The Art of Not Dying

The First Emperor’s pursuit of immortality.

By Edward Burman

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Immortals Playing Weiqi on Penglai, formerly attributed to Leng Qian, eighteenth century. Freer|Sackler, Gift of Charles Lang Freer.

Immortals Playing Weiqi on Penglai, formerly attributed to Leng Qian, eighteenth century. Freer|Sackler, Gift of Charles Lang Freer.

Qin Shihuang, First Emperor of China, survived assassination attempts, constantly feared conspiracies, and insisted on secrecy in his movements to the extent of building walls and corridors to disguise them from public view—and to render them invisible to malign spirits. After years of military conquests and bloody massacres he had good reason to fear revenge from victims whose spirits would also continue to live after death and might lie in wait for him. His vision of a lasting dynasty was founded on personal immortality, so death was unthinkable; as a scholar of Chinese religious practices expressed it, writing of the emperor’s Han successors, “Holiness essentially meant the art of not dying.” In fact we know from the biography by Sima Qian that Qin Shihuang hated even hearing conversations about death, to the point that his officials were afraid of mentioning the very word. This obsession was something of a family tradition, for traces of it appear in all the chronicles and histories from the time of King Huiwen onward. Indeed from around 400 bc, a couple of generations before Huiwen, it was believed that some men had managed to liberate themselves from death and had achieved perpetual life. Such beliefs were obviously attractive to kings, and later an emperor, who wished to prolong their reigns.

As an adviser and through his writings, Han Fei is known to have had a huge influence on the thought of Qin Shihuang in the political sphere. But his writings also contain rumination about what he called the “drug of deathlessness,” or elixir of immortality. He recounts an episode from the lifetime of King Huiwen:

Once a traveler taught the King of Yan the way to immortality. The King then sent men to learn it. Before the men sent to learn completed their study, the traveler died. Enraged thereby, the King chastised the students. Thus, the King did not know that he himself had been deceived by the traveler, but censured the students for their tardiness. Indeed, to believe in an unattainable thing and chastise innocent subjects is the calamity of thoughtlessness. Moreover, what a man cares for is nothing other than his own self. If he could not make himself immortal, how could he make the King live forever?

Han Fei is skeptical, but British sinologist Joseph Needham points out after discussing the story: “What interests us is the fact that around 320 bc there were men prepared to teach the art of achieving material immortality, and educated patricians who were eager to listen to them. The philosopher’s art doubtless included much of what we shall later describe as ‘physiological alchemy’ with its various forms of bodily training, but it almost certainly included the ingestion of medicines.” These medicines could be herb-based or mineral-chemical, or combinations of both, and were widely used.

Qin Shihuang was a member of a ruling family which sought immortality from the early days. The emperor himself certainly believed that he would be able both to live and to reign forever, and constantly sought elixirs which would guarantee eternal life. He was willing to believe the tales of magicians and alchemists to a remarkable extent. There had existed for many centuries legends about the three spirit mountains in the Bohai Sea where fairies who possessed the elixir of immortality were said to live. But it was difficult to reach them. Sima Qian explained in his “Treatise on the Feng and Shan Sacrifices” that although the three mountains were close to land, once a boat arrived they would appear upside down in the water, and “when mariners drew closer the wind would push their boat out to sea.” He cites earlier rulers among those who had sent men to sea in the past to seek the elixir. The three mountains were known as Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou. When the First Emperor arrived for the first time at the coast, he was greeted by a horde of magicians who told him stories about the elixir. These beliefs persisted, for the same treatise tells us that a hundred years later Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty built a lake at his Jianzhang Palace, in Xi’an, with islands with the same names that were “imitations of what was found in the sea, the holy mountains, with tortoises and fish.”

Qin Shihuang’s imperial tour across his empire depicted in an eighteenth-century album.

Another account of the islands occurs in a work on the mythology of islands usually attributed to a Han dynasty fangshi or “master of esoterica,” literally “recipe gentleman,” Dongfang Shuo: “Formerly, in Qin Shihuang’s time, when the bodies of many men unrighteously and untimely killed were lying about at Ferghana and along the roads, birds resembling crows or ravens appeared carrying this plant in their bills, and placed it on the faces of those corpses, so that they immediately sat up and were restored to life.” Moreover, if this plant is eaten, it can confer longevity and even immortality. On hearing the story and being informed of the provenance of this herb of deathlessness, and learning that a single stalk is enough to raise a man from the dead, the emperor ordered samples to be brought to his court and sent Xu Fu with five hundred young men and women to obtain it. They were unsuccessful. According to the scholar of Chinese medical history Paul U. Unschuld, whose account is quoted here, the interest lies in the fact that however the plant might be described, it was considered a kind of magic mushroom.

