Qin Shi Huang's Tomb

Legends of stepping into Qin Shi Huang’s tomb in Xi’an, China speak of traps – poisonous gases, wired alarms and deadly crossbows. The crypt of China’s first emperor has been untouched for more than 2,000 years and has been a mysterious tomb for archaeologists. But are these legends true?

Some say that the traps in Qin Shi Huang’s tomb are real. Some say they are just a fantasy. Let’s examine the evidence we can find.

Who was Emperor Qin Shi Huang himself?

Emperor Qin Shi Huang — by terracotta warrior fame — lived from approx 259 to 210 BC Famous for unifying China, building the Great Wall and giving himself the title of Huangdi”Sovereign Sage Emperor”, modern China is still named after him (Qing pronounced: “Chin”). But beyond that, Shi Huang is famous for its magnificent and legendary tomb.

Many have heard the stories of untold riches, unimaginable wealth (and certain death) that await the brave souls who manage to penetrate the mysterious chambers of Shi Huang’s underground crypt. However, the tomb complex spans 3.9 square miles (6.3 square kilometers) and only the smallest percentage has been discovered.

Read more: The 6 most iconic artifacts from the ancient world

As they imagined the secrets that lay within, burial mound technicians once told the newspaper El Pais“It’s like having a present all wrapped up at home, knowing that the thing you want most is inside, but you can’t unwrap it.”

Historians and the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang

Most would agree that we cannot know for sure if the legends are true until the emperor’s tomb is exhumed. But the great historian of the Han dynasty, Sima Qian (145-87 BC), claimed to have known.

As the most famous source of the trap legends, around 94 BC, Sima Qian wrote a clear and enlightening description of what lies beneath the 51.3 meter high mound in his famous work, Shiji:

“In the ninth month, the First Emperor was buried at Mount Li. The digging and preparation of Mount Li began when the first emperor came to the throne. Later, after he unified his empire, 700,000 people from all over his empire were sent there. They dug up three layers of groundwater and cast bronze for the outer ark. Palaces and picturesque towers were built for a hundred servants, and the tomb was filled with rare artifacts and wonderful treasure. The craftsmen were ordered to make crossbows and arrows, ready to shoot at anyone who entered the tomb. Mercury was used to simulate the hundreds of rivers, the Yangtze, the Yellow River and the great sea, and was set to flow mechanically. Above were the celestial constellations, below were the features of the earth. Candles are made from fish-man fat [alternative translation: mermaid ointment] which is calculated to burn and not go out for a long time.

The second emperor said, “It would be inappropriate for the concubines of the late emperor who have no sons to be free,” ordered them to accompany the dead and many died. After the burial, it was suggested that it would be a serious offense if the craftsmen who constructed the mechanical devices and knew about their treasures revealed these secrets. Therefore, after the funeral ceremonies were over and the treasures were hidden, the inner passage was blocked and the outer gate was lowered. , immediately trapping all the workers and artisans inside. No one could escape. Trees and vegetation were then planted on the tomb mound to resemble a hill. — Sima Qian, Shiji, Chapter 6 (Translation source)

Thus we discover the source of the legends we know today. But Sima Qian wrote this description 123 years after Shi Huang’s death. Can his fantastic account of mermaid salve (probably whale oil), flowing rivers of mercury, 700,000 workers, crossbow traps and buried alive workers be plausible? Or is he just writing for effect?

Read more: The Terracotta Army: What These Life-Size Clay Warriors Tell Us About Ancient China

Historians definitely disagree when it comes to the veracity of Sima’s accounts. But there is a small mountain of evidence that says he may be telling the truth.

Can we trust the descriptions of Sima Tsien’s tombs?

In his paper “Sima Qian: A True Historian?” Michael Nylan says that one camp of historians celebrates Sima Qian’s reliability, emphasizing “the extraordinary care with which Sima Qian has gathered and weighed the available evidence in an attempt to convey an objective portrait of China’s past”.

The other camp is more skeptical, stressing that there were “strongly personal motives that prompted Sima Qian’s decision to complete the masterpiece [of history] started by his father […].” This more suspicious camp accuses Chian of being a “lyrical romantic”—too religious to convey an accurate account of the story.

But according to Nealon, Sima Qian’s commitment to spirituality is a vote for his truthfulness and objectivity. According to Nilan, although Sima Tsien did not have access to the historical knowledge we have today, we should not overlook his devotion to the truth.

Sima Qian believed that the spirits he wrote about – such as Qin Shi Huang – would bestow blessings on him, but the blessings would depend on his ability to accurately portray their stories. Nilan writes that in his works, Sima Qian “insisted on the statement that he transmits the past, not creates,” and this humble mindset guides Sima Qian to be as historically accurate as possible.

Sima Qian thus had more than just a scholarly commitment to objective history. He labored under a spiritual and religious obligation to the truth – for the truth was the only way he could invoke and receive the powerful blessings of those he described.

The Terracotta Warriors

Another piece of evidence in Sima Qian’s favor is the discovery in 1974 of 8,000 buried terracotta warriors. Until this discovery, many historians believed that Sima Tsien was exaggerating when he claimed that 700,000 workers built the Shi Huang Crypt (seven times the number of men who built the Pyramid of Giza according to Herodotus).

Read more: Underground Army: The 8,000 Terracotta Warriors

However, the size, quality and number of terracotta statues seem to exonerate Sima from any claims of exaggeration. Now it seems that Sima Qian was right: nearly a million workers must have been involved in such construction.

Clearly, no past is perfectly accurate, but if the 700,000 workers were not exaggerated – and if Sima Qian maintained a religious commitment to the truth, we can at least assume that he did not embellish his reports of mercury, crossbows and eternal mermaid salve candles on purpose.

A small mountain of evidence

The real proof that Sima Qian was right lies beneath a small mountain of dirt waiting for future scholars to enter—if they dare desecrate the resting place of the Sovereign Sage Emperor Huangdi.

However, a 2020 Scientific Survey offers verifiable evidence that Sima Qian was right. The tomb is saturated with mercury.

“Clearly, there are very large uncertainties in these estimates, but our findings add to the credibility of the historian Sima’s 2,200-year-old record of the existence of large quantities of mercury in Emperor Qin’s tomb, also in view of estimates of the ability to produce mercury at the time of the Qing emperor,” the study authors say.

Commenting on these findings, archaeologist Qinbo Duan of Northwestern University in Xi’an, who spent a decade leading excavations at the mausoleum, told Chemistry World that “the distribution of the mercury level corresponds to the location of waterways in the Qing Empire.”

In other words, the mercury seemed to “simulate the hundreds of rivers, the Yangtze, the Yellow River, and the great sea”—just as Sima Qian had said.

The Mystery of Qin Shi Huang’s Tomb

Can mercury still flow as shown in Shiji? Can mermaid salve candles still illuminate the bejeweled and sparkling constellations on the ceiling? Could it be that deadly scythe-triggered crossbows await the first person to enter?

To be honest, Qingbo Duan doesn’t believe that the tomb builders used mercury specifically as a trap for grave robbers – and Sima Qian never claimed it either – but after more than 2000 years, the mercury in the tomb may have produced deadly and poisonous fumes . And if Sima Qian’s depiction of mercury is true, perhaps the crossbow threat is real.

After all, we won’t solve the mystery of Huangdi’s tomb until someone breaks the seal. But even if we cannot know the truth for sure, we can still thank the spirit of Sima Tsien for his wonderful and complex descriptions, for his unwavering devotion to historical objectivity – and most importantly, for inspiring so many imaginations to fly for thousands of years and many more to come. And seriously, would you dare enter Qin Shi Huang’s tomb first?

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