Did the first emperor of China die of mercury poisoning?

Did the first emperor of China die of mercury poisoning?


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Did the first emperor Qin Shi Huang die of mercury poisoning? If so, how do we know? I've seen lots of claims that he did (and claims that he didn't), but no citation explaining what primary source backs this up. It is known he ingested mercury and modern archaeologists have detected lots of mercury around his tomb, but that doesn't quite prove he died of mercury poisoning.

If Qin Shi Huang's cause of death is unknown, are there good sources to cite for this?

Edit (background research): I understand that much (most?) of our historical record on Qin Shi Huang comes from the Shiji (史记). But I was under the impression that the Shiji was written before the discovery that mercury was poisonous, so it's implausible that the Shiji attributes Qin Shi Huang's death to mercury poisoning. (I may be wrong and mercury's toxicity was known far earlier.)

I believe the idea he ingested mercury comes from the importance of cinnabar (which contains inert mercury) in ancient immortality elixers.

More importantly, the Shiji covers Qin Shi Huang's life in this chapter but "朱", the character for cinnabar, never appears. Nor does "汞", the character for mercury. As the Shiji was written in classical Chinese, it's possible cinnabar was referred to by a different name I'm not familiar with.

If I understand it correctly (which I may not), the sentence about him dying is

及至秦王,续六世之馀烈,振长策而御宇内,吞二周而亡诸侯,履至尊而制六合,执棰拊以鞭笞天下,威振四海。

Which just says he fought for two weeks before dying. (Edit 2: My reading of this that quote is garbage.) Nothing about mercury or cinnabar. Am I missing something about the Shiji or does the belief he died from mercury poisoning come from some other source?


I've only read the English Wikipedia where it reads:

The cause of Qin Shi Huang's death is still largely unknown, 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.

But from the view of an ancient chinese chroniker there was no mercury poisoning because it was believed to be a remedy for diseases or, in the case of the emporer, a cure for death itself.

Usually elemantary mercury was produced by heating cinnabar. This was mixed with fats or other carrier substances in order to create 'medicine'. Whilst elementary mercury has a low accute toxicity, chronic consumption causes brain damages which lead to symptoms like paranoia, from which Qin Shi Huang suffered.

So in general the mercury certainly weakened him much but the ultimate cause of his death may never be known, although it is likely that it is somehow connected with the mercury he received from his doctors.


Qin Shi Huang, First Emperor of China Research Paper Help

Qin Shi Huang (or Shi Huangdi) was the First Emperor of a unified China, who ruled from 246 BCE to 210 BCE. In his 35-year reign, he managed to create magnificent and enormous construction projects. He also caused both incredible cultural and intellectual growth, and much destruction within China. Whether he should be remembered more for his creations or his tyranny is a matter of dispute, but everyone agrees that Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, was one of the most important rulers in Chinese history. Connect with over 120,000 suppliers from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan Fall of Rome London Family History Chinese Warriors Terracotta Army Dynasty Early Life: According to legend, a rich merchant named Lu Buwei befriended a prince of the Qin State during the latter years of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BCE). The merchants lovely wife Zhao Ji had just gotten pregnant, so he arranged for the prince to meet and fall in love with her. She became the princes concubine, and then gave birth to Lu Buweis child in 259 BCE. The baby, born in Hanan, was named Ying Zheng. The prince believed the baby was his own. Ying Zheng became king of the Qin state in 246 BCE, upon the death of his supposed father. He ruled as Qin Shi Huang, and unified China for the first time. Early Reign: The young king was only 13 years old when he took the throne, so his prime minister (and probable real father) Lu Buwei acted as regent for the first eight years. This was a difficult time for any ruler in China, with seven warring states vying for control of the land. The leaders of the Qi, Yan, Zhao, Han, Wei, Chu and Qin states were former dukes under the Zhou Dynasty, but had each proclaimed themselves king as the Zhou fell apart. In this unstable environment, warfare flourished, as did books like Sun Tzus The Art of War. Lu Buwei had another problem, as well he feared that the king would discover his true identity. Lao Ais Revolt: According to the Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, Lu Buwei hatched a new scheme to depose Qin Shi Huang in 240 BCE. He introduced Zhao Ji to Lao Ai, a man famed for his large penis. The queen dowager and Lao Ai had two sons, and in 238 BCE, Lao and Lu Buwei decided to launch a coup. Lao raised an army, aided by the king of nearby Wei, and tried to seize control while Qin Shi Huang was traveling outside of the area. The young king cracked down hard on the rebellion Lao was executed in a grisly fashion, along with his family. The queen dowager was spared, but spent the rest of her days under house arrest. Consolidation of Power: Lu Buwei was banished after the Lao Ai incident, but did not lose all of his influence in Qin. However, he lived in constant fear of execution by the mercurial young king. In 235 BCE, Lu committed suicide by drinking poison. With his death, the 24-year-old king assumed full command over the kingdom of Qin. Qin Shi Huang grew increasingly paranoid (not without reason), and banished all foreign scholars from his court as spies. The kings fears were well-founded in 227, the Yan state sent two assassins to his court, but he fought them off with his sword. A musician also tried to kill him by bludgeoning him with a lead-weighted lute. Battles with Neighboring States: The assassination attempts arose in part because of desperation in neighboring kingdoms. The Qin king had the most powerful army, and neighboring rulers trembled at the thought of a Qin invasion. The Han kingdom fell in 230 BCE. In 229, a devastating earthquake rocked another powerful state, Zhao, leaving it weakened. Qin Shi Huang took advantage of the disaster, and invaded the region. Wei fell in 225, followed by the powerful Chu in 223. The Qin army conquered Yan and Zhao in 222 (despite another assassination attempt on Qin Shi Huang by a Yan agent). The final independent kingdom, Qi, fell to the Qin in 221 BCE. China Unified: With the defeat of the other six warring states, Qin Shi Huang had unified northern China. His army would continue to expand the Qin Empires southern boundaries throughout his lifetime, driving as far south as what is nowVietnam. The king of Qin became the Emperor of Qin China. As emperor, Qin Shi Huang reorganized the bureaucracy, abolishing the existing nobility and replacing them with his appointed officials. He also built a network of roads, with the capital of Xianyang at the hub. In addition, the emperor simplified the written Chinese script, standardized weights and measures, and minted new copper coins. The Great Wall and Ling Canal: Despite its military might, the newly unified Qin Empire faced a recurring threat from the north: raids by the nomadic Xiongnu (the ancestors of Attilas Huns). In order to fend off the Xiongnu, Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction of an enormous defensive wall. The work was carried out by hundreds of thousands of slaves and criminals between 220 and 206 BCE untold thousands of them died at the task. This northern fortification formed the first section of what would become the Great Wall of China. In 214, the Emperor also ordered construction of a canal, the Lingqu, which linked the Yangtze and Pearl River systems. The Confucian Purge: The Warring States Period was dangerous, but the lack of central authority allowed intellectuals to flourish. Confucianism and a number of other philosophies blossomed prior to Chinas unification. However, Qin Shi Huang viewed these schools of thought as threats to his authority, so he ordered all books not related to his reign burned in 213 BCE. The Emperor also had approximately 460 scholars buried alive in 212 for daring to disagree with him, and 700 more stoned to death. From then on, the only approved school of thought was legalism: follow the emperors laws, or face the consequences. Qin Shi Huangs Quest for Immortality: As he entered middle age, the First Emperor grew more and more afraid of death. He became obsessed with finding the elixir of life, which would allow him to live forever. The court doctors and alchemists concocted a number of potions, many of them containing quicksilver (mercury), which probably had the ironic effect of hastening the emperors death rather than preventing it. Just in case the elixirs did not work, in 215 BCE the Emperor alsoordered the construction of a gargantuan tomb for himself. Plans for the tomb included flowing rivers of mercury, cross-bow booby traps to thwart would-be plunderers, and replicas of the Emperors earthly palaces. The Terracotta Army: To guard Qin Shi Huang in the afterworld, and perhaps allow him to conquer heaven as he had the earth, the emperor had a terracotta army of at least 8,000 clay soldiers placed in the tomb. The army also included terracotta horses, along with real chariots and weapons. Each soldier was an individual, with unique facial features (although the bodies and limbs were mass-produced from molds). The Death of Qin Shi Huang: A large meteor fell in Dongjun in 211 BCE an ominous sign for the Emperor. To make matters worse, someone etched the words The First Emperor will die and his land will be divided onto the stone. Some saw this as a sign that the Emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven. Since nobody would fess up to this crime, the Emperor had everyone in the vicinity executed. The meteor itself was burned and then pounded into powder. Nevertheless, the Emperor died less than a year later, while touring eastern China in 210 BCE. The cause of death most likely was mercury poisoning, due to his immortality treatments. Fall of the Qin Empire Qin Shi Huangs Empire did not outlast him long. His second son and Prime Minister tricked the heir, Fusu, into committing suicide. The second son, Huhai, seized power. However, widespread unrest (led by the remnants of the Warring States nobility) threw the empire into disarray. In 207 BCE, the Qin army was defeated by Chu-lead rebels at the Battle of Julu. This defeat signaled the end of the Qin Dynasty. Sources: Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (2007). Lu Buwei, The Annals of Lu Buwei, trans. John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel. Stanford: Stanford University Press (2000). Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press (1993).


