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Dangerous even after death: The great mystery China’s first Emperor left behind

Qin Shi Huang news
© Sputnik / Vladimir Astapkovich.

Scientists are looking for a way to open up the final resting place of the Terracotta Army’s master.

The mausoleum of the legendary Qin Shi Huang was discovered almost 50 years ago. No stone has been left unturned since, with the sole exception of the Emperor’s coffin. There is a solid reason why scientists do not dare to touch it.

The Great Schemer

In the spring of 1974, a farmer called Yang Zhifa together with his five brothers began digging a new well near Mount Li (Lishan), located in the northeast of the Shaanxi Province. They immediately heard a sound coming from their shovels hitting something hard.

First they saw a head, then a torso, a moment later a life-size clay statue appeared from the ground. Lying next to it were arrowheads, pottery skulls, and terracotta bricks. The diggers collected two wagons with various antiquities filled to the brim.

Yang decided to capitalize on this discovery by selling it. But he ended up getting only 10 yuan for the whole thing.

The disgruntled farmer had no idea what a priceless scientific gift it actually was. The same year, Chinese archaeologists began exploring the excavation site at the top of Lishan. Layer by layer, they revealed and raised hundreds of new artifacts to the surface.

In 1979, the first site was opened to the public: it included six thousand soldiers, horses, and chariots made of clay. Today this collection of sculptures is widely known as the Terracotta Army. Its purpose is to protect the legendary Emperor Qin Shi Huang in his afterlife.

Qin Shi Huang news
Exhibits of the Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Wariors and Horses Museum in Xian.
© Sputnik / Sergey Mamontov.

It was the imperial mausoleum that Yang had discovered. Qin Shi Huang holds a very special place in the history of China. Born as Ying Zheng in 259 BC into a family of the governor of the Zhao state, favored by fate and courtesy to his strong ambition, the future emperor rose from low nobility to be an all-powerful ruler.

In his thirties, having inherited his father’s throne, he set himself a Herculean task of uniting the entire country. He approached it at a rapid pace by having his troops conquer neighboring kingdoms one after another.

Ten years later, Ying Zheng became the sole ruler of a giant nation that unified the then seven warring states. The success of his campaign prompted him to take on a new name – Qin Shi Huang (lit. “Great Emperor, founder of the Qin dynasty”).

Having finished the war, the ruler moved on to civil affairs. He carried out administrative reform, dividing the country into forty districts, thus weakening the local nobility, his direct rivals. Later, he went on to establish a single coherent system that set new regulations covering everything from currency to carriage width. Qin also managed to unify Chinese script.

In order to bury the past, he ordered the destruction of all previous chronicles. The only surviving records remaining were the ones maintained in his native kingdom.

In Search of Immortality

Construction was another way of inscribing his imperial name in the history books. Following his ascension to the throne, Qin Shi Huang almost immediately began to erect monumental palaces and other buildings.

Thus came the idea of the Great Wall of China, a unified system of fortifications along the northern border aimed at defending the country against hawkish Hun raids. Later, Qin Shi Huang ordered the excavation of a canal in order to connect the Xiang and Lijiang rivers.

The enormous construction naturally required tremendous resources, for the most part it was human labor performed tirelessly by thousands of slaves. Historians still argue about the number of casualties at the site.

The emperor was especially zealous when embarking on his third project, his own mausoleum. It took over 30 years to complete. But the result was not just a tomb, but an actual miniature city with palaces, gardens, barracks, and stables, even cemeteries for its noblemen and builders.

Qin Shi Huang was determined to bring every one of his possessions to his next life. This fact can be largely attributed to the emperor’s superstitions. According to Chinese chroniclers, the ruler was obsessed with immortality from an early age.

Sima Qian, a Chinese historian of the early Han Dynasty, wrote that Qin could not bear to talk about the “fragility of human existence” and repeatedly assigned his subjects the task of finding an elixir of life.

Six years ago, Chinese archaeologists documented the discovery of a collection of bamboo tablets with various royal decrees in the Hunan Province. Most of them mentioned a potion of immortality. Chinese government officials and regular residents alike were to gather relevant information and immediately pass it to the capital.

Legends are True

Unfortunately, there are no miracles – the emperor died in 210 BC without ever finding the potion he so longed for. The cause of death is still unknown; but it is believed that the emperor would have passed away due to mercury poisoning. Qin Shi Huang regularly consumed mercury-containing pills following the advice of his court alchemists. They imagined that the toxic metal was an essential component of the elixir.

Incidentally, mercury is the reason that specialists are still unable to get into the imperial burial chamber. According to Sima Qian, the monarch was told about a faraway land with silk trees and magic rivers, and the one to drink its water would know no death or suffering.

The historian claimed that the emperor recreated something similar in his own tomb. The ceiling was decorated with precious stones symbolizing the starry sky, and the floor was painted as a map of the faraway magic land with the coffin as the center piece.

But the most precious feature of the tomb was the rivers. Builders filled them with mercury, bearing in mind its then-believed miraculous properties. In 2020, researchers indirectly confirmed the assumption. Chamber measurements showed that the concentration of the substance in the vicinity of the tomb was significantly above an acceptable level.

Still, curiosity prevails. Scientists keep trying to come up with new ways of getting past the ancient traps. For example, they suggest using muons, subatomic elementary particles similar to electrons. They act as ultraprecise X-rays, allowing to look through the structure without breaking its integrity. However, this approach has not been fully embraced yet. Therefore, the mystery of the tomb of the great Qin Shi Huang remains unsolved.

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