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Wooden Tablets Verify China's First Emperor’s Obsession with Immortality

Wooden Tablets Verify China's First Emperor’s Obsession with Immortality

New archaeological finds shed light on Qin Shi Huang’s (first Emperor of China) quest for eternal life. According to 2000-year-old texts written on thousands of wooden slats, the Chinese Emperor did everything in his power to discover the elixir of immortality.

Wooden Slips Reveal the Extent of Qin Shi Huang’s Hunt of Immortality

The pursuit of immortality and eternal life has been the subject of exploration for many people throughout the centuries, but unfortunately none of them managed to live forever. One of them was Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty and the first emperor of a unified China. His public works projects included the unification of diverse state walls into a single Great Wall of China and a massive new national road system, as well as the city-sized mausoleum guarded by the life-sized Terracotta Army. He ruled until his death in 210 BC after an intense search for an elixir of immortality.

Great Wall of China near Jinshanling was commissioned by Qin Shi Huang.

Great Wall of China near Jinshanling was commissioned by Qin Shi Huang. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

As Xinhuanet reports , a set of wooden slips discovered in the central province of Hunan include an executive order from Emperor Qin Shi Huang for a nationwide hunt for the elixir of life, along with replies from local governments. Zhang Chunlong, a researcher at the provincial institute of archaeology, said that the emperor's desire for immortality made him reach frontier regions and the most 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 tells Xinhuanet.

Statue of emperor Qin, China (reconstitution).

Statue of emperor Qin, China (reconstitution). ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

New Discovery Demonstrates Emperor’s Absolute Power

Interestingly, the discovery also reveals the emperor's undeniable centralization of authority. According to the calligraphic script on the narrow wooden slips (the traditional way of writing in China before the use of paper), a village called "Duxiang" replied to the Emperor that no miraculous potion had been found yet and indicated that the search for immortality would continue. Another place called "Langya," located in today's eastern Shandong Province near the sea as Xinhuanet reports , reported that an herb found on an “auspicious local mountain,” may do the job.

Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army

Even though Qin Shi Huang's search for immortality was doomed to failure, the famous Emperor’s legacy remains alive to this day. In 1974, as Ancient Origins previously reported , one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of all time, took place when more than 8000 life-size clay warriors were uncovered in Xi’an, China. The clay army lies in the greatest mausoleum in the world, and archaeologists have asserted that it was meant to protect Emperor Qin Shi Huang in his journey after death. Each soldier was created with unique characteristics and was placed according to rank. Horses, weapons and other objects were also discovered.

According to historical records, Qin Shi Huang had an army of one million professional soldiers built, and was the one who initiated construction of the Great Wall of China. Huang’s Mausoleum was a copy of his kingdom—which according to the records took 37 years and more than 720,000 people to construct—so that he could maintain his empire after death. The outer wall is about 2km x 1km and the Necropolis consists of buildings, cemeteries and stables, and there are four different pits in which the 8,000 warriors stand in rows.

Xian, China: Pit No. 1 in the Museum of the Terracotta Army.

Xian, China: Pit No. 1 in the Museum of the Terracotta Army. (Image: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas )

The Emperor made sure that his tomb would be booby-trapped so that robbers wouldn’t be able to access it. It is mentioned that he used poisonous arrows that are automatically triggered, mercury, and other traps that could bring death upon any intruder. The secrets of the tomb are not known since most of the people that worked at building the Emperor’s tomb were killed. However, probes that have been sent into the tomb have verified an unusually high concentration of mercury exists, possibly supporting Qian’s theory. Nowadays, the mausoleum is a major tourist draw and a UNESCO world heritage site.

What We Learn from the Wooden Slips

Back to the latest archaeological finds, however, the 36,000 wooden slips were discovered in June 2002 in a remote well in Liye village, Longshan County in Western Hunan. It is estimated that over 200,000 Chinese characters are written on them, while archaeologists suggest that they date anywhere from 222 to 208 BC.  They mostly focus on politics, military, economy, law, culture and medicine. “After meticulous study of the 48 medicine-related slips, the Qin Dynasty, though it lasted just 15 years, had a sophisticated medical system and documentation, as well as multiple treatments that continued to be used by for a very long time,” the researcher Zhang said as Xinhuanet reports , who also added that the new discoveries shed light upon China's ancient medical history and answer many questions regarding the Emperor's governance.

Qin Shi Huang, King of Qin.

Qin Shi Huang, King of Qin. ( Public Domain )

Ultimately, an assistant research fellow at China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences named Zhou Qi, added that people at the time were aware of several treatments of traditional Chinese medicine such as moxibustion, acupuncture, oral administration and topical therapy. Furthermore, the slips also reveal that the majority of the patients came from the highest socioeconomic class pf China and that doctors were only allowed to treat them under the direction of the government.

Top image: Example of wooden slips used in ancient China. This is a copy of The Art of War by Sun Tzu, part of a collection at the University of California, Riverside.

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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