The First Emperor of China Who Died During His Quest Pursuing Immortality

The search for immortality killed Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China.
Susan Fourtané
The Great Wall of China, Terracotta Warrior bjdlzx/iStock

Once upon a time, over two thousand years ago, the first Emperor of China was so great, powerful, and ambitious that he spent his entire life pursuing his ultimate goal: Trying to find a potion that could make him immortal. Indeed, in the end, he found immortality in the history books.   

This crucial chapter in Chinese history unfolded in one of the oldest cities in China, the city of Xi'an. The birth of China's first imperial dynasty took place during a time of conflict, betrayal, and lust for power that shaped the future of the nation. 

The Zhou Dynasty was the longest-ruling Chinese dynasty. It lasted from 1122-255 BC.  The Qin Dynasty (pronounced chin), the first dynasty of Imperial China, was the shortest-ruling Chinese dynasty (221-206 BCE). It lasted only 15 years, well against the First Emperor's wishes. The latter is the dynasty that occupies our interest. 

The Qin Dynasty reunited China and laid the foundation for 21 centuries of imperial rule. Our focus is on the tragic and ironic destiny of the First Emperor of China, who died during his search for the elixir of life after a life-long fear of death. 

The first Emperor of China's quest for immortality and his terrifying fear of death 

first emperor of china
 Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, Source: Wikipedia, public domain

Qin Shi Huang (Ying Zheng) was born in 259 BCE in Hanan, but the exact date is unknown. It is believed that the name Qin is the etymological ancestor of today's name of the country, China. Some scholars, though, dismissed this etymology. 

Ying Zheng was the son of King Zhuangxiang of Qin and Lady Zhao Ji. Or that is what the King believed. A legend says that Lu Buwei, a rich merchant, and his wife, Zhao Ji, had got pregnant when Buwei arranged for Zhuangxiang to meet and fall in love with her. When Zhao Ji gave birth to Lu Buwei's child in 259 BCE, the King believed the baby was his own. 

Ying Zheng became King of the Qin state upon the death of his supposed father. The young King was only 13 years old. His prime minister and likely real father, Lu Buwei, acted as regent for the first eight years. 

According to the Records of the Grand Historian, in 240BCE, Lu Buwei introduced the King's mother, Zhao Ji, to Lao Ai as part of a scheme to depose Qin Shi Huang. The queen dowager and Lao Ai had two sons. In 238 BCE, Lao Ai and Bu Buwei decided to launch a coup. Lao Ai raised an army with the help of the king of nearby Wei. He tried to seize control while Qin Shi Huang was traveling. 

However, Qin Shi Huang found out about the rebellion. Lao was executed by having his neck, arms, and legs tied to horses, which were spurred to run in different directions. The young King forced his mother Zhao Ji to watch, while soldiers went to kill his two half-brothers.

Lao's whole family and all relatives to the third degree (uncles, aunts, and cousins) were also killed. Zhao Ji was spared, but forced to spend the rest of her life under house arrest. Lu Buwei was banished after the incident. He lived in constant fear of execution. In 235 BCE, Lu Buwei committed suicide by drinking poison. 

After the Lao Ai incident, Qin Shi Huang grew increasingly suspicious of everyone around him. He survived two murder attempts. 

Qin Shi Huang had around 50 children including Fusu, Gao, Jianglü, and Huhai, but had no empress. His most notable quote is: "I have collected all the writings of the Empire and burnt those which were of no use." Of not use for him, that is. 

Zheng assumed the sacred titles of legendary rulers and proclaimed himself Qin Shi Huang (First Sovereign Emperor of Qin). He claimed that his dynasty would last 10,000 generations. However, the 15 years of the Qin dynasty was the shortest major dynasty in the history of China, consisting of only two emperors. The 35-year reign of Qin Shi Huang brought both rapid cultural and intellectual advancement as well as much destruction and oppression within China. 

Yet, the Qin dynasty inaugurated an imperial system that lasted from 221 BCE until 1912. The Qin introduced a standardized currency, weights, measures, and a uniform system of writing, which aimed at unifying the state and promote commerce. The military used the latest weaponry, transportation, and military tactics. The Confucians portrayed the Qin dynasty as a monolithic tyranny, citing a purge which was known as the burning of books and burying of scholars. 

As the Emperor entered middle age, he grew more and more afraid of death. Qin Shi Huang became obsessed with finding an elixir of life, a potion for immortality. The court alchemists and doctors devoted day and night to find potions for the Emperor, many of them containing quicksilver (mercury). Slowly, the ironic effect of the potions resulted in the death of the Emperor, rather than preventing it. 

The Emperor also ordered the construction of a gargantuan tomb for himself, in case the immortality treatment failed. Plans for the Emperor's tomb included flowing rivers of mercury, cross-bow booby traps to thwart would-be plunderers, and replicas of all the Emperor's earthly palaces.

First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang's death

first emperor of china and the Great Wall
Illustration of the First Emperor of China posing with the Great Wall he had ordered to build, something that contributed to his fame and grandeur of power, Source: JacekWoo/iStock

In 211 BCE, a large meteor fell in Dongjun, representing an ominous sign for the Emperor. What followed was a stone found with the words "the First Emperor will die and his land will be divided." The Emperor ordered everyone in the vicinity to be executed, since no one would confess to the crime. 