The First Chinese Emperor and His Bizarre Quest for Immortality

In the year 221 BC, the man called Qin Shi Huang had accomplished what no one had ever done before. His powerful Qin dynasty had managed to conquer the various warring states that had for centuries fought each other and from the ashes and destruction was able to unify China for the first time in its history. Rather than name himself “king,” he would be the first to proclaim himself Emperor of this new unified China, becoming the first Emperor and setting the stage for what all future leaders would call themselves for the next 2,000 years. Under Qin Shi Huang’s rule, China saw rapid and immense expansion, major economic and political reforms, an ambitious national road system, as well as architectural marvels such as the Lingqu Canal and famously the Great Wall of China. Yet for as many as he had conquered and subjugated there was one enemy that he knew he could not escape, and that was death itself. However, Emperor Qin Shi Huang was not about to let death get in the way of his plans to rule eternally, and to him death was another enemy that could be beat.

Just as important to this formidable leader as building his country up was his obsession with immortality, and to live forever was a goal that absolutely consumed him over his lifetime. Qin Shi Huang was convinced that immortality was possible through a concoction of special herbs, plants, and other ingredients, and he surrounded himself with his own personal herbalists, doctors, scholars, magicians, wise men, and alchemists, all on hand to advise him on what he needed in order to achieve his goal of eternal life. It was not the first time a Chinese leader had sought a mythical elixir of immortality, but Qin Shi Huang really took it to new levels. He had already managed to install a surprisingly advanced medical system for its time, with all manner of innovative treatments and medicines developed under his rule, but this was not enough for the Emperor. He did not want to be healed or cured, he wanted to never have to be healed or cured ever again.

In order to find what he was looking for, the Emperor sent out men to every corner of the country, scouring the wilderness and remote villages of the land in search of the elusive key to immortality. Bamboo strips with historical records on them even indicate that he issued an executive decree that the secret to immortality be found, and so every village and city across the empire was tasked with the responsibility of fulfilling this order with haste. Indeed, the executive decree proclaimed that finding immortality was the top priority, and that everyone should drop whatever else they were doing in order to pursue it. The race was on to find the secret to immortality, and the people, both the upper class and commoners alike, toiled away looking for that one key ingredient that would allow a potion of eternal life to be created. There are records showing that some villages apologized to the Emperor for not being able to find what he was looking for and promising they would increase their efforts, while on occasion some remote outpost would report that they had found a promising herb, flower, or mushroom. However, the most promising response came from a magician who lived at a place called Zhifu Island.

