How the Search for Immortality Killed the First Emperor of China
No man had ever risen as high as Qin Shi Huang. He was the first emperor of China - the first man to conquer its seven kingdoms and rule them all. There was only one threat left for him to overcome: death itself.
The story of Qin Shi Huang’s search for immortality sounds like something straight out of a fairytale. For the last ten years of his life, China’s first Emperor sent every scholar, magician, and wise man in the nation on a quest to find an elixir that would keep him from dying. He gave up everything in his mad war against the inevitability of death – and in the end, let his fear of dying drive him into an early grave.
A portrait painting of Qin Shi Huangdi, first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, from an 18th-century album of Chinese emperor's portraits. ( Public Domain )
A surprising amount of archaeological evidence, though, has been found backing up some of the most incredible parts of the story. As crazy as it sounds, Qin Shi Huang’s search for the elixir of immortality was real.
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Xu Fu and the Mountain of Immortality
Just a few years ago, archaeologists in China uncovered sets of wooden slips with the Emperor’s executive order written on them. Every government post in the empire, he ordered, was to drop everything and focus on developing an elixir of immortality.
Some of the responses his governors sent back still survive today. An official in Duxiang apologized that they hadn’t cracked the secret to immortality just yet, but promised they would redouble their efforts. Another, from Langya, sent the emperor an herb from a local mountain that they thought might make a man immortal.
Of every response he received, though, Qin Shi Huang put the most faith in the one from his magician Xu Fu of Zhifu Island. Xu Fu wrote to the Emperor telling him that that there was a place called Penglai Island hidden out in the Pacific Ocean. There, he swore, lived eight immortals who held the elixir of life.
Statue of Xu Fu in in Weihai, Shandong. (Fanghong/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
He would need a luxurious boat, Xu Fu explained, and a harem of 6,000 virgins to offer the immortals as tribute. The Emperor was willing to use any expense if he could guarantee him eternal life.
Qin Shi Huang sailed straight to Zhifu Island with everything Xu Fu needed. He gave the sorcerer his harem and his boat and sent him off. Then, before he left the island, he etched a short memento into a stone: “Arrived at Fu and carved the stone.” More than 2000 years later, Qin Shi Huang’s message is still there to this day.
“The First Emperor Will Die”
Xu Fu would never find the elixir of life or the immortals of Penglai Island. In all likelihood, he probably didn’t even try. He’d found a way to get a harem of 6,000 virgins and a fleet of the emperor’s own boats, and he was going to live in luxury for as long as he could.
Penglai Island. ( Public Domain )
For a long time, Qin Shi Huang was content to return to his palace and wait for word from Xu Fu. That changed, though, three years after later, when a group of bandits made a failed attempt on the emperor’s life. He got out alive, but it was a stark reminder of how precious time really was. If Xu Fu didn’t make it back in time, he began to realize, he would die.
He sent four other men out on missions to find the herbs of everlasting life. Only one returned; the other three almost certainly fled in fear of his wrath. The one who returned, though, didn’t have any good news to share.
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Jin Ke's assassination attempt on Qin Shi Huang. Jin Ke (left) is hold by one of Qin Shi Huang's physicians (left, background). The dagger used in the assassination attempt is seen stuck in the pillar. Qin Shi Huang (right) is seen holding an imperial jade disc. One of his soldiers (far right) rushes to save his emperor. Stone rubbing. ( Public Domain )
“I and the others have searched for the zhi fungus, rare herbs, and the immortals,” the one who returned told the emperor, “but we can never seem to encounter them.”
Paranoia began to set in. At his palace, Qin Shi Huang had elevated walkways and walled roads installed, connecting each building so that he’d never have to walk outside exposed. Every window was covered with a curtain, and anyone who mentioned the emperor’s location was put to death.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang with two women. ( Secretos Cortesanos )
The Deaths of the Scholars
In 211 BC, eight years after Xu Fu had left, a meteor crashed near the lower reaches of the Yellow River. On it was an inscription that read; “The First Emperor will die and his land will be divided.”
