China’s First Emperor Ordered Official Search for Immortality Elixir

terracotta warriors in china
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 Huangdi. 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. (Image credit: Lukas Hlavac | Shutterstock)

The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, wanted to live forever.

Newly discovered documents reveal that 2,200 years ago, he even put out an executive order to search for a potion that would give him eternal life, China’s Xinhua news agency reported.

Qin Shi Huang was born in 259 B.C., and by the time of his death in 210 B.C., he had conquered all six warring states of China to create a unified nation, of which he proclaimed himself emperor.

During his reign, strips of bamboo or wood known as slips were common writing materials. In 2002, more than 36,000 slips containing ancient calligraphy were discovered in an abandoned well in central China's Hunan province, according to Xinhua. [Photos: Terracotta Warriors Protect Secret Tomb]

The news agency reported that Zhang Chunlong, a researcher at the Hunan Institute of Archaeology, analyzed 48 medicine-related slips from that collection and found that the emperor’s decree to search for immortality potions reached frontier regions and remote villages.

"It required a highly efficient administration and strong executive force to pass down a government decree in ancient times, when transportation and communication facilities were undeveloped," Zhang told Xinhua.

The wooden slips even contained some responses from villages. One town called "Duxiang" reported back to the emperor that its inhabitants hadn’t yet found the elixir of life, while another town in the modern-day Shandong Province in eastern China offered an herb from a local mountain.

Archaeologists and historians already had some idea that Qin Shi Huang was obsessed with immortality.

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 39.

If he couldn’t live forever, Qin Shi Huang wanted to at least ensure that he would be well-equipped in the afterlife. For his tomb, the emperor built a sprawling underground mausoleum that’s never been excavated, though 8,000 ceramic soldiers and horses known as the Terracotta Army have been discovered since the 1970s near the burial mound.

Ancient writings claim the underground palace had a ceiling mimicking the night sky with pearls as stars and rivers of mercury. It’s not clear how many of the ancient descriptions are exaggerations, though soil samples around the tomb have indicated high levels of mercury contamination.

Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.