The magician was called Xu Fu, and he had quite the story to tell. According to him, there was a secret cabal of eight immortals who lived away from civilization on a mysterious island called Penglai, and that they had long ago discovered the secrets to immortality. In fact, Xu Fu claimed that those immortals had been living there on that remote island for hundreds of years, led by a 1,000 year old sorcerer by the name of Anqi Sheng, and the best part was that he knew where they were and how to find them. Qin Shi Huang was convinced that Xu Fu knew what he was talking about, and he made immediate preparations to travel to Zhifu island, where he offered the magician a huge harem of 6,000 women and a fleet of ships to offer the immortals in exchange for their services. Xu Fu told the Emperor that the immortals would only speak with him, and so he promised to travel out to the mysterious island and return with the elixir of immortality. And so Emperor Qin Shi Huang stood at the sea watching the fleet of ships and the magician Xu Fu sail off over the horizon, after which he needed only wait. And wait some more, for years on end.

Xu Fu never did return, and the theory is that he either got lost at sea or took off with the free harem and ships, but others have speculated that Xu Fu did indeed find the island and its immortals, and decided to stay and join them, or that he even fled to Japan. Whatever the case may be, the years went on and Xu Fu never came back, and so Emperor Qin Shi Huang was left without his promised elixir of life, and was back to scouring the land looking for it. This mission became even more urgent when he was almost killed in an assassination attempt, and he doubled his efforts to find the elusive elixir he sought even as he became more reclusive, hiding behind his palace walls and in constant paranoia. He sent out a group of his best men to try and find the island of Penglai, but they were never able to find it. In fact, only one of the men returned, and he would say that although he had found the island, he had seen no sign of the purported colony of immortals.

Qin Shi Huang took to taking various remedies offered to him, including one called cinnabar, basically mercury sulfide, which was supposed to prolong his life as he searched for immortality, but in fact did just the opposite. Mercury is something many readers will recognize as a dangerous, poisonous substance that one should not ever ingest, and so the Emperor became weak and sick as time passed. As this was going on, a meteor crashed near the lower reaches of the Yellow River and someone had then inscribed into it the sinister warning “The First Emperor will die and his land will be divided.” Qin Shi Huang became so furious, frustrated, and suspicious of his advisors, who he had now come to believe were trying to poison him, that he had many of them executed. In the meantime, realizing that he was not long for this world and that it was very likely he was not ever going to get his elixir, he had built an immense, sprawling underground mausoleum built and populated by 8,000 terracotta warriors and horses in order to serve as his residence in the afterlife. He would need it when he eventually died of mercury poisoning at the age of 49. The complex is as mysterious as it is huge, and has still not been completely explorer or excavated.

In the void left behind by the death of “The Immortal Emperor,” there was immediately civil war as factions squabbled over the scraps, leading to the formation of the Han Dynasty that would be the second imperial dynasty of China. It is ironic that his own quest to live forever likely contributed to his early demise, and all of this remains a very curious historical oddity that stands out as something as if from some fantasy story. The quest for immortality is still alive within us, but perhaps no one in history has pursued it with such passion and resolve as Qin Shi Huang. One wonders if he in the afterlife regretted what had happened or if he embraced his new role, but these are things we will ever know. It remains a grand tale melding history, madness, and a touch of the paranormal.


Mercury was considered a cure — until it killed you

The baby’s hands and feet had become icy, swollen and red. The flesh was splitting off, resembling blanched tomatoes whose skins peeled back from the fruit. She had lost weight, cried petulantly, and clawed at herself from the intense itching, tearing the raw skin open. Sometimes her fever reached 39 degrees.

“If she was an adult,” her mother had noted, “she would have been considered to be insane, sitting up in her cot, banging her head with her hands.”

Later on, her condition would be called acrodynia, or painful tips, named so for the sufferer’s aching hands and feet. But in 1921, they called the baby’s affliction Pink’s Disease, and they were seeing more cases every year. For a while, physicians struggled to determine the etiology. It was blamed on arsenic, ergot, allergies and viruses. But by the 1950s, the wealth of cases pointed to one common ingredient ingested by the sick kids — calomel.

Parents, hoping to ease the teething pain of their infants, rubbed one of many available calomel-containing teething powders into their babies’ sore gums. Very popular at the time: Dr. Moffett’s Teethina Powder, which also boasted that it “Strengthens the Child . . . Relieves the Bowel Troubles of Children of ANY AGE,” and could, temptingly, “Make baby fat as a pig.”

Beyond the creepy promise of Hansel and Gretel-esque results, there was something else sinister lurking within calomel: mercury. For hundreds of years, mercury-containing products claimed to heal a varied and strangely unrelated host of ailments. Melancholy, constipation, syphilis, influenza, parasites — you name it, and someone swore that mercury could fix it.

Mercury was used ubiquitously for centuries, at all levels of society, in its liquid form (quicksilver) or as a salt. Calomel — also known as mercurous chloride — fell into the latter category and was used by some of the most illustrious personages in history, including Napoleon Bonaparte, Edgar Allan Poe, Andrew Jackson, and Louisa May Alcott.

Drawing from the Greek words for good and black (named so for its habit of turning black in the presence of ammonia), calomel was the medicine from the 16th to the early 20th century. By itself, calomel seems fairly innocuous — an odourless white powder. But don’t be fooled. Taken orally, calomel is a potent cathartic, which is a sophisticated way of saying it will violently empty out your guts into the toilet. Constipation had long been associated with sickness, so opening the rectal gates of hell was a sign of righting the wrongs.

Some believe the “black” part of its name evolved from the dark stools ejected, which were mistaken for purged bile. Allowing bile to “flow freely” was in harmony with keeping the body balanced and the humours happy.

The “purging” occurred elsewhere, too — in the form of massive amounts of unattractive drooling, a symptom of mercury toxicity. Still, physicians found their drug of choice in calomel.

Benjamin Rush was one such physician. He pioneered the humane treatment of psychiatric patients, but unfortunately thought that mental illness was best treated with a dose of calomel.

