Quick, name the two most famous tourist sites in China. Yep, you got it, the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. Believe it or not the two were the mastermind of the same guy: the first emperor.
If you’ve seen the movie Hero, then you know who I’m talking about. He had many names, but most often is called Qin Shi Huangdi which means the First Sovereign Qin Emperor. The name also has further meaning to imply divine right to rule.
But when he was young his name was Ying Zheng. Back then modern-day China was broken up into several nations. He was born a prince into the powerful Qin nation and became the king at age 13. Even as a child his life was filled with court intrigue. His advisor and acting regent Lu Buwei (who might also have been his father if ancient gossip is to be believed) was fearful of the young price and decided to stage a coup to have someone he chose appointed as king.
The rebels tried to take control of the government while Huangdi was away traveling, but the king was ruthless. He not only stopped the rebellion, but squashed it. He had the rebels beheaded and the leader (and potential usurper) torn apart by 5 horses while he was alive. Huangdi’s advisor, Lu Bunwei killed himself before the king figured out his role and soon the young king took full control of his empire. He was in his early 20’s.
Back then the seven nations were constantly warring (In fact it was a king from another nation that funded the rebels) and they all feared the power of the Qin nation. In fact, Huangdi had many assassination attempts in his life (one is similar-ish to the plot of Hero) but he always managed to outmaneuver his attackers. Through ruthless, never ending war he was eventually able to conquer all seven nations and he climbed to the top of Tai Shan to declare a unified China.
Huagndi didn’t rest on his laurels just because he had conquered all the nations. He set to work. First was the standardization of weights, measurements and currency. He even went so far as to require all axels of wagons to be the same length so standard roads could be built. A new official language was introduced that everyone had to speak and he also built new roads and canals so that transportation would be much more efficient.
But the emperor had a few screws loose and along with the projects for improvements were the crazy projects. One of which was the Great Wall. The idea was to prevent attacks from the north, but the project was huge and killed many thousands in the process. (None of Huangdi’s Great Wall survives to this day, but it was the inspiration and blueprint for the Great Wall which you can still see today.)
He thought that free thought and intellectual ideas were a threat to his reign, so he went on a book burning rampage and destroyed thousands of scholarly texts, including those of Confucius. He also killed hundred of scholars and teachers that did not go along with his new way of thinking. Instead of open ideas and free thought he instituted legalism. Legalism was the system in which all of Huangdi’s law must be followed or the people risked severe punishment. Pretty simple, but not all that popular.
Then there was the matter of his tomb and the terracotta warriors.
Huangdi was pretty much born obsessing about his death. He read all the ancient stories and followed myths of eternal springs hoping to find a youth elixir. He also took mercury laden pills as they were believed to increase life, but we now know of course that it just helped to deteriorate his mind.
But he knew he would die eventually and at the tender age of 13 he started work on his future tomb, and the thousands of terracotta warriors he wanted to serve him in death. The warriors are an amazing achievement. The emperor ordered that no two soldiers look alike. The whims of a young king ended up employing hundreds of thousands of craftsmen to create the soldiers over decades. They are different heights, wear different uniforms and have unique faces. They were also painted and lacquered though that has faded with time. They were arranged to be battle ready in formation, riding chariots of bronze and holding spears and bows that were made out of bronze and wood.
The army was to guard and fight for the emperor in the afterlife and they were buried near his tomb. His tomb is immense; he never did anything small in life. Nowadays it looks simply like a nice tree and grass covered mountain. But it’s not a natural hill and underneath is curious and vast secrets.
The mountain is unstable, and afraid to ruin the relics archeologists have been unable to excavate the tomb. You can climb atop it, but nobody is really sure what lies underneath.
The best information comes from an ancient book written thousands of years ago. This is part of the description of Huangdi’s tomb.
When the Emperor first came to the throne he began digging and shaping Mt. Li. Later, when he unified the empire, he had over 700,000 men from all over the empire transported to the spot. They dug down to the third layer of underground springs and poured in bronze to make the outer coffin. Palaces, scenic towers, and the hundred officials, as well as rare utensils and wonderful objects, were brought to fill up the tomb. Craftsmen were ordered to set up crossbows and arrows, rigged so that they would immediately shoot down anyone attempting to break in. Mercury was used to fashion the hundred rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, and the seas in such a way that they flowed. Above were set the heavenly bodies were, below, the features of the earth. ‘Man-fish’ oil was used for lamps, which were calculated to burn for a long time without going out.”
For a long time historians thought the description of the tomb was fantasy. First, the book was written almost a hundred years after his death and second, to mine that much mercury was thought impossible and unrealistic. (I would think they would also be thrown off by the One-Eyed Willy style booby traps. I mean, that sounds like a bad script, not a real tomb.)
But recent core samples from the mound, 4,000 in all, showed very high levels of mercury, staggeringly high, especially near where the actual tomb is believed to be. X-rays of the hill have also revealed a building underground with several levels and platforms.
The tomb is not just the resting place of the emperor. Anyone who had worked in on the project was killed upon completion to keep the secrets safe and buried within the walls. Of course concubines and other invaluable staff were killed soon after the emperor to be buried with him and help him for eternity in the afterlife.
Since it is untouchable the state of the tomb is unknown. It’s possible that the tomb was looted during the tumultuous times after his death. There were plenty of jewels and valuables to entice robbers. Plus, there wasn’t much love for the crazy emperor who enslaved thousands to do his will. (The terracotta warriors were attacked soon after the emperor’s death and many were broken as a protest against Huangdi’s cruel reign.)
The line of the first emperor didn’t last long, his dynasty fell apart only 4 years after his death, but the impact his made on China lasts until today. His name isn’t well known, but his actions are. It’s never good to live during the time of a crazy ruler, but it is good that they are here on earth giving the rest of us something to marvel and admire thousands of years later.
Photo credit (top photo only)