In fact, Qin Shihuang patronized the “recipe gentlemen” as teachers of alchemy and immortality, who introduced a “cult which promised immortal life as a transcendent being.” He himself made pilgrimages to Zhifu on three occasions, and climbed to its highest point at Mount Lao—actually only three hundred meters above sea level although it feels higher. In 218 bc he recorded his ascent of the mountain in one of his inscriptions, which reveals in an unusual reference to the view his love of natural scenery:

Now in the twenty-ninth year,
the August Emperor traveled in spring
to observe and inspect the distant regions.
Arriving at the sea coast
he climbed Mount Zhifu,
and illuminated the east.
He contemplated and studied at length the vast and beautiful view…

The island is now joined to the mainland as a peninsula and is only one kilometer wide by ten kilometers in length. Two shorter stone inscriptions testify to his visits: in 218 bc he wrote, “Arrived at Fu, and carved the stone,” and on his final visit in 210 bc he wrote, “Came to Fu, saw an enormous stone, and shot one fish.” According to this version, it was when he failed to find the elixir himself that he ordered Xu Fu to set sail in search of it.

Inscriptions from the stele of Mount Yi, after Xu Xuan, Song dynasty. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seymour and Rogers Funds, 1977. In 219 BC Qin Shihuang visited Mount Yi. He ordered that a stele be erected there and calligraphed with a text in the newly standardized script. The text praises the emperor for bringing peace to the world by defeating Qin’s six rival states and unifying them under his rule. Although the stele was destroyed by fire during the Tang dynasty (618–907), the inscription was passed down by scholars; these rubbings were taken from a stele that dates from the tenth century.


The first step toward immortality was to inhibit bodily decay, so that the immortal would be ready to begin his wanderings over the earth or in the spirit world. Apart from the elusive and illusory recourse to magical elixirs, there were two readily obtainable materials in the natural world which it was believed could enhance preservation: jade and mercury.

The former is a stone the Chinese still venerate as no other people on earth, already present in one of the founding myths of their culture, that of the legendary Jade Emperor or August Emperor of Jade, who was himself considered an immortal. Visually, the words “king” and “jade” are closely related: to the character for king (王) wáng, a single stroke is added to create that for jade, (玉) . Nowadays, it is thought of mainly as an ornamental rock, usually a delicate green and prized for its beauty in jewelry and as a lucky charm, but it was then an essential element in alchemy and in the quest for immortality.

There are many cases of jade being used in an attempt to achieve immortality. One famous example came to light in 1968 when two jade-clad bodies were found in princely tombs near Mancheng in Hebei—those of Liu Sheng, a son of Emperor Jingdi, who died in 113 bc, and his wife Dou Wan, who was probably the grand-niece of the Dowager Empress Dou, a Daoist. Liu Sheng’s so-called Gold Wire and Jade Garment was made of over 1,000 grams of gold wire with 2,498 jade plaques of various sizes. The tomb held more than 10,000 objects of gold, silver, silk, pottery, and lacquerwares in a complete and luxurious underground “palace” complete with stables and storerooms. Yet none was as striking as the jade used as a shroud.

During the Zhou dynasty, jade was also taken internally. “When the emperor purifies himself by abstinence, the chief in charge of the jade works (yu fu) prepares for him the jade which he is obliged to eat,” says the Zhou li (Book of Rites). Jade, add the commentaries to this passage, is the essence of the purity of the male principle; the emperor partakes of it to correct or counteract the water which he drinks (as water belongs to the female principle); the emperor fasts and purifies himself, before communicating with the spirits; he must take the pure extract of jade; it is dissolved that he may eat it. And in another passage of the Zhou li, we read that jade is pounded so that it can be mixed with rice to be administered as food to the corpse of an emperor before burial. In later Daoism, there exists the more developed belief that jade is the food of spirits and for that reason helps to guarantee immortality.