When the mosquito-borne Yellow Fever virus hit Philadelphia in 1793, Rush became a passionate advocate of extreme amounts of calomel and bloodletting. Sometimes, 10 times the usual calomel dose was employed. Even the purge-loving medical establishment found this excessive. Members of the Philadelphia College of Physicians called his methods “murderous” and “fit for a horse.”

At the time, Thomas Jefferson estimated the Yellow Fever fatality rate at 33 per cent. Later, the fatality rate of Rush’s patients was found to be 46 per cent.

Ultimately, it was Rush’s influence on improving Philadelphia’s standing water problem and sanitation — plus a good, mosquito-killing first frost of autumn — that ended the epidemic.

Still, calomel continued to be used. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that mercury compounds finally fell out of favour, thanks to a solid understanding that heavy metal toxicity was actually, you know, bad.

Most people know of elemental mercury as that slippery, silvery liquid once used with ubiquity in glass thermometers. If you were a child before helicopter parenting, you might have had the opportunity to play with the contents of a broken thermometer. The glimmering balls skittered everywhere and delighted children for hours.

There was always something mystical about “quicksilver,” as it was often called. Its older Latin name, hydrargyrum, spoke to its astonishing uniqueness — “water silver” — and gave rise to its Hg abbreviation on the periodic table of elements. The only metal that is liquid at room temperature, it’s also the only element whose common name was taken from its association with alchemy and a Roman god.

So it almost makes sense that people expected magical things from mercury. Qin Shi Huang, First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (246� BCE), was one of them. Desperate for the secret to immortality, he sent out search parties to find the answer, but they were doomed to fail. Instead, his own alchemists concocted mercury medicines, thinking that the shining liquid was the key.

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He died at 49 from mercury poisoning. But hey, why stop there? In an attempt to rule in the afterlife, Qin had himself buried in an underground mausoleum so grand that ancient writers described it flowing with rivers of mercury, its ceiling decorated with jewelled constellations. Thus far, the tomb is unexcavated due to the toxic levels of mercury that threaten to release if it’s opened.

Quite a bit later, when Abraham Lincoln was immortalizing himself in history, he too was a victim of liquid mercury. Before his presidency, Lincoln suffered from mood swings, headaches and constipation. In the 1850s, an aide noted, “he alwys had a sick headache — Took Blue pills — blue Mass.” These “sick headaches” were also known as “bilious headaches” and could conceivably be cured by a good cathartic that also “allowed” bile to flow.

So what was this mysterious “blue mass”? A peppercorn-sized pill containing pure liquid mercury, licorice root, rosewater, honey and sugar.

Lincoln only grew worse after taking the pills. There are several accounts of his volatile behaviour at the time, with bouts of depression mixed with rage, as well as insomnia, tremors, and gait problems, all of which could theoretically be blamed on mercury toxicity.

Lincoln, to his credit, seemed to recognize that the blue mass might be making him worse rather than better, and he apparently decreased his use once he entered the White House.

Mercury has had an entwined relationship with syphilis for centuries. In the 15th century, the “Great Pox” began to make its way across Europe. Genital sores sprouted after exposure to an infected sexual partner and progressed to rash and fevers. Later, foul-smelling abscesses spread over the body, some so severe that they ate away at flesh and bone.

People were desperate for a cure. By the 16th century, mercury came to the rescue.

Mercuric chloride arrived on the scene. Unlike calomel, mercuric chloride was water-soluble and easily absorbed by the body, making its poisonous results seem all the more effective. It burned the skin when applied (“It hurts! Therefore, it works!”), and the copious salivation was considered a sign of successful purging.

Elemental mercury was heated for steam baths, where inhalation was considered beneficial (and is a potent route of mercury absorption).

These regimens would often continue for the rest of the sufferer’s life. There was no denying a common saying at the time: “A night with Venus, and a lifetime with mercury.”

Nowadays, we do know that mercury and other metals such as silver can kill bacteria in vitro. All scientists know, however, that what’s good in the petri dish isn’t necessarily good in the human body. It’s unclear if syphilis sufferers were cured by their mercury treatments or if they simply moved on to the next phase of the illness, which could consist of many symptom-free years.

That is, if the mercury toxicity didn’t kill them first.

Edited excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD & Nate Pedersen. Copyright © 2017. Used with permission of Workman Publishing.


Immortality Potions Killed So Many Chinese Emperors

Since you don't see many 2000-year-old Methuselahs pushing a shopping cart through Walmart's sock aisle, their mile-long beards slowly tangling in the wheels, it's safe to assume that immortality isn't within our human grasp. But that didn't prevent the richest royals of ye olde days from tasking scientists, alchemists, and workaday wizards to find them a cure for this pesky illness we call being deadzo.

None were more obsessed with finding the "elixir of life" than the Chinese emperors -- so much so, they often didn't notice that their predecessors died with a serious potion stache. The search for immortality in a bottle started at the very beginning. Qin Shi Huang, the first Chinese emperor and the first guy to spend way too much money on his wargaming hobby , gave out many quests to find secret magic herbs to permanently stave off death an elixir-chugging obsession that likely led to his demise at the immortally old age of 49.

From then on, emperors from every dynasty funded entire alchemical colleges and grand expeditions searching for the secrets to the immortality elixir. Not a lot of progress was made. But recently, researchers did uncover an ancient sample of the supposedly life-giving medicine placed next to a corpse in a Western Han dynasty tomb, the elixir itself smelling "like wine" and sporting an unhealthy pee-yellow color.

Another case for carefully reading the prescription label for recommended doses.

But don't let its delicious wine smell and delicious pee-look fool you: elixirs of life tended to be chock-full of poisonous chemicals. Emperors knew they had the chance of gulping what turned out to be an "elixir of death." The emperors' Taoist alchemists assured the trick was to find the perfect balance between an alchemical Yin, like mercury, and an alchemical Yang, like lead. This would eventually unlock the secret to, well, not living forever, but at least dying of a perfect balance between mercury poisoning and lead poisoning.