A year later, while touring eastern China, Qin Shi Huang died on September 10, 210 BCE in Julu Commandery. He was 49 years old. Details of the cause of Qin Shi Huang's death are largely unknown to this date. However, it is known that the cause of death was mercury poisoning.

Reportedly, he died from Chinese alchemical elixir poisoning due to ingesting mercury pills --made by his alchemists and court physicians-- believing it to be an elixir of immortality. The Emperor, who had feared death since a young age, wanted to conquer death at any cost and was kin on trying immortality treatments.   

Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor of China: A UNESCO World Heritage site in Xi'an

first emperor of china mausoleum
The world famously mesmerizing Terracotta Army is part of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor of China, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Xi'an (Siam) China, Source: dndavis/iStock

Qin Shi Huang believed that as the Emperor of China, he would need an army in the afterlife, in the event that his elixir of life failed him. He believed an army could protect him. So, his subjects built 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses out of terracotta to help protect the great Emperor from his rival armies in the afterlife. The project took off and a mausoleum was carefully planned. 

The construction of the one-of-its-kind mausoleum began when the Emperor was just 14 years old, and long before he took on power. We are talking about a 14-year-old child who witnessed the preparations for his own death before he had the chance to live, which might explain his life-log terrifying fear of death.

In the second year of their reign, Kings began building their own tomb. his father died when he was 13 years old. Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction of his mausoleum at the age of 14. 

As his own tomb grew, so did his fear of death. The fear of death would accompany him for the rest of his life, well until the end. 

It took immense manpower to complete the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, which was only discovered, and in part unearthed, in March 1974.

The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor and First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, was constructed for over 38 years, from 246 to 208 BCE. The Mausoleum is underneath a 76-meter-tall (249 feet) tomb mound-shaped like a truncated pyramid in Lintong District, Xi'an, Shaanxi province of China. 

The tomb complex contains an estimated 8,000 life-like clay soldiers, chariots, horses, weapons, and mass graves with evidence of brutal power. Archeologists have been reluctant to open Qin Shi Huang's actual tomb.  

Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an: Protecting the First Emperor of China's afterlife

Terracotta Army
Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, First Emperor of China, Source: michelsun, iStock

The Terracotta Army is a collection of over 8,000 real-size sculptures depicting the armies of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Archeologists first found 8,000 warriors. Each warrior has very distinct facial features. Most recently, archeologists in China found over 200 others. Experts in military say the discovery of the warriors depicts how the Qin military used to operate.

The Terracotta Army is a display of the militar formation of the Qin army. The first three rows are archers facing forward. Behind them, stand infantry men in 38 rows, poise to strike upon commander's orders. The flanks are defended by troops on the peripheric, facing upward, watching for threats from any direction. 

The funerary massive art collection was buried with the Emperor in 210-209 BCE to protect him in his afterlife. All the terracotta warriors are facing east, and there is a reason for that.

During the 3rd Century BCE, the land we now call China was a bloody battle ground, and battles went on for decades. According to historical records, the original ruling area in Qin was the west, whereas all the other states were in the east of China. Qin Shi Huang's goal was to unify all states. The fact that the warriors and horses are facing east confirms his determination for unification even in his afterlife.  

How the Terracotta Warriors were made

Each Terracotta Warrior is 1.80 centimeters (6 feet) tall and weighs 160 to 300 kilograms (approximately 300 to 400 pounds). An interesting fact is that the hands were made in one whole piece and separately, they would only be added at the end. Each Terracotta Warrior was molded with individual and unique facial features. The bodies and limbs were mass-produced from molds. 

The FBI has estimated that each 300-kilogram Terracotta Warrior is worth $4.5 million. Perhaps this explains why in December 2017, someone broke off and stole a Terracotta Warrior's left thumb from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, in The United States, where 10 of the ancient relics were on loan. Although the event speaks more about ignorance than about greed.   

The Great Wall of China: Legacy of Qin Shi Huang, First Emperor of China

Great Wall of china
Great Wall of China at the Jinshanling section, Source: zhaojiankang/iStock

The Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction of the Great Wall around 221 BCE to protect his Empire from the recurrent threat from the north, raids by the nomadic Xiongnu, who were the ancestors of Attila's Huns. 

The labor force that built the enormous defensive wall was largely made up of hundreds of thousands of slaves and convicts. The work was completed between 220 and 206 BCE. Thousands died during that period at the task.

The northern fortification formed the first section of what later on would become the Great Wall of China. In 214, the Emperor ordered the construction of a canal which would link the Yangtze and Pearl River systems, the Lingqu Canal. 

The Great Wall was not just built by slaves and convicts. Scholars who refused to allow their books to be burned following orders from Emperor Qin Shi Huang were either burned alive or sent to work on the wall. 

In 213 BCE, the Emperor's orders were that all books that were not about agriculture, medicine, prophesy, or related to his reign had to be burned. It was a way of weakening scholars and teachers, especially Confucianism and a number of other philosophies. Qin Shi Huang viewed these schools of thought as threats to his authority. Let's not forget that knowledge is power, and the Emperor wanted absolute control and power over China.

Approximately 460 scholars were not lucky enough to work on the wall as slaves. Instead, they were buried alive for daring to disagree with the Emperor. Other 700 scholars were stoned to death. From then on, the only school of thought approved by the Emperor was legalism, which meant to follow the Emperor's laws, or face the consequences.