Legends of setting foot in Qin Shi Huang’s tomb in Xi’an, China speak of booby traps — poison gases, trip-wire alarms and deadly crossbows. The crypt of the first emperor of China has been untouched for more than 2,000 years and has been a mysterious tomb for archeologists. But are those legends even true?
Some say the booby traps of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb are real. Some say they’re just a bunch of fantasy. Let’s explore the proof we can find.
Who Was Emperor Qin Shi Huang Himself?
Emperor Qin Shi Huang — of terracotta warrior fame — lived from approximately 259 to 210 B.C. Known for unifying China, building The Great Wall, and giving himself the title of Huangdi “Sovereign Sage Emperor,” modern China still takes its name after him (Qin is pronounced: “Chin”). But aside from that, Shi Huang is known for his magnificent and legendary tomb.
Many have heard the stories of untold riches, unimaginable wealth (and certain death) that await the brave souls who manage to breach the mysterious chambers of Shi Huang’s underground crypt. However, the tomb complex spans 3.9 square miles (6.3 square kilometers) and only the smallest percentage has been uncovered.
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While imagining the secrets that lie within, technicians at the funeral mound once told the newspaper El Pais, “It’s like having a present all wrapped at home, knowing that the very thing you want most is inside, but you can’t unwrap it.”
Historians and Qin Shi Huang’s Tomb
Most would agree that we can’t know for sure if the legends are true until the emperor’s grave is exhumed. But the great Han Dynasty historian, Sima Qian (145-87 B.C.), claims to have known.
As the best-known source of the booby trap legends, circa 94 B.C., Sima Qian wrote a clear and illuminating description of what lies beneath the 51.3-meter-high mound in his famous work, The Shiji:
“In the ninth month, the First Emperor was interred at Mount Li. Digging and preparation work at Mount Li began when the First Emperor first came to the throne. Later, after he had unified his empire, 700,000 men were sent there from all over his empire. They dug through three layers of groundwater and poured in bronze for the outer coffin. Palaces and scenic towers for a hundred officials were constructed, and the tomb was filled with rare artifacts and wonderful treasure. Craftsmen were ordered to make crossbows and arrows primed to shoot at anyone who enters the tomb. Mercury was used to simulate the hundreds of rivers, the Yangtze, the Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above were representations of the heavenly constellations, below, the features of the land. Candles were made from fat of ‘man-fish’ [alternative translation: mermaid ointment] which is calculated to burn and not extinguish for a long time.
The Second Emperor said: “It would be inappropriate for the concubines of the late emperor who have no sons to be out free,” ordered that they should accompany the dead, and a great many died. After the burial, it was suggested that it would be a serious breach if the craftsmen who constructed the mechanical devices and knew of its treasures were to divulge those secrets. Therefore after the funeral ceremonies had completed and the treasures hidden away, the inner passageway was blocked, and the outer gate lowered, immediately trapping all the workers and craftsmen inside. None could escape. Trees and vegetation were then planted on the tomb mound such that it resembles a hill.” — Sima Qian, Shiji, Chapter 6 (Translation Source)
Thus, we find the source of the legends we know today. But Sima Qian wrote this description 123 years after the death of Shi Huang. Could his fantasy-like account of mermaid ointment (probably whale oil), flowing rivers of mercury, 700,000 laborers, crossbow booby traps and buried-alive workers be credible? Or is he just writing for effect?
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Historians certainly disagree when it comes to the veracity of Sima’s accounts. But there’s a small mountain of evidence that says he could be telling the truth.
Can We Trust Sima Qian’s Tomb Descriptions?
In his paper “Sima Qian: A True Historian?” Michael Nylan says that one camp of historians celebrates the trustworthiness of Sima Qian by emphasizing “the extreme care with which Sima Qian gathered and weighed available evidence in an attempt to convey an objective portrait of the Chinese past.”