As a result, these toxic cocktails slowly caused several emperors to die of poison while toasting their eternal health. (The smarter emperors waiting until their death bed to try the elixir in a YOLO sort of way). None suffered more at the hands of the literal irony than the Tang dynasty . Known for their zest for life, the Tang lost six emperors to potion poisoning in under three centuries. That includes two father-son pairs, the latter of whom would be barely done executing his dad's charlatan alchemist before turning to his own one and saying: "What're the odds of that happening twice in a row, right?"

Despite the many suicides by serum, Chinese royals, alchemists and scholars remained gung-ho about shotgunning mercury. It didn't help that, occasionally, someone claimed the cure had worked. Like the famed alchemist Wei Boyang, who tested his immortality elixir through the rigorous scientific process of feeding it to a "white dog." If successful, the dog would start flying. If not, it would die. Spoiler Alert: the dog didn't fly. Somehow undeterred by the perished pooch, Wei and one apprentice still drank their elixir and obviously died. But according to contemporary texts, they did come back to life and then flew up a mountain as immortals never to be seen again. It's just that those same texts fail to mention they did so flapping white wings and playing a golden harp.


Flowing rivers of mercury

The Chinese emperor had done all he could to become immortal, but in vain. His physicians had prepared herbal and alchemical elixirs, but none could stave off his decline. He had sent a minister on a voyage far over the eastern seas in search of a mythical potion of eternal life. But that expedition never returned, and now the quest seemed hopeless. So Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor of a unified China in the third century BC, had begun preparations for the next best thing to an endless life on Earth. He would continue his cosmic rule from the spirit world, and his underground tomb would be a palace for the afterlife, complete with its own army of life-size clay soldiers.

Those terracotta warriors lay hidden for two thousand years beneath several metres of sandy soil a mile from the First Emperor’s burial mound at Mount Li, to the northeast of the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province of north-central China. They were rediscovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well, and Chinese archaeologists were astonished to find over the next decade that there were at least 8000 of them, once brightly painted and equipped with clay horses and wooden chariots. As further excavation revealed the extent of the emperor’s mausoleum, with offices, stables and halls, along with clay figures of officials, acrobats and labourers and life-size bronze animals, it became clear that the Han dynasty historian Sima Qian, writing in second century BC, hadn’t been exaggerating after all. He claimed that 700,000 men had worked on the emperor’s tomb, constructing entire palaces, towers and scenic landscapes through which which the emperor’s spirit might roam.

Sealed in

No one knows what other wonders the mausoleum might house, for the main burial chamber – a football-pitch-sized hall beneath a great mound of earth – remains sealed. Most enticing of all is a detail relayed by Qian: ‘Mercury was used to fashion the hundred rivers, the Yellow river and the Yangtze river, and the seas in such a way that they flowed’. This idea that the main chamber contains a kind of microcosm of all of China (as it was then recognised) with rivers, lakes and seas of shimmering mercury had long seemed too fantastic for modern historians to grant it credence. But if Qian had not been inventing stories about other elaborate features of the mausoleum site, might his account of the tomb chamber be reliable too?

In the 1980s Chinese researchers found that the soil in the burial mound above the tomb contains mercury concentrations way above those elsewhere in the vicinity. Now some archaeologists working on the site believe that the body of the First Emperor may indeed lie amidst vast puddles of the liquid metal.

Yet it seems unlikely that anyone will gaze on such a sight in the foreseeable future. ‘We have no current plan to open the chambers,’ explains archaeologist Qingbo Duan of Northwest University in Xi’an, who led the mausoleum excavations from 1998 to 2008. ‘We have no mature technologies and effective measures to protect the relics,’ he says. So can we ever know the truth about Qin Shi Huangdi’s rivers of mercury?

A harsh legacy

The construction of this immense mausoleum started fully 36 years before the emperor’s death in 210BC, when he was merely King Zheng of the kingdom of Qin – a realm occupying the valley of the Wei, a major tributary of the Yellow river, now in Shaanxi. Qin was one of seven states within China at that time, all of which had been vying for supremacy since the fifth century BC in what is known as the Warring States period. By finally defeating the last of the rival states in 221BC, Zheng became Qin Shi Huangdi (meaning the First Qin Emperor), ruler of all China.

Some etymologies trace the name China itself to the First Emperor dynasty (pronounced ‘chin’), and so you might imagine that it would have a very special status in Chinese history. But the unified state barely outlasted the death of the First Emperor himself – four years later it succumbed to a rebellion that became the much more durable Han dynasty (206BC–AD220). The Qin dynasty is regarded with little fondness in China today, for the First Emperor was a tyrant who ruled with brutal force.

What hides within

Yet there’s reluctant admiration in the way Qian describes the magnificence of the First Emperor’s tomb. ‘In ancient China, people believed the souls of the dead would live forever underground, so they would prepare almost everything from real life to bury for use in the afterlife,’ says Yinglan Zhang, an archaeologist at the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an and deputy director of the mausoleum excavations from 1998 to 2007. Given what has already been unearthed, he says ‘there should be many other cultural artefacts or relics still buried in the tomb chamber or other burial pits around the tomb – maybe things beyond our imagination’.

O Louis Mazzatenta / National Geographic Society / Corbis

The First Emperor’s tomb is surrounded by thousands of terracotta warriors to guard him in the afterlife

The pits housing the terracotta army lie outside the 2km by 1km boundary wall of the burial mound. Inside this wall are ritual buildings once containing food and other items that the emperor would need to sustain him. There are chambers full of stone armour that could protect against evil spirits, and it is possible that the emperor himself might not have been interred alone in the main chamber: Qian says that officials were buried there with him, and it’s not clear if they were alive or dead at the time.

The mound itself was originally about 0.5km by 0.5km (erosion has shrunk it a little) and the burial chamber lies about 30–40m below the original ground surface. Its shape has been mapped out by measuring gravity anomalies in the ground – an indication of hollow or less dense structures – and by looking for changes in the electrical resistivity of the soil, which result from buried structures or cavities. In this way, Chinese archaeologists have figured out the basic layout of the tomb over the past several decades. The chamber is about 80m east to west by 50m north to south, surrounded by a wall of closely packed earth and – to judge from other ancient Chinese tombs – perhaps water-proofed with stone covered with red lacquer. In 2000 researchers discovered that towards the edge of the mound an underground dam and drainage system helps to keep water away from the chamber. So there’s some reason to believe that the tomb itself might be relatively intact: neither wholly collapsed nor water-filled.

