The Lavish Qin Shi Huang Tomb – Built for Immortality

A lust for everlasting life resulted in the massive Qin Shi Huang Tomb.

At just thirteen years old, a Chinese boy destined to become the first emperor of a unified China began to construct his own lavish burial chamber. The Qin Shi Huang tomb was completed in 208 BC and did indeed become the final resting place of the boy known today as the first emperor of China. What many people don’t know, however, is that he never intended to use it. The Emperor was absolutely terrified of dying and, thus, determined to achieve immortality on earth. However, just to be safe, he designed and constructed his megatomb to resemble his opulent life on earth, so that he may perpetuate his nobility in the afterworld. It was a mausoleum fit for a god.

qin shi huang tomb

Qin Shi Huang’s tomb was built over his lifetime. Source: Wiki Commons, public domain

One Emperor to Rule Them All

In 260 BC, China was in a state of turmoil. Various feudal states divided the country. The Warring States Period lasted for 250 years as eight individual kingdoms tried to establish their dominance and lay claim to the entire country. The strongest of these states was Qin. When King Zhuangxiang, began his reign in September of 250 BC, it appeared that he would be the man to become China’s first emperor.

The reign of King Zhuangxiang was short-lived, however. After just three years in power he died. His heir was his young son named Ying Zheng. A regent served as temporary ruler for the young king until he was old enough to rule on his own merit. Ying Zheng exhibited traits from the very beginning that marked him as calculating and fearless. At the age of 21 he led a revolt against his regent that culminated in bloodshed and removed every obstacle to his solitary reign.

The Ying and Yang of the Emperor

Despite multiple assassination attempts, the King of Qin managed one successful campaign after another until he defeated all rival states. As he approached his 40th year, Ying Zheng proclaimed himself Qin Shi Huang. This name conveyed his power as the first godlike emperor of the Qin empire. According to Chinese belief, Zheng’s successes conferred upon him a heavenly mandate as “Son of Heaven” to rule over the center of the universe, China. Few questioned his bravery and courage.

However, many did question his tyrannical nature. The life of Qin Shi Huang is a mass of contradictions. On one hand he completed many building projects during his reign which included construction of the Great Wall of China as we know it today. He built a vast system of roads that connected his empire. A divided China fell under one rule and legal system leading to the largest empire that stretched from the Great Wall to Vietnam. He also created one system of writing for everyone. Yet, he could also be cruel.

Qin Shi Huang was a power-hungry despot. Commoners had to surrender all their weapons, and he killed hundreds of scholars and officials in fear they would threaten his rule. The first Qin Emperor is infamous for burning hoards of books and documents, and he once put out the eyes of a troubadour. These actions caused a deep hatred for Qin Shi Huang among his people. Perhaps his duplicitous nature is attributable to a secret he kept hidden for most of his life. Qin Shi Huang was tormented night and day by an abiding fear of his own death.

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qin shi huang mausoleum

Burning of books and burying of soldiers under the reign of Qin Shi Huang. 18th century. Unknown artist. Public domain.

In Preparation for Everlasting Life

Regardless of his fear, construction of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor had started not long after Ying Zheng became the King of Qin. The great Chinese historian, Sima Qian (he lived a century after Qin Shi Huang), tells us that the digging and preparation of the megatomb started immediately upon Ying Zheng’s coronation around 246 BC. However, the work was not completed until 208 BC. This was almost two years after the Emperor’s death at age 49 in 210 BC.

emperor qin shi huang tomb

Emperor Qin Shi Huang tomb lies deep within this mound. Source: Wiki Commons, Sylvannus.

While it may seem surprising that a boy king would approve the construction of his own tomb, this was not uncommon. Similar occurrences are certain to have happened in Egypt during the time of the Pharaohs. The truth is that it was a practical matter. A tomb worthy of a king took many years to build with peasant labor. All things necessary in the next world needed to accompany the dead, and the higher position a person held and the more treasures he owned, the more things he took.

However, the Qin Emperor obsessed over maintaining his life on earth indefinitely. He became so distressed by the prospect of his own death that he embarked upon a futile search for the Elixir of Life. His quest took him three times to Zhifu Island in search of the elixir. He built secret tunnels beneath his 200 palaces so that he could travel unseen, and he enlisted the aid of alchemists and magicians. In a bitter twist of irony, Qin Shi Huang died from drinking the mercury that he came to believe would confer immortality. Ultimately, the lifetime work of his people to construct the mausoleum would not be in vain.

The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

Forty years of archaeology of the mausoleum site have revealed that Qin Shi Huang intended to design his afterlife to match his life on earth in every respect. Experts unearthed hundreds of underground tombs filled with birds and models of exotic animals and more than 300 coffins filled with horse skeletons. Additionally, an entire imperial court of musicians, acrobats and weightlifters accompanied the emperor to the next life. Two half-sized chariots would provide his transportation. Four bronze horses wearing harnesses of silver and gold pulled each chariot. A mysterious pit of partially naked statues lay close to the burial mound. About a mile away, his Terra Cotta Army, estimated to total around 7000 in number, served to protect him. Even his concubines had to join him.

megatomb of first emperor of china

Close to the Qin Shi Huang tomb, bronze horses and chariot designed to transport his spirit in the afterlife. Source: Wiki Commons, jmhullot.