The other camp is more skeptical, stressing that there were “intensely personal motivations that prompted Sima Qian’s decision to complete the masterwork [of history] begun by his father […].” This more suspicious camp accuses Qian of being a “lyrical romanticist”— too religious to convey an accurate depiction of history.
But in Nylan’s view, Sima Qian’s devotion to spirituality is a vote in favor of his truthfulness and objectivity. According to Nylan, even though Sima Qian did not have access to the historical knowledge we have today, we shouldn’t ignore his devotion to the truth.
Sima Qian believed that the spirits he wrote about — such as Qin Shi Huang — would bestow blessings upon him, but the blessings would hinge upon his ability to portray their histories accurately. Nylan writes that throughout his works, Sima Qian was “insistent on the statement that he transmits the past and does not create,” and this humble mindset guided Sima Qian to be as historically accurate as possible.
Thus, Sima Qian had more than just a scientific commitment to objective history. He operated under a spiritual and religious obligation to the truth — because the truth was the only way he could invoke and receive the potent blessings of those he described.
The Terracotta Warriors
Another piece of evidence in Sima Qian’s favor was the 1974 discovery of 8,000 buried terracotta warriors. Until that discovery, many historians believed that Sima Qian was exaggerating when he claimed that 700,000 workers built Shi Huang’s crypt (seven times the number of men who built the Pyramid at Giza according to Herodotus).
Read More: An Underground Army: The 8,000 Terracotta Warriors
Nevertheless, the size, quality, and number of the terracotta statues seem to vindicate Sima from any claims of exaggeration. It now appears that Sima Qian was correct: Nearly a million laborers must have been involved in such a construction.
Clearly, no past is perfectly accurate, but if the 700,000 laborers were not an overstatement — and if Sima Qian maintained a religious obligation to the truth, at least we can assume that he didn’t embellish his reports of mercury, crossbows and everlasting mermaid ointment candles on purpose.
A Small Mountain of Evidence
The real evidence that Sima Qian was right lies beneath a small mountain of dirt waiting for future scholars to enter — if they dare to desecrate the resting place of the sovereign sage emperor, Huangdi.
Nevertheless, a 2020 scientific survey offers verifiable evidence that Sima Qian was right. The tomb is saturated with mercury.
“Clearly, there are very large uncertainties in these estimations, but our findings add to the credibility of 2,200-year-old records by historian Sima on the existence of large amounts of mercury in the Emperor Qin tomb, also in view of estimates of the production capability of mercury at the times of Emperor Qin,” say the authors in the study.
Commenting on these findings, archeologist Qingbo Duan of Northwest University in Xi’an — who spent a decade leading excavations at the mausoleum — told Chemistry World that “the distribution of mercury level corresponds to the location of waterways in the Qin empire.”
In other words, the mercury appears to “simulate the hundreds of rivers, the Yangtze, the Yellow River, and the great sea”— just as Sima Qian had said.
The Mystery of Qin Shi Huang’s Tomb
Could the mercury still flow as depicted in The Shiji? Could the ‘mermaid ointment’ candles still light the bejeweled and sparkling constellations on the ceiling? Could deadly, hair-trigger crossbows await the first person to enter?
To be fair, Qingbo Duan doesn’t believe that the tomb builders used mercury specifically as a trap for grave robbers — and Sima Qian never claimed it either — but after 2,000-plus years, the mercury in the tomb may have produced deadly and poisonous fumes. And if Sima Qian’s depiction of mercury is true, perhaps the threat of crossbows is genuine.
At the end of the day, we’re not going to solve the mystery of Huangdi’s tomb until someone breaks the seal. But even if we can’t know the truth for certain, we can still thank the spirit of Sima Qian for his marvelous and intricate descriptions, for his steadfast devotion to historical objectivity — and most importantly, for inspiring so many imaginations to fly for thousands of years, and many more to come. And seriously speaking, would you dare to be the first to enter the tomb of Qin Shi Huang?