The conqueror of the warring states in ancient China, Qin Shi Huang Di (often abbreviated to Shihuangdi, or simply First Emperor), died in 210 BCE. According to Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the First Emperor supposedly fell ill while traveling through his empire in pursuit of herbs that he thought would make him immortal. Whether or not this was true, or if he was simply on tour, the emperor did indeed die away from the Qin capital city of Xianyang. The First Emperor reportedly breathed his last at the Ping Terrace in either Shaqiu or Sand Hill. Li Si, the chancellor at the time, rightly feared that if word of the emperor’s death leaked out, then regions throughout the empire might be tempted to rebel. Therefore, the chancellor decided it was best to pretend that the emperor had never died, at least until the party had returned to Xianyang.
Prior to his death, the First Emperor had been notoriously reclusive in his final years, limiting his personal contact to a small number of select officials. As a result, the chancellor was apparently able to keep knowledge of the emperor’s death suppressed to all except a privileged few. One of these men was the emperor’s son, Prince Huhai. The prince’s friend and mentor, Zhao Gao was also brought in on the secret. The only other people who knew of the emperor’s death were five or six senior eunuchs in the royal entourage.
As if nothing had happened, the Qin officials placed the emperor’s body in a royal carriage and headed for the city of Xianyang in a calm and normal manner. No information regarding the health of the monarch was sent out and no calls for mourning were issued—they wanted the rest of China to think that the emperor was still alive. While they were on the road, the eunuchs and officials who were in the know delivered meals to the carriage, as well as documents and orders that needed the emperor’s approval. Once inside, they would dispose of the plates and forge the documents to look as if the emperor was still actively running the empire.
After multiple hot days on the road, as could be expected, the body of the First Emperor began to smell. This unpleasant odor became especially worrisome for Li Si and his accomplices when the party was traveling from Jingxing to Jiuyuan. After musing over possible solutions, the officials came up with an ingenious plan. They went into the carriage with the body and, after a convincing amount of time, they emerged from the vehicle with an imperial edict. The emperor, it seemed, suddenly had a craving for fish and directed all of his attendants to load their carts with heaps of dried fish. Thus, masked by the fumes of dehydrated seafood, the emperor’s body was successfully smuggled back to the capital in Xianyang.
Sometime while Prince Huhai, Li Si and Zhao Gao were orchestrating the secret movements of the emperor’s body, they also began to expand their conspiracy to encompass the succession of imperial rule. Shortly before the First Emperor had died, he had given a written statement to Zhao Gao, stating that Prince Huhai’s brother, Prince Fusu, would succeed to the throne upon the First Emperor’s death. Nevertheless, Zhao Gao, Li Si and especially Prince Huhai did not agree with the First Emperor’s decision, so they altered the emperor’s statement in favor of Huhai. They also cruelly sent a fake message to Prince Fusu, stating that the emperor believed him to be a traitor and that he should commit suicide for his crimes.
When the entourage arrived at Xianyang, the secret was finally revealed and the First Emperor was pronounced to have died. His body was entombed in a magnificent compound at Mt. Li that included replicas of palaces, officials, soldiers (the Terracotta Army) and livestock, among other things. The elaborate tomb even contained rivers of mercury that were constructed to look like they were constantly flowing. According to Sima Qian, Prince Huhai (who had now assumed the title of Second Emperor) had many of his father’s concubines killed and entombed with the deceased emperor. The craftsmen who had worked on the tomb were also allegedly locked away to die inside their creation. Although the validity of Sima Qian’s account of the tomb has been called into question, modern archaeologists have indeed found several ancient mass graves situated around the burial complex of the First Emperor.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Carriage from the Ming Dynasty Departure Herald, from the Jiajing reign period in China (1522-1566 AD), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.