Ying Zheng became the first emperor of the unified China in 221 BCE. One of his major projects was a construction of an enormous mausoleum that holds secrets even to this day.

Although the most famous site of his burial site is Terracotta Army, the most exciting part is the inner chamber of the main tomb. According to Sima Qian‘s description, it includes includes “replicas of palaces and scenic towers, ‘rare utensils and wonderful objects’, 100 rivers made with mercury, representations of ‘the heavenly bodies’, and crossbows rigged to shoot anyone who tried to break in.” This account seems too incredible to be true, but some evidence suggests that it may be valid.

Using latest technology at the time, scientist were able to scan the area of the mound and confirm that the inner chamber is there and still intact. However, since the Chinese government has not allowed excavation of the main tomb, and, probably, will not do so anytime soon, it is difficult to assess the content of the site, but an indirect way was found.

Mercury was considered a life-prolonging agent in ancient China, but Qin Shi Huang wanted to find the elixir of life and sent Xu Fu with a fleet of 60 barques and around 5000 crew members, 3000 virgin boys and girls on expeditions to the land of immortals, including Penglai Mountain where Anqi Sheng resided.

Xu Fu has not returned from the second expedition. Rather than finding the elixir, according to the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), he found “flat plains and wide swamps” (平原廣澤) and proclaimed himself king. Some say that he landed in Japan and named Mt. Fuji as Penglai.

Those who support the theory that Xu Fu landed in Japan credit him with being the catalyst for the development of ancient Japanese society. The Jōmon culture which had existed in ancient Japan for over 6000 years suddenly disappeared around 300 BC. The farming techniques and knowledge that Xu brought along are said to have improved the quality of life of the ancient Japanese people and he is said to have introduced many new plants and techniques to ancient Japan. To these achievements is attributed the worship of Xu Fu as the “God of farming”, “God of medicine” and “God of silk” by the Japanese.

Since Xu Fu failed to bring the elixir, Qin Shi Huang had to rely on mercury pills. Over the years, the dosage was increased, and he died eventually during a tour of his land, aged 50. The huge volume of circulating mercury conducted by a mysterious machine would have generated a significant amount of vapor because the size of the inner chamber is approximately equal to a football field. Based on hundreds of samples taken on top of the mountain, the soil contained unusually high concentrations of mercury, confirming the legend. Moreover, by mapping the concentrations, one could see the outline of China’s land and seas..

The inner chamber must have been a magnificent site at the time of its creation. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we’ll get a chance to see the remains anytime soon. At least the area surrounding the main tomb are still excavated. “A 200-sq-m section of the 14,260-sq-m No 1 pit, the dig is mainly being carried out to test preservation technology that the museum has spent decades developing to ensure terracotta figures remain intact and retain their original colors ” (Source)

Further Reading: Qin Shi Huang


4 thoughts on “Qin Shi Huang Tomb

    1. That’s a good question. Excavating the main tomb properly will be not an easy task at all. We have decent technology for digging, but it seems that the preservation side might be lacking. Moreover, mercury is very dangerous, and we don’t know for sure what to expect. To undertake such an excavation, extensive planning would be required to ensure that the artifacts and people who work there are safe. However, there is another issue here.

      On one hand, it would be very exciting to learn about the ancient culture by revealing the secrets of the mausoleum, but, on the other hand, we’ll violate the sanctity of a tomb. This has not stopped people in Egypt, and, although we learned much about the history, there were many negative consequences. Many tombs in Japan are still untouched by archaeologists, although recently they did allow limited access to Gosashi Kofun, the tomb of Empress Jingū, who, according to some theories, led an army in an invasion of Korea and returned to Japan victorious after three years. On the other hand, some people believe that the main reason why kofun excavation ban exists is the fear excavation would reveal bloodline links between the “pure” imperial family and Korea. Daisen Kofun, the tomb of Emperor Nintoku in Osaka, is considered one of the largest tombs in the world.

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