Chinese emperors who ruled the ancient nation for 26 centuries lived and died surrounded by an unbelievable bounty of artwork, never seen by simple commoners.

Now, the largest exhibit of art ever to leave China has arrived in the United States as part of the promotion of improved understanding between the two nations.An exquisite burial suit made of jade pieces and silk robes worn by ancient Chinese emperors are just a few examples of the treasures on display in the exhibit "Son of Heaven: Imperial Arts of China," easily the most ambitious show of Chinese art and artifacts ever assembled for travel.

Eighty percent of the more than 225 objects have never been seen by the Chinese public, and 90 percent are being shown in this country for the first time.

"We hope (the exhibit) will promote greater understanding and friendship between the people of China and America," wrote Chinese Culture Minister Wang Meng in an elaborate book prepared for the exhibit, which opened in Seattle July 29.

The exhibit, showcasing more than 26 centuries of China's history, marks the most comprehensive exhibition sent abroad by China since 1949. The artworks, insured for $65 million, will be under 24-hour armed guard.

"They're priceless," said Larry Childs, president of Son of Heaven, Inc., which brought the exhibit to the United States. "I don't know how you fix a value on that."

Xie Chensheng, senior advisor of the ministry's China National Cultural Relics Bureau, noted the political differences that separated China and America for decades have given way to improved relations.

"Now China is open," he said during a visit last month to inspect the exhibit site at the Seattle Center, built for the 1962 World's Fair."

"This exhibition is part of the open policy of China. We hope through this exhibition the people of America will learn more about China."

Organizers hope 1 million adult visitors from around the Northwest will pay $7.50 each will see the show before it closes Dec. 31 and heads to Columbus, Ohio, for another six-month run.

On display are artifacts from the Eastern Zhou period beginning in 770 B.C. to the Qing Dynasty that ended in 1912.

Through the ancient bronzes, terra-cotta and stone sculptures, paintings, jades, calligraphy, jewelry, lacquers and textiles, visitors will get a glimpse into the life of the Son of Heaven - China's feudal ruler - to see how he ruled, lived, worshipped and prepared for his afterlife.

One of the most incredible pieces in "Son of Heaven" is a jade burial suit from the Western Han dynasty that existed before 104 B.C.

The life-size suit, made of 2,000 rectangular jade plaques sewn together with gold thread, was excavated in 1968 and is believed to be from the tombs of the prince and princess of Zhongshan.

The suit, along with several others, was found in a wood-frame tomb with a tile roof, a cave-like environment that duplicated the prince's palace chambers. Chinese archaeologists estimate that 100 artisans labored for a year to hollow out the rock-cut burial chamber.

The use of jade stemmed from the Chinese belief that jade could protect mortal remains from decay. However, the only remains found in one of the other suits in the excavation were fragments from eight teeth.

Robert Thorp, American curator for the exhibit, said other major pieces are two giant, "extraordinary" terra-cotta warriors from the tomb of the first emperor, works that signaled the beginning of a tradition of tomb figurines.

"It began on a very large scale and is impressive," he said. "All figurines after that don't match the first."

Of the several silk emperors' robes on display, one of the most striking is the bright yellow "Dragon Robe" from the Qing dynasty, distinguishing the Son of Heaven from all others.

Made from the finest woven and embroidered silk and embellished with gold thread, peacock feathers and pearls, the emperor's robe incorporated special symbols of his unique status: the dragon and the 12 symbols of authority.

Another unique item on display is a set of 26 bronze bells from the sixth century B.C., which Thorp said was unusual because most Chinese bell sets consisted of nine to 11 bells.

"It's a very sophisticated musical scale and a difficult task to cast bronze to end up with bells exactly toned as you want," he said. A recording of music performed on the bells will be played at the exhibit.

"We've brought the bells back to life after 2,600 years," Thorp said.

The show cost $5 million to bring to Seattle and organizers estimate that at least 500 people must attend hourly to break even.

However, "Son of Heaven" is five times the size of the "Treasures of Tutankhamen" exhibit of several years ago and the artworks on display are originals. A 1984 exhibit in Seattle, "China: 7000 Years of Discovery," had only copies on display.