China’s First Emperor was Fixated on Living Forever, New Discovery Shows

Fagjun | Published 2017-12-29 08:50

New archaeological findings reveal that Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and the man behind the famed Terracotta Army, commanded his subjects to search for the elixir of life.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang

Emperor Qin Shi Huang


There’s certainly some appeal to living forever, but only a few of us have the means to obsess over eternal life. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who can be credited with creating a unified China by defeating six warring states, paid particular attention to life and death (and what happens after death). He commissioned the creation of the Terracotta Army—a collection of life-sized, lifelike, and meticulously detailed terracotta statues of the emperor’s soldiers meant to guard him in the afterlife. The funerary statues numbered at over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses.


Why the emperor thought he needed an army fit for war in the afterlife we might never know, but this apparently wasn’t the only outrageous thing he did concerning life and death.

An Eternal Fixation

The Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army


During the first emperor’s reign, people used thin strips of bamboo or other wood as some sort of precursor to paper. The new discovery of 2,200-year-old texts written on these wooden slips reveals that Qin Shi Huang put out an executive order commanding his subjects to look for a potion that will give him eternal life.


In 2002, archaeologists first found over 36,000 wooden slips connected by strings at the bottom of a well in Hunan province. According to researcher Zhang Chunlong, the analysis of 48 slips related to medicine revealed that the emperor’s decree reached even the remote villages and frontiers in his domain.


Zhang says that the fact that the decree reached these far-off areas was a testament to the quality of Qin Shi Huang’s administration. "It required a highly efficient administration and strong executive force to pass down a government decree in ancient times, when transportation and communication facilities were undeveloped," Zhang says.


Some of the responses from the villages also survived and were included in the collection of wooden slips. The archaeologists studying the slips say that, funnily enough, some of them contained awkward explanations as to why regional governments failed to come up with anything that may enable the emperor to live forever.

The Elixir of Life

The lifelike soldiers of the Terracotta Army

The lifelike soldiers of the Terracotta Army


One community named Langya, however, was able to offer the emperor an "herb collected from an auspicious local mountain". However, this herb wasn’t only able to grant eternal life—it also apparently had the ability to bring the Terracotta Army to life.


Now that is some herb. Of course, it didn’t work. Emperor Qin Shi Huang died in 210 B.C., possibly after ingesting mercury pills that he believed would grant him his long-sought immortality. His Terracotta Army, meanwhile, has not turned into a living, breathing army.


The emperor’s deep, abiding desire to live forever wasn’t the only thing that the wooden slips were able to document. The slips can also tell researchers something about ancient Chinese medicine as well as Qin Shi Huang’s reign.

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