The Emperor was furious. He demanded to know who had written it, and when no one came forward, he had every person in the area executed. Then the meteor itself was pulverized into bits so that no one would ever see the message again.
His patience was wearing thin. When he overheard a rumor that the alchemists who had promised him the elixir of life were playing him for a fool, Qin Shi Huang flew into a rage. The scholars were useless, he declared. They did nothing but seed discontent and lie to his face. Some even claimed to be magicians. If they really had magic powers, Qin Shi Huang stated, he would put them to the test. He would see if they could bring themselves back to life.
'Putting the miraculous elixir on the tripod' from Xingming guizhi(Pointers on Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life) by Yi Zhenren, a Daoist text on internal alchemy published in 1615 (3rd year of the Wanli reign period of Ming dynasty). (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )
460 scholars were dragged out of their homes and pulled to the capital. There he had a huge pit waiting for them. The Emperor had the wisest men in the kingdom thrown into the pit, and he buried them alive .
The Battle with The Sea Monster
Qin Shi Huang returned to Zhifu Island shortly after. Nine long years had passed now and Xu Fu still had not found the elixir of life. He had waited long enough, and he wanted results.
Xu Fu, thinking on his feet, made up an excuse . “The herbs of Penglai can surely be obtained,” he promised the emperor, but a gigantic fish monster was blocking the way. He needed more men. “We would like to request that a skilled archer be assigned to accompany us.”
This time, Qin Shi Huang didn’t give in. He had a crossbow of his own. He would go with them and he would kill the sea monster himself.
Xu Fu must have been shaking as he sailed off with the emperor, looking for a sea monster he knew didn’t exist. He got a lucky break, though. In time, a large fish – possibly a whale – popped out of the water. He called the emperor over, telling him it was the sea monster that had blocked the way.
The emperor unleashed a hail of arrows into the animal. Within seconds, the “sea monster” was dead.
He added a second engraving on the stone he’d marked before. “Came to Fu,” he wrote. “Shot one fish.”
The Death of the “Immortal Emperor”
Xu Fu sailed off one last time, promising he was going to Penglai Island. There were no excuses left. If he came back empty-handed again, he was sure to be killed. And so he sailed out east and never came back.
The Emperor, though, would barely live another day. On his way home from Zhifu Island, he stopped at a palace in Hopei and fell incredibly ill. He had been taking pills that one of his alchemists had promised would make him immortal. What they’d really given him, though, were pills of poisonous mercury, and he had just taken a lethal dose.
Mercury escaped from a broken thermometer. (Tavo Romann/ CC BY 4.0 )
He died that night.
It was a catastrophe. The Emperor had never bothered to choose an heir. He had expected to become immortal and so he’d never imagined it would be necessary.
The minister with him tried to cover up the emperor’s death for as long as he could. He sent his body home in a covered carriage flanked by carts full of rotting fish to keep anyone from smelling the decay of his body. He even climbed into the carriage with food and pretended to feed him to keep the illusion.
The death of the emperor couldn’t stay a secret forever. In a short time, the nation erupted into a horrible civil war, and Qin Shi Huang’s united China fell apart. The dynasty he’d sworn would last 10,000 generations fell apart within three years. The Emperor himself only lived to be 49.
Statue of emperor Qin, China (reconstitution). ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Top Image: Detail of Qin Shi Huang's imperial tour across his empire. Depiction in an 18th century album. Source: Public Domain
By Mark Oliver
“Across China: Wooden Slips Reveal China’s First Emperor’s Overt Pursuit of Immortality.” XinhuaNet. December 24, 2017. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-12/24/c_136848720.htm
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McDowell, Michael and Nathan Robert Brown. “Confucianism.” World Religions at Your Fingertips . Alpha Books, 2009. https://books.google.com/books?id=urcyCnUurGMC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
Qian Sima. “Qin Dynasty.” Records of the Grand Historian. Trans. Burton Watson. Columbia University Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=v0uY83Lnf3UC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false