Quicksilver courses

Measurements of soil resistivity have revealed another intriguing feature. They show a so-called phase anomaly, which is produced when an electrical current is reflected from a conducting surface, such as a metal. Could this be a sign of mercury?

The first detailed study of mercury levels in the mound were conducted in the early 1980s, when researchers from the Institute of Geophysical and Geochemical Exploration of the China Institute of Geo-Environment Monitoring sunk small boreholes into the soil over an area of 12,000m 2 in the centre of the mound and extracted soil samples for analysis. Whereas soils outside this central region contained an average of 30ppb of mercury, the average above the chamber was 250ppb, and in some places rose to 1500ppb. A second survey in 2003, by a different team that included Duan, found much the same result: unusually high concentrations of mercury both in the soil itself and in the interstitial vapours between grains.

adapted from Liu Shiyi et al 2005, pp 26 &32. Paul Goodhead / © Trustees of the British museum

Do mercury levels above Qin’s burial mound (left) resemble this 11th century map (right)

From the grid of borehole samples in the earlier study one can construct a rough map of how the high levels of mercury are distributed. ‘There is no unusual amount of mercury in the northwest corner of the tomb,’ says Duan, ‘while the mercury level is highest in the northeast and second highest in the south’. If you squint at this distribution, you can persuade yourself that it matches the locations of the two great rivers of China – the Yellow and Yangtze – as seen from the ancient Qin capital of Xianyang, close to modern Xi’an. ‘The distribution of mercury level corresponds to the location of waterways in the Qin empire,’ Duan says. In other words, the tomb might indeed contain a facsimile of the empire, watered by mercury.

Zhang, however, isn’t so sure that one can conclude much from the present day mercury distribution. He thinks that the tomb chamber must have collapsed thousands of years ago, just like the pits containing the terracotta army. ‘The mercury will have volatilised into nearby soils during this long time, so it would be impossible to show up detailed information that we can connect with particular rivers or lakes,’ he concludes.

Elixirs of immortality

In any case, just because the mausoleum apparently contains a lot of mercury doesn’t in itself verify Qian’s account. Mercury had other uses too, particularly in alchemy, which has some of its oldest roots in China. In the west this art was commonly associated with attempts to make gold from other metals, and some Chinese alchemists tried that too – in 144BC the Han emperor Jingdi decreed that anyone caught trying to make counterfeit gold should be executed. But Chinese alchemy was more oriented towards medicinal uses, in particular elixirs of immortality.

Joel Arem / Science Photo Library

Cinnabar (HgS) was widely used in ancient China for decoration, medicine and alchemy

And perhaps mercury (in Chinese ‘shui yin’, literally ‘water silver’) was the key to these. Chinese legend tells of one Huang An, who prolonged his life for at least 10,000 years by eating mercury sulfide (the mineral cinnabar).The First Emperor was said to have consumed wine and honey laden with cinnabar thinking it would prolong his life, and some have speculated that he might have hastened his death with these ‘medicines’.

During the Warring States period, mercury was a common ingredient of medicines being used to treat infected sores, scabies, ringworm and (even more alarmingly) as a sedative for mania and insomnia. Because it is bright red, cinnabar was also used for art and decoration in China since around the second millennium BC. Its artificial form, produced in the west since the Roman era, became known as the pigment vermilion.

One of the most important uses of mercury at this time has a particularly alchemical tinge. Gold and silver dissolve in mercury to form amalgams, and such mixtures were used for gilt plating. The amalgam was rubbed on and heated to evaporate the mercury leaving behind a gleaming coat of precious metal. Such mixtures also featured in alchemical elixirs: the Daoist concept of yin and yang, the two fundamental and complementary principles of life, encouraged an idea that cold, watery (yang) mercury and bright, fiery (yin) gold might be blended in ideal proportions to sustain vitality.

Obtaining mercury

Throughout antiquity cinnabar was the source of all mercury metal. There was a lot of this mineral in China, particularly in the west. Shaanxi alone contains almost a fifth of all the cinnabar reserves in the country, and there are very ancient mines in Xunyang county in the south of the province that are a good candidate source of the mercury apparently in the First Emperor’s tomb.

To extract mercury from cinnabar one need only roast it in air, converting the sulfur to sulfur dioxide while the mercury is released as vapour that can then be condensed. Since mercury boils at 357°C, this process needs temperatures well within the capabilities of Qin-era kilns. Of course, anyone trying this method in an unsealed container – closed chambers weren’t used until the Han period – risked serious harm.

The emperor was said to have consumed cinnabar to prolong his life

But despite there being a mature mercury-refining technology by the time of the First Emperor, and although Zhang attests that ‘the people of the Qin Dynasty had some basic chemical knowledge’, Duan argues that Chinese alchemy was still in its infancy in that period. In particular, he says, there is no good reason to think that the practice of soaking dead bodies in mercury to prevent their decay, common during the Song dynasty in the 10th to 13th centuries AD, was used as early as the Qin dynasty. So even though mercury, either as cinnabar or as the elemental metal, has been found in tombs dating back as far as the second millennium BC, it’s not clear why it was put there. Might its toxicity have acted as a deterrent to grave-looters? Probably not – the dangers of mercury fumes were not recognised until Han times. So if, as it seems, there’s a lot of mercury in the burial chamber, it’s unlikely to be either a preservative or an anti-theft device.

Yet even if this mercury was indeed used for fantastical landscaping, Duan doubts that there can have been much of it. Based on estimates of mercury production from the Song era and allowing for the imperfections of the earlier refinement process, he thinks the chamber might have contained at most 100 tons of the liquid metal: around 7m 3 .

