By Ted Torrance
The Man Who Would Cheat Death and Rule the Universe
No man had ever risen as high as Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇 (or Qin Shi Huangdi 秦始皇帝). He was the first emperor of China – the first man to conquer its seven kingdoms and rule them all. There was only one threat left for him to overcome: death itself.
The first emperor of China wanted to live forever.
The story of Qin Shi Huang’s search for immortality sounds like something straight out of a fairy tale. Not content with his mortal conquests and successes, the First Emperor was determined to attain immortality by any means.
China’s First Emperor Ordered Official Search for Immortality Elixir
For the last ten years of his life, China’s first Emperor sent every scholar, magician, and wise man in the nation on a quest to find an elixir that would keep him from dying. He gave up everything in his mad war against the inevitability of death – and in the end, let his fear of dying drive him into an early grave.
A portrait painting of Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, from an 18th-century album of Chinese emperor’s portraits. (Wikimedia)
A surprising amount of archaeological evidence, though, has been found backing up some of the most incredible parts of the story. As crazy as it sounds, Qin Shi Huang’s search for the elixir of immortality was real.
Xu Fu and the Mountain of Immortality
Just a few years ago, archaeologists in China uncovered sets of wooden slips with the Emperor’s executive order written on them. Every government post in the empire, he ordered, was to drop everything and focus on developing an elixir of immortality.
Some of the responses his governors sent back still survive today. An official in Duxiang apologized that they hadn’t cracked the secret to immortality just yet, but promised they would redouble their efforts. Another, from Langya, sent the emperor an herb from a local mountain that they thought might make a man immortal.
Of every response he received, though, Qin Shi Huang put the most faith in the one from his magician Xu Fu of Zhifu Island. Xu Fu wrote to the Emperor telling him that that there was a place called Penglai Island hidden out in the Pacific Ocean. There, he swore, lived eight immortals who held the elixir of life.
Statue of Xu Fu in in Weihai, Shandong. (Fanghong/ CC BY SA 3.0)
He would need a luxurious boat, Xu Fu explained, and a harem of 6,000 virgins to offer the immortals as tribute. The Emperor was willing to use any expense if he could guarantee him eternal life.
Qin Shi Huang sailed straight to Zhifu Island with everything Xu Fu needed. He gave the sorcerer his harem and his boat and sent him off. Then, before he left the island, he etched a short memento into a stone: “Arrived at Fu and carved the stone.” More than 2000 years later, Qin Shi Huang’s message is still there to this day.
Qin Shi Huang’s imperial tour across his empire. Depiction in an 18th century album. (Wikimedia)
“The First Emperor Will Die”
Xu Fu would never find the elixir of life or the immortals of Penglai Island. In all likelihood, he probably didn’t even try. He’d found a way to get a harem of 6,000 virgins and a fleet of the emperor’s own boats, and he was going to live in luxury for as long as he could.
Penglai Island. (Wikimedia)
For a long time, Qin Shi Huang was content to return to his palace and wait for word from Xu Fu. That changed, though, three years after later, when a group of bandits made a failed attempt on the emperor’s life. He got out alive, but it was a stark reminder of how precious time really was. If Xu Fu didn’t make it back in time, he began to realize, he would die.
He sent four other men out on missions to find the herbs of everlasting life. Only one returned; the other three almost certainly fled in fear of his wrath. The one who returned, though, didn’t have any good news to share.
Jin Ke’s assassination attempt on Qin Shi Huang. Jin Ke (left) is hold by one of Qin Shi Huang’s physicians (left, background). The dagger used in the assassination attempt is seen stuck in the pillar. Qin Shi Huang (right) is seen holding an imperial jade disc. One of his soldiers (far right) rushes to save his emperor. Stone rubbing. (Wikimedia)
“I and the others have searched for the zhi fungus, rare herbs, and the immortals,” the one who returned told the emperor, “but we can never seem to encounter them.”
Paranoia began to set in. At his palace, Qin Shi Huang had elevated walkways and walled roads installed, connecting each building so that he’d never have to walk outside exposed. Every window was covered with a curtain, and anyone who mentioned the emperor’s location was put to death.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang with two women. (Secretos Cortesanos)
The Deaths of the Scholars
In 211 BC, eight years after Xu Fu had left, a meteor crashed near the lower reaches of the Yellow River. On it was an inscription that read; “The First Emperor will die and his land will be divided.”
The Emperor was furious. He demanded to know who had written it, and when no one came forward, he had every person in the area executed. Then the meteor itself was pulverized into bits so that no one would ever see the message again.
His patience was wearing thin. When he overheard a rumor that the alchemists who had promised him the elixir of life were playing him for a fool, Qin Shi Huang flew into a rage. The scholars were useless, he declared. They did nothing but seed discontent and lie to his face. Some even claimed to be magicians. If they really had magic powers, Qin Shi Huang stated, he would put them to the test. He would see if they could bring themselves back to life.
‘Putting the miraculous elixir on the tripod’ from Xingming guizhi(Pointers on Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life) by Yi Zhenren, a Daoist text on internal alchemy published in 1615 (3rd year of the Wanli reign period of Ming dynasty). (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0)
460 scholars were dragged out of their homes and pulled to the capital. There he had a huge pit waiting for them. The Emperor had the wisest men in the kingdom thrown into the pit, and he buried them alive .
The Battle with The Sea Monster
Qin Shi Huang returned to Zhifu Island shortly after. Nine long years had passed now and Xu Fu still had not found the elixir of life. He had waited long enough, and he wanted results.
Xu Fu, thinking on his feet, made up an excuse . “The herbs of Penglai can surely be obtained,” he promised the emperor, but a gigantic fish monster was blocking the way. He needed more men. “We would like to request that a skilled archer be assigned to accompany us.”
