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2,000-Year-Old Texts Reveal the First Emperor of China’s Quest for Eternal Life

Qin Shihuang issued an executive order demanding that his subjects search for an immortality elixir

Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China, may not have discovered an elixir to life but he did achieve his own form of immortality through his teracotta army (Public Domain)
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Ying Zheng, who holds the seminal title of China's first emperor, reportedly proclaimed that his dynasty would last “10,000 generations.” Apparently, Ying Zheng, who was born in 259 B.C. and declared himself Qin Shihuang or the first emperor of the Qin dynasty at age 38, wanted to be around long enough to see that prediction come true. According to the state news agency Xinhua, recent analysis of 2,000-year-old texts dating to the emperor's rule reveals his obsessive quest for an elixir that would bring him eternal life.

The documents in question belong to a cache of some 36,000 wooden strips inscribed with ancient calligraphy, which were found in an abandoned well in a county in the western Hunan province in 2002. These wooden strips, commonly used as writing materials in ancient China, date from 259 B.C. to 210 B.C., a period that overlaps with the emperor's rule; he unified China in 221 B.C. and maintained a firm grip on the throne until 210 B.C.

Zhang Chunlong, a researcher at the Hunan Institute of Archaeology, was studying 48 of the ancient strips when he discovered texts pertaining to an executive order issued by Qin Shihuang, demanding that his subjects search for an immortality elixir that would keep him alive forever. According to the BBC, the writings express “assorted awkward replies from regional governments who had failed to find the key to eternal life,” though officials in one area, Langya, did suggest that an herb from a local mountain might do the trick.

The documents are of particular interest to historians because, as Zhang tells Xinhua, they testify to the strength of Qin Shihuang’s leadership. "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 explains.

Qin Shihuang was born at a time when China was divided into seven warring regions. He was the son of the king of Qin state, and succeeded his father as King Zheng of Qin at age 13. Aggressive and determined, he eventually subdued six of China’s enemy states and installed himself as the first emperor of the newly centralized authority a quarter century later.

Under Qin Shihuang’s rule, China’s currency, weights and measures were standardized, roads and canals were built, and individual fortresses were linked to create the Great Wall of China, writes East Asian historian Claudius Cornelius Müller in Encyclopedia Britannica. But throughout his rule, Qin Shihuang was preoccupied by his search for eternal life. He sent an expedition to the Eastern Sea to search for an elixir of immortality, and when that was unsuccessful, he brought magicians into his court. Qin Shihuang’s obsession alienated him from Confucian scholars, who denounced his quest as charlatanry.

Of course, Qin Shihuang never found his precious elixir; he died in 210 B.C., when he was 49 years old. But the China's first emperor did not believe that death was the end of the road. His monumental mausoleum was famously adorned with thousands of intricate terracotta soldiers, meant to guard him on his journey through the afterlife.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer is based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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