A lust for everlasting life resulted in the massive Qin Shi Huang tomb.
At just thirteen years old the boy-king, Ying Zheng, began to construct his own lavish tomb in today’s Lintong District, Xi’an, in China’s Shaanxi province. At the age of 38, King Zheng would become the first emperor of China and acquire a new name, Qin Shi Huang. The Qin Shi Huang tomb was completed in 208 BCE and did indeed become his final resting place. Although the first emperor obsessed over immortality and tried to achieve everlasting life on earth, he prepared for a magnificent death. Qin Shi Huang designed the largest underground mausoleum in the world upward of 21 square miles to encompass every detail of his empire on earth. The emperor’s afterlife would contain everything a heavenly king could wish for.
Read Part 2: Terracotta Army: Eternal Sentinels of Qin Shi Huang
A Brief History of Qin Shi Huang
The Prince Becomes King
In 260 BC, China was in a state of turmoil. Various feudal states divided the country. The Warring States Period lasted for 250 years. 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 become China’s first emperor.
His reign 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 until the young king was old enough to rule on his own. 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. This culminated in bloodshed and removed every obstacle to the king’s solitary reign.
An Emperor Close to the Gods
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 the “Son of Heaven” he would rule from 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 and questionable historicity. On one hand, he completed many building projects during his reign which included 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. This led to the largest unified empire in China’s history that stretched from the Great Wall to Vietnam. He also created one system of writing for everyone. Yet, he could also be cruel.
Many historians depict the first emperor of China as a power-hungry despot. Sources say that commoners had to surrender all their weapons. Additionally, Chinese history books indicate that 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. Supposedly, he also put out the eyes of a troubadour. These actions caused a deep hatred for the emperor 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.
Preparations for Everlasting Life
The great Chinese historian, Sima Qian (he lived a century after Qin Shi Huang), tells us that the digging and preparation of the tomb started immediately upon Ying Zheng’s coronation around 246 BCE. However, the work was not completed until 208 BCE. This was almost two years after the emperor’s death at age 49 in 210 BCE.
While it may seem surprising that a boy-king would approve the construction of his own tomb, this was not uncommon. 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 safely 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 believed would confer immortality. Ultimately, the lifetime work of his people to construct the mausoleum would not be in vain.
Construction of the First Emperor’s Mausoleum
Designers intentionally built the mausoleum to resemble the capital of Qin, Xianyang. 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, divided by two distinct walls. Archaeologists believe that Qin Shi Huang’s tomb lies in the southwest of the inner city under the mound where it faces east.
Sima Qian claimed that 700,000 men, including slaves, built the emperor’s mausoleum. 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. Regardless of how many there were, it is certain that those peasants and slaves met a tragic end. Archaeologists found mass burial pits around the mausoleum site piled high with the bones of builders. Some of them were still wearing metal shackles.
Additionally, scholars theorize, based on clues left by Sima Qian, that some of the craftsmen who had worked on mechanical devices designed to prevent entry into the burial chamber met unfortunate deaths. They had observed the treasures in the Qin Shi Huang tomb and could not be trusted with those secrets. Once they placed the emperor inside the tomb, the passage was blocked. Possibly the craftsmen who knew the secrets remained inside and died beside their leader.
Within the Mausoleum Grounds
Forty years of archaeological studies of the mausoleum site have revealed that Qin Shi Huang intended to design his afterlife to match his life on earth in every respect. This included his imperial court life and the external environment that surrounded his city.
Animals and Royal Court
Near the outer wall of the greater mausoleum complex, a discovery of a royal park included bronze swans, ducks, and cranes, along with an entire suite of musicians. A horse stable discovered outside the outer walls contained horse skeletons and their terracotta caretakers. Altogether, there were roughly 300 coffins containing horse skeletons. Inside the inner wall, another pit contained the emperor’s terracotta attendants and government officials. Additionally, two chariots were discovered in passageways that appear to lead to the innermost walls of the Qin Shi Huang tomb under the burial mound. Each chariot was attached to four bronze horses.
Close to the mound of the Qin Shi Huang tomb, scientists found a mysterious pit of partially unclothed statues. Recent examination indicates that they were an entire imperial court of musicians, acrobats, and weightlifters designed to ensure the first emperor would have entertainment in his next life.
Archaeologists also found pits within the mausoleum complex containing the skeletal remains of young females. The scientists believe they were the emperor’s concubines. Evidence suggests murder and a strange burial, as limbs were set in a random fashion up around their heads. According to Sima Qian, concubines of the first emperor were ordered by his successor to accompany the emperor into the afterlife. In theory, this would have prevented any unborn challenges to the throne.
In 2012 archaeologists announced the largest underground complex discovered so far within the Qin Shi Huang tomb necropolis. It is an entire courtyard palace and is roughly 170,000 square meters. This equals about 42 acres. The palace grounds contain one main building that overlooks 18 other royal houses, walls, roads, brickwork, and pottery shards.
The Terracotta Army
About a mile away from the tomb, a hallmark discovery occurred when local villagers of the Lintong county embarked upon digging a well in March of 1974. Approximately six feet below ground the villagers unearthed terracotta fragments and bricks.
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 and bronze arrowheads.
At the center of the enormous necropolis lies a pyramid mound that was once 350 feet high. The mound is made of rammed earth, shown below. Archaeologists believe there is an underground palace below the mound that is surrounded by walls that are about 4 meters high. The Qin Shi Huang tomb lies at the center of the mound, indicated with the bright white spot. However, experts are uncertain exactly how deep the tomb chamber is. They estimate between 20-50 meters. The chamber itself is still undisturbed.
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.
Using modern scientific techniques, scientists have revealed details 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. Additionally, imaging and other tests revealed the presence of a vast amount of metal within. This also affirms Qian’s account that the emperor took his treasures with him.
Why the Tomb Remains Unopened
There is an ongoing debate in China that has delayed the complete excavation of the Qin Shi Huang 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 possess the technology or ability to carry out the exploration properly. There is also trepidation, as stories tell of entryways that are booby-trapped to prevent access to the tomb, and high levels of mercury could pose a health risk.
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 in the preservation of history.