We might never be able to check that. ‘Right now, our archaeological work is focused on deducing the basic layout of the tomb,’ says Duan. Because any breach in the seal could admit water or air that might damage whatever lies within, even robot-based exploration of the interior is ruled out. ‘If the chamber was opened even using a robot or drilling, the balance of the situation would be broken and the buried objects would deteriorate quickly,’ says Zhang.

So if we’re ever going to peek inside, it will have to be with better scientific techniques than are currently available. ‘I dream of a day when technology will shed light on all that is buried there, without disturbing the sleeping emperor and his 2000-year-old underground empire,’ says Yongqi Wu, director of the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum Museum. Maybe these concerns to preserve the unknown heritage will guarantee the First Emperor a kind of immortality after all.


A Remarkable Parallel

Perhaps only one other leader in recorded history comes close to the First Emperor in terms of wealth and ambitious projects. Ancient Israel’s King Solomon predated Shi Huang by several centuries.

“ I made great works,” Solomon wrote. “I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man.

“ So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (Ecclesiastes 2:4–10).

Still, Solomon could have told the First Emperor that his lavishly outfitted mausoleum and his clay army would be useless to him: “No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death. There is no discharge from [that] war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it” (Ecclesiastes 8:8).

Solomon spoke about “the spirit” of an individual. What he understood stands in stark contrast to the First Emperor’s view of life and the afterlife: “For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:19–21, New King James Version). And again, “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

“ The living know that they will die but the dead know nothing. . . . Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished.”

Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, English Standard Version

Solomon had a very different, almost opposite, viewpoint from that of Shi Huang. He understood that no mortal can overcome the finality of death. Whereas the First Emperor believed that the afterlife is a continuity of and analogous to this life, Solomon didn’t. He believed that the dead have no influence either in this life or after death: “For the living know that they will die but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun. . . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:5–6, 10, NKJV).

Solomon’s understanding of the human spirit is interesting when we reflect on whether there is a future for those who have died—including China’s First Emperor. In the book of Ecclesiastes, the ancient king of Israel gives us an important part of the answer to the question “What happens after death?” There are tantalizing comments that “the spirit returns to God who gave it,” even though the dead have no knowledge or awareness “under the sun” or “in the grave.” Solomon’s book is focused on this life, however—on what he saw as its futility and its inevitable end. So to understand more about whether humans will ever overcome death, we need to augment King Solomon’s understanding elsewhere.

Another ancient individual of great wealth, wisdom and knowledge was Job. He lived long before Solomon yet had a similar understanding about the human spirit: “It is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand” (Job 32:8). This seems to be the mysterious spiritual element that not only powers human reasoning and moral intellect but, as Solomon reflected, is also what is preserved after death.

What does God do with it then? Job appeared to understand something very profound as he reflected on this: “Oh, that You would hide me in the grave, that You would conceal me until Your wrath is past, that You would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait, till my change comes. You shall call, and I will answer You You shall desire the work of Your hands” (Job 14:13–15, NKJV, emphasis added).

Job knew that God would not bring back his decayed flesh and bones. He was aware, though, that the human spirit is the individual essence of each person, an understanding that Solomon apparently shared with him. It is this that God preserves, as Solomon observed. The “change” that Job looked to, and the one that would have given the First Emperor a different hope, is the same one preached throughout the pages of the New Testament. It is a resurrection from the unknowing, unconscious condition of death.

“ For if we have been united with him in a death like his [Christ’s], we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). The apostle Paul believed and taught that death is not the end of human hope. He consistently spoke of the ultimate resurrection of all human beings.

The Terra Cotta Army bears silent witness to one man’s colossal yet vain endeavors to conquer death. The First Emperor of China failed, like all others who have tried. He did not become a god, nor did he conquer death, the afterlife or the universe.

According to the words of Solomon, Job, Paul and other biblical writers, there is, however, a hope for the ancient emperor and all who have died—even those who never knew of the gospel, or “good news,” that Paul preached. That hope is the rekindling of the human spirit of each human being through a yet future resurrection of the dead.

With deep sadness we inform readers that David Lloyd succumbed to cancer on April 26, 2008. He will be greatly missed by all who had the privilege of knowing him and working with him.


Recipes for Immortality

Based on such literary references, the Taoist alchemists of ancient China sought to produce this legendary substance by themselves. The ‘recipe’ for such elixirs varies from one alchemist to another and may include ingredients from both organic (plants and animals) and inorganic (metals and minerals) materials.

One example of the former is the Lingzhi, which has been translated literally as the ‘Supernatural Mushroom’ and known also as the ‘Mushroom of Immortality’. This mushroom is found throughout East Asia and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than two millennia. Some texts have claimed that the regular consumption of these mushrooms would make one immortal, though this has not been proven to be true thus far.

Lingzhi or Reishi mushroom. (Eric Steinert/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

As for inorganic substances used by ancient Chinese alchemists in the production of elixirs of immortality, the best known is without doubt mercury. As this metal is liquid at room temperature, it fascinated the alchemists of ancient China. Due to this unique characteristic of mercury, this metal is believed to have spiritual significance, and it was seen as the key to immortality. Thus, mercury was often used as an ingredient in the ancient Chinese elixirs of immortality. Apart from mercury, other long-lasting metals or minerals with unique physical properties, including cinnabar and jade, were believed to bestow immortality, and were thus also used in the production of such elixirs.

Mercury, however, is also a highly poisonous substance, and its harmful effects include a decrease in cognitive function, kidney problems, weakness, and death. Yet, the knowledge that exposure to mercury is detrimental to a person’s health did not deter some of the most powerful men in Chinese history from seeking immortality through the ingestion of mercury-laden elixirs of immortality.


Failed Medicine in History

Many days into self-isolation, watching as the world’s economy and spirits collapse, one might begin to ask the question: do we really know what we’re doing? And in the age of modern medicine the answer is, quite surprisingly, yes! Historically, however, that has not been the case. Nowadays we take for granted our tested, proven, and effective methods of medicine. But back when your insurance carrier was the church and your pharmacy was the local garden, people faced disease with nothing more than a hope and a prayer. Here are five examples of historical cure-alls that historically cured none.