A few of the thousands of terracotta warriors found inside the mausoleum of Qin Shihuang, Xi’an, China.

There is yet another argument that links the presence of jade ornaments in real life to those in the tomb. For the Zhou li also provides very precise details about the six pieces of jade that should be placed in the tomb of the emperors and which represent the six cosmic deities, Heaven, Earth, and the Four Quarters. There is a Holder of the Seal Tablets who controls the correct use of these tablets in all rituals and ceremonies, with specific tablets of various shapes and sizes that can be used only by those who have received the Mandate of Heaven. When an emperor is buried, this official links the six pieces with a silk cord through holes already made in them and uses it to lower them into the tomb, with two of them representing Heaven and Earth. Man is merely a small part of the cosmos and is himself created by the cosmos, so if the cosmic powers are present—in the form of the six pieces of jade—he is as much under their influence in the grave as he was in life.

The durability of jade signifies that there is no break between life and death, but a transition; symbolically there is neither decay nor death. That is why the early Chinese accepted the notion that a deceased emperor would continue to live among them and exercise some control and influence over them. It is also why the new emperor took so much trouble to create a suitable residence for an afterlife in which he would continue to rule. But jade also had a physical function. On display at the 2012 exhibition The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, there was a box of what were called in the catalogue jade “orifice plugs” used to prevent the lifeforce escaping from a corpse. They included plugs for every human orifice, from ears, nose, and mouth to anus and vagina. Given the use of such expensive materials as gold and jade, this was clearly possible only for members of aristocratic or wealthy families.

The other readily available material, a key ingredient in ancient Chinese medicine and alchemy, was mercury. The fact that this chemical element in its mysterious form as quicksilver is the only metallic element to be found as a liquid at normal temperatures has always fascinated both ancient alchemists and modern scientists. The mythical deity Shennong (五谷神, wugushen; literally “five grains god”), the supposed inventor of both agriculture and herbal medicine, listed mercury in the Classic of Herbal Medicine, a treatise compiled in the early Han dynasty but attributed to him. He was also believed to hold the secret of immortality.

Jade immortal, 1600–1700. Freer|Sackler, Gift of Arthur M. Sackler.

Early alchemists called mercury “immortal elixir,” an equivalent of the philosopher’s stone. In medicine it was often used in the form of cinnabar, a sulfide of mercury, which could be found naturally in Shaanxi, although the best quality was said to come from Hunan. Cinnabar and its close relative calomel were also used by the Chinese in making pigments, cosmetics, soaps, and laxatives. They were used in the form of a coarse, shining powder with a reddish tinge, and it is believed that the First Emperor imbibed a medical potion including such a powder. In fact, the widespread use of arsenic and mercury in procedures designed to enhance the possibility of immortality provides support for Needham’s belief—often quoted—that Qin Shihuang died of mercury poisoning. There are, however, other opinions. Duan Qingbo, for example, believes that Needham is mistaken. As an expert on the Han before he worked on the site of Qin Shihuang’s mausoleum, he argues that the use of mercury in potions or powder form to enhance longevity came into vogue after the reign of the Han emperor Wudi, who died over a century later, and that in Qin times such medicines were made exclusively from organic materials derived from plants. Thus in his view the use of mercury inside the tomb has nothing to do with the search for immortality, nor is it there to offer protection from intruders. But the theory of death by mercury poisoning is tantalizing, and the prevailing view is that after the emperor had consumed mercury in the form of a drink to achieve immortality, and employed it to create flowing quicksilver rivers, it was used directly to preserve his corpse for his tomb chamber.

Qin Shihuang’s ambition was without bounds. In his mind, he was building an empire to last for ten thousand years, and he intended to be a continuous presence and point of reference for his terrestrial successors as the great presiding ancestor, supervising and controlling them from his tomb. Thus another irony of the First Emperor’s life—for he died almost immediately after traveling to Zhifu Island the third time—is that he died relatively young compared to his ancestors, at just fifty, perhaps as the direct result of an unsuccessful quest for the elixir which he believed would guarantee personal immortality.


Excerpted from The Terracotta Warriors: Exploring the Most Intriguing Puzzle in Chinese History by Edward Burman. Copyright © 2018 by Edward Burman. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books.