinese history," Peter Keller, the museum's president, said during a media preview on Sept. 29.

He was referring to the short-lived Qin Dynasty, which was the narrow focus of the 2008 exhibit.

That show brought together 17 of the world-famous Terra Cotta Warriors, the largest such grouping at one time on U.S. soil, said Julie Lee, the museum's curator of exhibitions.

Most of the pieces in the new exhibit — around 90% — are traveling to the U.S. for the first time, and some of these Chinese national treasures being shown at the Bowers have been rated as "Level 1" pieces — the highest of ratings for artifacts designated by China's authorities, museum officials said.

Keller credited Anne Shih, chairwoman of the museum's Board of Governors who lives in Huntington Beach, for leading the effort to bring the new exhibit to Orange County.

Shih, a Chinese-American, said she spent a lot of time placing long-distance calls to officials in China.

"I made a phone call every night for almost two years," Shih said.

The exhibition is making its first stop in the U.S. at the Bowers. In March, the exhibition will make its second and last American stop at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Because of a new governmental regulation in China, such collections of Chinese artifacts can no longer travel outside of the People's Republic for more than a year, said Nancy Ravenhall Johnson, the museum's communications director.

The new exhibit features miniature carved armies excavated from Han period imperial tombs. The pieces from the Tang Dynasty — the most opulent of the three dynasties — include a Level 1-rated collection of nesting boxes, which were excavated at the Famen Temple, a sacred Buddhist site. The smallest of these boxes is said to have held the bone from one of the Buddha's fingers.

"Warriors, Tombs and Temples" also features four more Terra Cotta Warriors, as well as a saddle-less chariot horse, which date to the Qin era and are making their first appearance at the Santa Ana museum. One of the statues, a kneeling archer with a green-painted face, was only excavated in the mid-2000s, Lee noted.

The exhibition put on here three years ago featured statues of soldiers from the army of the emperor Qin Shihuangdi who were buried with him. They were placed inside his tomb to guard him in the afterlife, after the emperor died of mercury poisoning in 210 BCE.

Those pieces showcased in the first exhibit were so popular, that people wanted the Bowers to bring them back to Orange County, Lee said.

"But we can't just repeat shows here," she said. "We have to really challenge ourselves to do something new and different, so we decided to take a broader look at Chinese history and see how the Qin Dynasty affected the next 1,100 years of Chinese history…."

imran.vittachi@latimes.com

Twitter: @ImranVittachi

If You Go

What: "Warriors, Tombs and Temples: China's Enduring Legacy" exhibition

Where: The Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana

When: Until March 4

Tickets: $23 for adults and $19 for students and seniors (Friday through Sunday); $21 for adults and $14 for students and seniors (Tuesday through Thursday)

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (Closed Mondays)

More Information: Call (714) 567-3695 or go to http://www.bowers.org