  • An English anatomical lecture, Circa. 1600-1700

5. Corpse Medicine

Nowadays cannibalism is highly frowned upon. The very word has become a symbol of evil and depravity in modern media. But in the past, consuming elixirs of human bone and flesh was just something you did when you had a stomach ache. In ancient Rome the blood of gladiators was thought to cure epilepsy, and, in keeping with the early European tradition of desecrating everything sacred English apothecaries stocked “mummy powder” – made from ground Egyptian mummies. Edward Taylor, a 17th Century english “doctor”, glorified the religious use of mummies as they were “a suitable substitute for the body and blood of [Christ]”.

All “corpse medicine” stemmed from the very simple, vague, and nonsensical idea that by consuming the remains of a deceased person you were taking part of their spirit with you. And since this idea was conceived and practiced with no understanding of science or medicine, it didn’t really matter what you consumed said spirit with. So mummy powder and other such remedies found their ways into innumerable concoctions including wine, beer, tea, blood elixirs, and hot chocolate.

  • A barber performs bloodletting, Circa. 1804

4. Bloodletting

Before the advent of modern medicine practitioners believed that illnesses were caused by either 1) An overabundance of blood in the body or 2) Hazardous “humors” within the bloodstream. Either way, the answer was bloodletting. Doctors would use metal razors, wood splinters, or leeches to draw blood from the arm or neck. In Europe the practice was so widespread that when the church banned monks (who often played the role of doctor) from administering bloodletting, local barbers began to offer it as service. The iconic red stripes of barber poles represent the blood which would collect on hairdressers’ rags.

In Mesoamerica bloodletting was commonly practiced for spiritual reasons. Priests and social higher-ups would offer their blood to the gods and the symptoms of blood loss were often explained as a heightened spiritual state in which persons undergoing bloodletting could commune with the gods.

Bloodletting would continue in common practice until the late 1800s, in which, with the discovery of new medicine and cures, it began to fall out of favor within the scientific community. And although most of its purported effects have since been widely disproven, bloodletting is still used to treat specific rare diseases.

  • A man plays his horn with a beaver and two dogs, Circa. 1270

3. Animal Cures

In the middle ages animal parts weren’t only used by nobles to display their wealth and access to food variety. They were also used as medicine. From cow stomachs to horse saliva to pig’s rumps, if it came from an animal, it was useful. In accordance with the ideas behind corpse medicine, it was thought that by consuming part of an animal, you were consuming part of its soul as well. Thus, cures utilized organs of animals that aligned with ailments they were attempting to cure. So if one had a stomach ache, a remedy would involve the consumption of an arbitrarily-chosen animal’s stomach. That’s science! As with most pseudo-scientific practices, animal organs enjoyed continued use in the field of medicine until the 1800s when they were proven to be mostly ineffective. Animal therapy exists now, yes, but instead of eating beaver testicles (which were used as a cure for common ailments) it involves spending time with very friendly dogs.

  • Emperor Qin Shi Huang, pictured in traditional Emperor’s garb, Circa. Unkown

Mercury was thought to have healing powers for millenia. Chinese emperors drank pure mercury in the hopes of achieving immortality. Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China, sent thousands of men on a hunt for an “ancient magician” thought to possess “the elixir of life” (mercury). When constructing his elaborate tomb, Huang ordered that a giant moat be built and filled with this elixir. He would find himself visiting said tomb earlier than expected, as he shortly died from mercury poisoning.

Mercury spread to the west and continued to be used as an amalgam cure worldwide until the mid-1800s. Being that the symptoms of mercury poisoning often mimicked the symptoms of afflictions it was used to cure, it’s lethal effects weren’t discovered until the 1890s. Because it killed almost every patient who consumed it, the use of mercury in America caused widespread distrust and resentment for established medicine.

  • Hotel Radium Palace in Jachymov, Czech Republic

Frighteningly, humans discovered the true dangers of radiation only a short while ago. Although we now know that radon exposure causes cancer, doctors in the early 20th century ironically used it to treat cancerous tumors. Products like radium toothpaste and radium-lined water bottles were peddled with the promise of wild and universal medicinal benefits. And such “medicine” still exists today. Visitors at the Radium Palace in Jachymov, Czech Republic will be greeted by “radiation treatment” techniques which include bathing in uranium-rich waters and breathing in radon directly. Visitors will also be greeted by staff “doctors” spouting completely false, pro-radium propaganda in advertisement of the spa.

Thankfully the purported health effects of radium have been all but disproven in the field of modern medicine. But places like the Radium Palace are dispiriting evidence that there will always be people untrustful of science and, along with them, charlatans who capitalize on that mistrust.


TIL of Qin Shi Huang the 1st emperor of China. Obsessed with immortality he sent out quests for magicians & searched for powerful mountains to give him long life. Reportedly, he died from poisoning due to ingesting mercury pills, made by his physicians believing it to be an elixir of immortality.

Wasn't he the one who ordered the sculpting of the Terracotta Army?

The country is named after him.

Not really. Qin Shi Huang means First Emperor of Qin, Qin is the name of the Dynasty, his name is Ying Zheng or Zhao Zheng. But the name China does most likely base on Qin.

The cause of Qin Shi Huang's death is still largely unknown. 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.

In addition to the famous terracotta army he commissioned to guard him in the afterlife, he had his tomb built in a hollowed-out mountain that supposedly contained ‘flowing rivers of mercury’. To this day, the tomb is yet to be excavated (due to concerns over being able to preserve its contents and strict Chinese government policy) and contains extremely high mercury levels in the soil surrounding it.

To this day, the tomb is yet to be excavated (due to concerns over being able to preserve its contents and strict Chinese government policy) and contains extremely high mercury levels in the soil surrounding it.

If you ask around, there are also people afraid of opening it because they don't want to upset his spirit or fear some sort of curse on the country. Qin Shi Huang's legacy makes him an enormously intimidating figure. The guy was scary. His unification of China involved an extreme amount of force including burying scholars alive.


Watch the video: The First Emperor of China