Nobody has seen the inside of the Qin Shi Huang tomb. However, it is housed by an enormous pyramidal mound that was supposedly 350 feet high and contains his coffin.

Historical Records by Sima Qian is the first written documentation about the first emperor’s tomb:

The site includes three streams, and his coffin is encased in a bronze sarcophagus. The floor of the central burial chamber floats on rivers, lakes and seas of mercury…The vaulted ceiling is inlayed with pearls and gems to emulate the sun, moon and principle stars of the constellations in the night sky. Whale oil lamps are brightly lit for an everlasting effect of illustriousness.

First emperor of china tomb

Imaging of Qin Shi Huang tomb hidden within burial mound. Source: Youtube, China’s Megatomb Revealed, Dewei Ku.

Constructing an Afterlife

Qian also claimed that 700,000 men were enlisted to build the Magnificent Mausoleum of the First Emperor of China. Some historians have pointed out that no city from that period of history had such a population. Hence, they speculate that sixteen to twenty thousand laborers may be a more accurate assessment. No matter how many there were, it is certain that many of them were peasants or slaves who met a tragic end. Indeed, archaeologists found mass burial pits around the mausoleum site piled high with the bones of builders. Some of them were still wearing metal shackles on their necks.

mausoleum of qin shi huang

This grave pit had 120 slave workers in it. Source: Youtube, China’s Megatomb Revealed, Dewei Ku.

The successor of Qin Shi Huang decreed that the concubines of the Emperor who had not born children should accompany the leader into the afterlife. These women remained in the tomb. Additionally, many of the slaves and craftsmen who had worked on mechanical devices designed to prevent entry met unfortunate deaths. They had observed the treasures in the Qin Shi Huang tomb and no one could trust them to safeguard the tomb’s secrets. Once the funeral ceremonies were over, the passage to the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor was blocked. Those trapped inside died beside their leader.

Designers intentionally built the mausoleum to resemble the capital of Qin, Xianyang. The present day site of the megatomb is the Lintong District, X’ian, in China’s Shaanxi province. Its area is larger than experts once thought and equals 10,000 football fields or about 21 square miles. It includes both an inner and outer city. Archaeologists believe that the tomb of the First Emperor lies in the southwest of the inner city where it faces east. Also in the east about a mile away is the mysterious army of terracotta soldiers guarding the Emperor.

Terracotta Army Near the Qin Shi Huang Tomb

The hallmark discovery at the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor happened when local villagers of the Lintong county embarked upon the process of digging a well in March of 1974. Approximately six feet below ground the villagers unearthed terracotta fragments and bricks. They also recovered some bronze arrowheads.

tomb of first emperor of china

Terra cotta soldiers stood about a mile from Qin Shi Huang’s tomb to protect him in the afterlife. Flickr: Jean-Marie Hullot.

The discoveries compelled a team of Chinese archaeologists to begin excavations a couple of months later. By July, they had managed to identify three separate sites and began a project that continues to this very day. The most significant discovery thus far has been almost 1900 terracotta statues of warriors and horses. This is a fraction of what experts estimate to be a total of 7000 soldiers. Scientists also recovered approximately 100 wooden chariots along with many ancient weapons.

Given what history has revealed about Qin Shi Huang’s quest for immortality and fear of death, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Emperor devised a back up plan in the event that his search failed.

What’s Inside the Emperor Qin Tomb?

One area of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor that remains a mystery is the tomb itself. It lies at the center of a vast mound and is still undisturbed. Certain techniques, however, have revealed elements of the tomb that may confirm the historical record of Sima Qian.

As noted, Qian wrote that designers of the tomb used mercury to create simulations of rivers and seas in the tomb. Archaeologists have detected extremely high levels of mercury in the area of the tomb. They found the bronze horses and chariots in various passageways that they believe lead to the burial chamber. Imaging and other tests revealed the presence of a vast amount of metal. This also affirms Qian’s account that the Emperor took his treasures with him.

There is an ongoing debate in China that has delayed the complete excavation of the tomb. Some people maintain that an excavation is immediately necessary due to the potential for seismic activity in the region. But others argue that China does not yet posses the technology or ability to carry out the exploration properly.

While these arguments continue, deep within the magnificent mausoleum of the First Emperor of China the remains of Qin Shi Huang still await the promise of immortality. Perhaps he has attained it after all. True immortality rests in the minds of men and the preservation of our historic mysteries.

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Scotty Rushing

Scotty Rushing is a professional freelance writer and published author. His works have placed in the bestseller category at Amazon on multiple occasions. Scotty lives in Louisiana with his dog, Bentley, where he is currently working on a full-length novel and other creative projects.