Qin Shi Huang’s China: The Secret Tomb of the First Chinese Emperor Remains an Unopened Treasure

A kneeling crossbowman from the Terracotta Army assembled for the tomb complex of Qin Shi Huang (r. 221–210 BC)

A kneeling crossbowman from the Terracotta Army assembled for the tomb complex of Qin Shi Huang (r. 221–210 BC)

The history of China can be likened to a majestic tapestry threaded with innovative technologies and embellished with the exquisite artifacts of a prolific culture. Intertwined in this more than 4,000-year-old history are the wars and periods of peace that have lent definition to the complex evolution of this most populous modern nation.

The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, embodies the volatile beauty of the early empire, and through his life we see the antecedents of not only today’s China, but the modern world as well. Qin was a ruler buffeted by the political winds of his time and his personal foibles. When we look to his vast accomplishments, we also recognize the human cost derived from his great ideas. Qin was no different in many ways from other ancient rulers. Human lives were often expendable, casualties of the harsh realities of the time. Rapacious wealth, wrenching poverty, warring allegiances and a ruler’s quixotic nature determined much of a nation’s wellbeing. One of the most emblematic of that reality is found in the construction of Qin’s tomb.

Qin’s tomb, despite being involved in one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all times, endures as a mystery to archaeologists and historians as it remains largely sealed up and unexplored. The strange and deadly history of the tomb and its contents was sealed within and buried beneath vegetation for thousands of years.

Today we are sharing with you the story of Qin’s tomb as related by Ancient Origins, AntiquityNOW’s partner in educational curricula. AntiquityNOW has created a comprehensive curriculum with an original illustrated story on the great Emperior Qin.

The Lesson Plan on Emperor Qin and early China that follows is crafted as an adjunct to the social studies programs currently used in the United States and correlates with the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. All materials are produced to enable teachers to address different ways of learning in children, particularly those with learning challenges.

*Click here for a timeline of China’s history.


The Secret Tomb of the First Chinese Emperor Remains an Unopened Treasure

Featured image: Artist’s reconstruction of the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang (China.org.cn)

Artist’s reconstruction of the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang (China.org.cn)

The tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, despite being involved in one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all times, endures as a mystery to archaeologists and historians as it remains largely sealed up and unexplored. The strange and deadly history of the tomb and its contents was sealed within and buried beneath vegetation for thousands of years.

The two decades following 218 B.C. was a period of instability in the Mediterranean, as the Roman Republic went to war with the Carthaginians. In the Far East, by contrast, this period was relatively stable, as a unified China emerged from the chaos of the Warring States Period. Qin Shi Huang was the man responsible for uniting the seven warring states to form the first imperial dynasty of China. The first emperor of China was as obsessed with life as he was with the afterlife. Whilst occupied with the search for the elixir of immortality, Qin Shi Huang was also busy building his tomb.

As a matter of fact, the construction of the emperor’s tomb began long before Qin Shi Huang became the first Chinese emperor. When Qin Shi Huang was 13 years old, he ascended the throne of Qin, and immediately began building his eternal resting place. It was only in 221 B.C., however, when Qin Shi Huang successfully unified China that full-scale construction would begin, as he then commanded manpower totaling 700,000 from across the country. The tomb, located in Lintong County, Shaanxi Province, took over 38 years to complete, and was only finished several years after his death.

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Public Domain

An account of the construction of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb and its description can be found in the Records of the Grand Historian, which was written by the Han dynasty historian, Sima Qian. According to this source, Qin Shi Huang’s tomb contained ‘palaces and scenic towers for a hundred officials’, as well as numerous rare artifacts and treasures. In addition, the two major rivers of China, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, were simulated in the tomb using mercury. The rivers were also set mechanically to flow into the great sea. Whilst the rivers and other features of the land were represented on the floor of the tomb, its ceiling was decorated with the heavenly constellations. Thus, Qin Shi Huang could continue to rule over his empire even in the afterlife. To protect the tomb, the emperor’s craftsmen were instructed to make traps which would fire arrows at anyone who entered the tomb.

Painted portrait of historian Sima Qian

Painted portrait of historian Sima Qian, Public Domain

Qin Shi Huang’s funeral was conducted by his son, who ordered the death of any concubines of the late emperor who did not have sons. This was done in order to provide company for Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife. When the funerary ceremonies were over, the inner passageway was blocked, and the outer gate was lowered, so as to trap all the craftsmen in the tomb. This was to ensure that the workings of the mechanical traps and the knowledge of the tomb’s treasures would not be divulged. Finally, plants and vegetation were planted on the tomb so it resembled a hill.

Tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang is covered by vegetation and resembles a hill.

Tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang is covered by vegetation and resembles a hill. Wikimedia, CC

Although a written record regarding Qin Shi Huang’s tomb was already in existence roughly a century after the emperor’s death, it was only re-discovered in the 20th century (whether the tomb has been robbed in the past, however, is unknown). In 1974, a group of farmers digging wells in Lintong County dug up a life-size terracotta warrior from the ground. This was the beginning of one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all times. Over the last four decades, about 2000 terracotta warriors have been uncovered. It is estimated, however, that a total of between 6000 and 8000 of these warriors were buried with Qin Shi Huang. Furthermore, the terracotta army is but the tip of the iceberg, as the emperor’s tomb itself remains unexcavated.

Terracotta Warriors and Horses, is a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Xi'an, China

Terracotta Warriors and Horses, is a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Xi’an, China. Wikimedia, CC

Numerous elaborate artifacts have been recovered around the site, such as this chariot and horses found outside of the tomb mound.

Numerous elaborate artifacts have been recovered around the site, such as this chariot and horses found outside of the tomb mound. Wikimedia, CC

It is unlikely that the tomb of Qin Shi Huang will be opened any time soon. For a start, there are the tomb’s booby traps, as mentioned by Sima Qian. Despite being over two millennia old, it has been argued that they would still function as effectively as the day they were installed. Furthermore, the presence of mercury would be incredibly deadly to anyone who entered the tomb without appropriate protection. Most importantly, however, is the fact that our technology at present would not be adequate to deal with the sheer scale of the underground complex and the preservation of the excavated artifacts. As a case in point, the terracotta warriors were once brightly painted, though exposure to the air and sunlight caused the paint to flake off almost immediately. Until further technological advancements have been made, it is unlikely that archaeologists will risk opening the tomb of the first emperor of China.

References

Diaz, J., 2012. Archaeologists Think Hidden Imperial Tomb May Be Too Deadly to Explore. [Online]
Available at: http://gizmodo.com/5971822/archaeologists-think-hidden-imperial-tomb-may-be-too-deadly-to-explore

Moskowitz, C., 2012. The Secret Tomb of China’s 1st Emperor: Will We Ever See Inside?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.livescience.com/22454-ancient-chinese-tomb-terracotta-warriors.html

Shead, S., 2012. Chinese refuse to open the mysterious tomb of their first emperor and the remaining 6,000 terracotta soldiers. [Online]
Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2189908/Some-things-best-left-untouched-Why-Chinese-ignoring-best-secret-tomb.html

UNESCO, 2014. Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/441

Wikipedia, 2014. Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mausoleum_of_the_First_Qin_Emperor

www.china.org.cn, 2014. Mausoleum of Emperor Qinshihuang (259 BC- 210 BC). [Online]
Available at: http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/atam/115132.htm

www.chinadaily.com.cn, 2010. [Online]
Available at: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/m/daminggong/2010-05/13/content_9845517_2.htm

www.chinahighlights.com, 1998. Mausoleum of Qinshihuang. [Online]
Available at: http://www.chinahighlights.com/xian/attraction/mausoleum-of-qinshihuang.htm

By Ḏḥwty


Lesson Plan Time Travel copy

The Tale of Yong and Bao

Learning About the Life and Legacy of China’s First Emperor 

Come hear the story of Yong, a boy living in China more than 2,200 years ago, who loses Bao, his pet goose.  Travel with Yong as he searches over faraway lands and skies for Bao, learns about the reign of China’s First Emperor Qin Shi Huang and discovers two of the greatest achievements of the ancient world—the Great Wall of China and an army of thousands made of stone.

yong and bao iconTHE TALE OF YONG AND BAO

 
PP iconTEACHER’S GUIDE  
Lesson PlanTHE LIFE AND LEGACY OF QIN SHI HUANG, CHINA’S FIRST EMPEROR (PowerPoint)  
ActivitiesACTIVITIES  
MusicMUSIC and VIDEOS  
RecipesRECIPES
ResourcesRESOURCES

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2 responses to “Qin Shi Huang’s China: The Secret Tomb of the First Chinese Emperor Remains an Unopened Treasure

  1. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Asia | AntiquityNOW

  2. Pingback: References | MEDIA ARTS 3

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