Quest for Immortality and Mercury Madness

After surviving three assassination attempts, Qin Shi Huangdi became obsessed with avoiding death and devoted his energies to discovering the secrets of immortality. He tried many different tactics to become immortal, all to his dismay.

The emperor sent a delegation of young men and women out to sea to search for Peng Lai, a mythical land where immortal beings live and the elixir of everlasting life may be obtained. He also visited many sacred places and employed 300 astrologers to watch for his safety. In one visit, he climbed to the summit of Mount Tai, known perhaps to be the seat of unnamed powers who ruled the universe.

Qin Shi Huangdi became increasingly worried about his death and asked magicians to make special immortality ‘pills’ for him. Historians believe that these pills may have contained mercury, leading to his irrational behaviour in his final days.

To elude evil spirits, he concealed his whereabouts within his vast palace complexes.

 Sima Qian

The main written source that we have for Qin Shi Huangdi was written by Sima Qian approximately 100 years after the first emperor’s death. We have no means of verifying Sima Qian’s account and we must consider the context in which he was writing when we examine his text. Sima Qian and his father Sima Tan were officials of the Han Dynasty, and were obliged to show that Han had been justified in eliminating Qin and his “evil ways”.

Sima Qian collected and wrote down oral traditions of his day, including a description of the construction and contents of the tomb.

“As soon as the First Emperor became King of Qin, excavations and buildings had been started at Mount Li, while after he won the empire more than seven hundred thousand conscripts from all parts of the empire worked there. They dug through three subterranean streams and poured molten copper for the outer coffin, and the tomb was fitted with models of palaces, pavilions and offices, as well as fine vessels, precious stones and rarities. Artisans were ordered to fix up crossbows so that any thief breaking in would be shot. All the country’s streams, the Yellow River and the Yangtze were reproduced in quicksilver and by some mechanical means made to flow into a miniature ocean. The heavenly constellations were shown above and the regions of the earth below. The candles were made of whale oil to ensure their burning for the longest possible death. The Second Emperor decreed “It is not right to send away those of my father’s ladies who had no sons.” Accordingly all these were ordered to follow the First Emperor to the grave. After the internment someone pointed out that the artisans who had made the mechanical contrivances might disclose all the treasure that was in the tomb; therefore after the burial and sealing up of the treasures, the middle gate was shut and the outer gate closed to imprison all the artisans and labourers, so that not one came out. Trees and grass were planted over the mausoleum to make it seem like a hill.” – Yang, Hsien-yi and Gladys, Records of the Historian (Shi Ji) by Sima Qian, Peking 1979, p. 63 Cited in Edmond Capon, Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Warriors and Horses, International Cultural Corporation of Australia, LTD, 1983, p. 24

Death of the Emperor


Qin Shi Huangdi died from natural causes while on an inspection tour in 210 BC, although many historians now believe he may have died due to mercury positioning, which was used in many ‘immortality’ drugs.

Li Si tried to keep the death a secret because he feared that there would be fighting among the princes to see who would become emperor. The Royal carriage travelled back to the capital Xianyang as if the emperor was still alive. As it was summer, a cartload of salted fish was placed behind the emperor’s carriage to disguise the smell.

Fusu, son of the emperor and his named heir was displaced and forced to commit suicide, along with Meng Tian, a military officer who under Qin Shi Huangdi had had responsibility for the defence lines and the manning of the Great Wall and who was one of Fusu’s close supporters.

Instead, the emperor’s second son, Huhai was declared emperor. This outcome has been attributed to Li Si, in collaboration with Zhao Gao (described as a eunuch – this is debatable as no record of the emergence of eunuchs in the palace at this time exists). Zhao Gao was appointed to a senior appointment shortly after Huhai’s accession and exercised commanding powers of government.

Huhai’s first task was to bury his father and in 209 BC, Qin Shi Huangdi was laid to rest in his magnificent tomb. Huhai ordered that all childless concubines to his father were to be buried alive with him.

Huhai was known to have been even harsher than his father. When Li Si tried to warn him that the people were on the verge of revolt, he was imprisoned, tortured and then publicly cut in half.

The heavy burden of taxes and forced labour had made the lives of the peasants extremely miserable. In 209 BC a peasant rebellion began, which lasted for three years. During this time Huhai committed suicide and a nephew replaced him as emperor, for less than a year. In 206 BC, a leader of the rebellion Liu Bang overthrew the Qin Dynasty and established the Han Dynasty, which lasted more than 400 years. The Han Dynasty went on to oppress peasants in much the same way as the dynasty it had destroyed.

The Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huangdi

To ensure that his reputation would survive on Earth and perhaps in the hereafter, he ordered the construction on an exceptionally large tomb which would simulate the shape and features of the cosmos. Topped by the tumulus perhaps 100 metres high, the mausoleum stood out as a conspicuous reminder of the Emperor’s strength. The tomb itself yet awaits excavation; around it lay buried a large number of clay warriors, drawn up in their serried ranks to guard him from enemies.


Despite precautions taken to safeguard the tomb, there is evidence that rebels broke in in 206 BC. They took a month to clear the tomb of treasures and then set fire to it. It is said to have burned for 90 days. Nearby pits which housed the entombed warriors also seem to have been ransacked and set alight, as the timber framework of the vault has collapsed.. Many bronze weapons were taken, but the terracotta warriors were not considered worth stealing. They were resealed in their tomb for more than 2000 years.

Discovery of Terracotta Warriors and Horses

In 1974, the Shaanxi province was suffering a severe drought. Farmers started sinking a well about one and a half kilometres east of the mound covering Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb. Further excavations revealed that the figures were part of the terracotta army buried to protect Shi Huangdi’s nearby tomb.