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The Unexplored Tomb of China’s First Emperor

The Hidden Depths of Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum: A Story of Preservation and Mystery.

The Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of a unified China, represents one of the most fascinating and enigmatic burial sites in the world. Located in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province, this historical landmark is most famous for the Terracotta Army, a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. However, the central tomb itself, purported to house the emperor’s remains, remains unopened to this day.

The Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang resembles the urban plan of Xianyang, the Qin capital. Constructed over 38 years (246-208 BCE) beneath a monumental 76-meter-high tomb mound, it is an expansive necropolis yet to be fully explored. The central tomb, designed as an underground palace, has remained unsealed, with excavations primarily focused on the outer necropolis, including the Terracotta Army. Historical records, particularly by Sima Qian, describe an intricate underground realm with mercury rivers and booby traps, a narrative that has intrigued and cautioned modern archaeologists​​.

Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) ascended to the throne in 246 BCE at the age of 13 and is celebrated for unifying China for the first time. He is also known for his vast building projects, which included the precursor to the Great Wall of China and a massive national road system. The construction of his mausoleum began shortly after he became emperor and was a colossal endeavor that lasted 38 years, involving hundreds of thousands of workers.

Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, Hall 1, source

The Unopened Tomb

The central tomb of Qin Shi Huang, believed to be an underground palace designed for the emperor, has not yet been excavated. Early historical texts, especially those written by Sima Qian (司馬遷) in the “Records of the Grand Historian” (史記), provide detailed descriptions of the tomb’s interior. They depict it as lavishly decorated, with features such as rivers of mercury designed to mimic the celestial bodies and geographical landscapes of the emperor’s realm. This account has fascinated historians and archaeologists, offering a glimpse into the grandeur and complexity of ancient Chinese burial practices.

Modern scientific studies have supported these ancient accounts by detecting high levels of mercury in the soil surrounding the tomb. These findings lend credence to the descriptions of mercury rivers, suggesting that the tomb’s builders went to extraordinary lengths to create a microcosm of Qin Shi Huang’s empire. The use of mercury, which was associated with the quest for the immortality and the afterlife in ancient Chinese alchemy played a significant role in the emperor’s efforts to secure eternal life.

The reasons for not opening the tomb are multifaceted. Preservation concerns are paramount; exposing the artifacts and the interior to the elements could lead to irreversible damage. The potential degradation of materials that have remained untouched for over two millennia poses a significant challenge to conservation efforts. Additionally, the technological limitations of current archaeological methods present another hurdle. The ancient construction techniques used in the tomb, possibly including booby traps as suggested by some historical texts, add to the complexity of any potential excavation. While the existence of such traps is debated, the principle of caution has prevailed among researchers.

Cultural respect for the resting places of ancestors plays a role in the decision to leave the tomb undisturbed. In Chinese culture, disturbing the tomb of such a significant figure without compelling reasons and the utmost care is considered disrespectful.

Furthermore, the health risks associated with the high levels of mercury detected around the tomb raise serious concerns. Mercury poisoning can cause severe neurological and systemic damage, posing a significant danger to archaeologists and workers involved in any potential excavation.

Despite these challenges, the unopened tomb of Qin Shi Huang remains a subject of intense interest and speculation. As technology advances and new methods of exploration and preservation are developed, the prospect of one day unlocking the secrets of this ancient mausoleum continues to captivate the imagination of people around the world.

Last Updated on 2024/04/09

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