This time, Qin Shi Huang didn’t give in. He had a crossbow of his own. He would go with them and he would kill the sea monster himself.
Xu Fu must have been shaking as he sailed off with the emperor, looking for a sea monster he knew didn’t exist. He got a lucky break, though. In time, a large fish – possibly a whale – popped out of the water. He called the emperor over, telling him it was the sea monster that had blocked the way.
The emperor unleashed a hail of arrows into the animal. Within seconds, the “sea monster” was dead.
He added a second engraving on the stone he’d marked before. “Came to Fu,” he wrote. “Shot one fish.”
The Death of the “Immortal Emperor”
Xu Fu sailed off one last time, promising he was going to Penglai Island. There were no excuses left. If he came back empty-handed again, he was sure to be killed. And so he sailed out east and never came back.
The Emperor, though, would barely live another day. On his way home from Zhifu Island, he stopped at a palace in Hopei and fell incredibly ill. He had been taking pills that one of his alchemists had promised would make him immortal. What they’d really given him, though, were pills of poisonous mercury, and he had just taken a lethal dose.
He died that night.
According to Chemistry World, the emperor was thought to have consumed cinnabar (or mercury sulfide) in the hopes it would prolong his life. As scientists know now, mercury is poisonous. Ironically, Qin Shi Huang’s supposed cures may have helped bring on his death at the age of 49.
It was a catastrophe. The Emperor had never bothered to choose an heir. He had expected to become immortal and so he’d never imagined it would be necessary.
The minister with him tried to cover up the emperor’s death for as long as he could. He sent his body home in a covered carriage flanked by carts full of rotting fish to keep anyone from smelling the decay of his body. He even climbed into the carriage with food and pretended to feed him to keep the illusion.
The death of the emperor couldn’t stay a secret forever. In a short time, the nation erupted into a horrible civil war, and Qin Shi Huang’s united China fell apart. The dynasty he’d sworn would last 10,000 generations fell apart within three years. The Emperor himself only lived to be 49.
Statue of emperor Qin, China (reconstitution). (CC BY SA 3.0 )
Most people would never have heard of China’s first emperor were it not for the 1974 chance discovery of a vast army of terra cotta figures that had lain underground for more than two millennia. The emperor’s silent army is now famous, hailed as one of the most important and immense archaeological finds of the 20th century. But what was the purpose of the awe-inspiring yet puzzling ranks of thousands of larger-than-life-sized model warriors?
The answer lies in nothing less than a struggle for mastery, not only over death but over the world and, indeed, the whole universe; for the First Emperor meant to become a god and acted accordingly. The first supreme ruler of China pursued both immortality and personal deity with an unequaled, single-minded passion, and his Terra Cotta Army speaks to that hubris.
The Terra Cotta Army, chanced upon by farmers excavating a well, lies buried in a vast pit about a kilometer (less than a mile) from a great funerary mound in east-central China. A thousand clay warriors have been unearthed so far, with an estimated five to seven thousand more still buried in unexcavated sections of the pit.
About 8,000 Terracotta Warriors were buried in three pits less than a mile to the northeast of the mausoleum of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. They include infantryman, archers, cavalry, charioteers and generals. Now new research, including newly translated ancient records, indicates that the construction of these warriors was inspired by Greek art.
In an area ultimately covering more than 55 square kilometers (or 21 square miles), archaeologists uncovered three more pits and various artifacts including war chariots and the remains of real horses; model charioteers and stable boys; numerous bronze birds; and lifelike images of court officials, musicians, a juggler and a wrestler. The area is still under excavation, but the gigantic tomb-mound itself promises the most interesting revelations.
The initial find, near present-day Xi’an, led to a prodigious archaeological undertaking and to the site becoming a major tourist attraction and the subject of several international exhibitions. Fascination with the First Emperor is also reflected in popular Chinese culture. He is the central character in entertainment such as Zhang Yimou’s film Hero (2002) and Tan Dun’s opera The First Emperor (2006).
King Solomon – 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.
Solomon’s Temple attracted many visitors, including the Queen of Sheba, as depicted in Claude Vignon’s 17th century painting. (National Geographic)
“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).
Incidentally, the author received an email offering Immortality for $500,000 from a scammer: –
I am Kevin Bond, a Discoverer and The Cancer and All Other Diseases Destroyer,
Please know, We Humans Can Live Forever – Human Physical Immortality Already Is A Fact – In less than a month Everyone Of Us can become Infinitely Healthy and by that – Immortal, for Infinite Health = Immortality (8,500 years guaranteed) – By everybody doing just an exercise for a minute a day, that Cures and Prevents any Diseases, known on Earth, even Aging and Radiation Disease, for every cell of our bodies is shielded 100% from any external/internal (genetic) detrimental impact (any Viruses and any other Pathogens are killed the moment they touch us).
I will describe my Discovery to you in return for an E-check for $500,000.00 (my E-mail address is: [email protected]) – Not much to be paid for you and for many other people to Escape Death and to live Your Endless Lives Without Any Infections, Cancers, Diabetes, Chronic, Heart, Brain and Any Other Diseases and being able to Fly Safely To The Moon, Mars and Beyond, because of being Radiation-Proof – Like the Gods who created us humans.
Thank you very much for your time,
Hmmm… It would appear there are people who actually believe there is eternal immortality for living organisms at the moment.
Guess “if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”?
But who knows? At the rate life science (as well as robotic engineering) is progressing, it really wouldn’t come as surprise humankind may just (literally) live forever in the not too distant future.
Meanwhile, one-way trip into the unknown – Mars One … Anyone?
- British Museum, “The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army” (2007).
- Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, translated by Burton Watson (1993).