Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang
Tomb of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, Xi'an, China - panoramio.jpg
Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor is located in China
Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor
General information
LocationLintong District, Xi'an, Shaanxi
Coordinates34°22′54″N 109°15′14″E / 34.38167°N 109.25389°E / 34.38167; 109.25389
Criteriai, iii, iv, vi
Designated1987 (11th session)
Reference no.441

The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (Chinese: 秦始皇陵; pinyin: Qínshǐhuáng Líng) is the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty. It is located in Lintong District, Xi'an, Shaanxi province of China. It was constructed over 38 years, from 246 to 208 BCE, and is situated underneath a 76-meter-tall tomb mound shaped like a truncated pyramid.[1] The layout of the mausoleum is modeled on the layout of Xianyang, the capital of the Qin dynasty, which was divided into inner and outer cities. The circumference of the inner city is 2.5 km (1.55 miles) and the outer is 6.3 km (3.9 miles). The tomb is located in the southwest of the inner city and faces east. The main tomb chamber housing the coffin and burial artifacts is the core of the architectural complex of the mausoleum.

The tomb itself has not yet been excavated. Archaeological explorations currently concentrate on various sites of the extensive necropolis surrounding the tomb, including the Terracotta Army to the east of the tomb mound.[2] The Terracotta Army served as a garrison to the mausoleum and has yet to be completely excavated.[3][4][5]


Historical Records[edit]

The Benji of the First Emperor" records that the first emperor began to build the mausoleum from the beginning of his accession to the throne, from about 247 BCE to 208 BCE, which lasted 39 years. However, Professor Duan Qingbo, who served as the archaeological team leader of the Mausoleum of the First Emperor for more than ten years, stated[citation needed] that the current academic theory is that this account is only a metaphor for Sima Qian’s fiction in order to persuade Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty to overhaul the tomb; the surrounding objects actually excavated include craftsmen. The objects in the slave quarters indicate that the builders came from all the seven states of the Warring States Period, which can only be done after the unification of the world. Numerous documents also record that the presiding builder was Prime Minister Li Si, and he became prime minister a few years before and after the unification of the world. Before that, he was the court officer in charge of the judiciary. It is unlikely that the construction of the imperial mausoleum was presided over by a court officer. Therefore, it is inferred that the construction time is from the 28th to the 34th year of the First Emperor (219–213 BCE), and it was completed in about seven years.

Work on the mausoleum began soon after Emperor Qin ascended the throne in 246 BCE when he was still aged 13, although its full-scale construction only started after he had conquered the six other major states and unified China in 221 BCE. Geographer Li Daoyuan, writing six centuries after the first emperor's death, recorded in Shui Jing Zhu that Mount Li was chosen as the location for his burial ground due to its auspicious geology: "famed for its jade mines, its northern side was rich in gold, and its southern side rich in beautiful jade; the first emperor, covetous of its fine reputation, therefore chose to be buried there".[6][7] The source of the account of the construction of the mausoleum and its description came from Sima Qian in chapter six of his Records of the Grand Historian, which was written in first century BCE and contains the biography of Qin Shi Huang:

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 hundred rivers, the Yangtze, Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above were representation of the heavenly constellations, below, the features of the land. Candles were made from fat of "man-fish", 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 vegetations were then planted on the tomb mound such that it resembles a hill.

— Sima Qian, Shiji, Chapter 6.[8][9]

Some scholars believe that the claim of having "dug through three layers of groundwater" to be figurative.[10] It is also uncertain what the "man-fish" in the text refers to originally (in modern Chinese it means "mermaid"), interpretation of the term varies from whale to walrus and other aquatic animals such as giant salamander.[11][12]

Before the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor was completed, a peasant rebellion broke out during the late Qin dynasty. Zhang Han redeployed all the 700,000 people building the mausoleum to suppress the rebellion, so construction of the mausoleum ceased. After Xiang Yu entered Xianyang, he was said to have looted the tomb. Afterwards, it is said that a shepherd unintentionally burnt down the tomb.[13] The story goes that he went into the dug pit of the mausoleum, dug by Xiang Yu, to look for his sheep with a torch in his hand, and a fire was started, burning away the tomb structures.[14][15] No solid evidence of the destruction of the tomb has been found, although evidence of fire damage has been found in the pits housing the Terracotta Army.[16] Some scholars think that the mausoleum did not suffer any large-scale destruction.

In 1987, the mausoleum, including the Terracotta Warriors, was listed as World Heritage Sites.[17]

Discovery of the Terracotta Warriors[edit]

General view of the pit No. 1 in the museum of Xi'an

The first fragments of warriors and bronze arrowheads were discovered by Yang Zhifa, his five brothers, and Wang Puzhi who were digging a well in March 1974 in Xiyang, a village of the Lintong county.[18][19] At a depth of around two meters, they found hardened dirt, then red earthenware, fragments of terracotta, bronze arrowheads and terracotta bricks.[20] Yang Zhifa threw the fragments of terracotta in the corner of the field, and collected the arrowheads to sell them to a commercial agency. Other villagers took terracotta bricks to make pillows.[20] A manager in charge of the hydraulic works, Fang Shumiao, saw the objects found and suggested to the villagers that they sell them to the cultural centre of the district. Yang Zhifa received, for two carts of fragments of what would turn out to be terracotta warriors, the amount of 10 yuan.[20] Zhao Kangmin, responsible for the cultural centre, then came to the village and bought everything that the villagers uncovered, as well as re-purchasing the arrowheads sold to the commercial agency. Judging from scientific exploration and local excavations, there are many metal substances in the underground palace, and there is also a good drainage system. As for how deep the underground palace is, there is a lot of controversy in the academic circles, and there are different opinions from 20 meters to 50 meters. Some scholars believe that the so-called "crossing three springs" is just a false finger.

The buildings around the Qin Mausoleum and the surrounding soil were not yet completed, and before the piled soil reached the expected height of 122 meters, there was a peasant riot at the end of the Qin Dynasty. Zhang Han transferred all 700,000 people who built the mausoleum to resist the riot. So far, the construction of the Qin Mausoleum was interrupted.

In 1987, Qinshihuang Mausoleum and Terracotta Warriors were listed as World Cultural Heritage.

In May 1974, a team of archaeologists from Shaanxi went to the site to undertake the first excavations of what would later be designated Pit 1. In May 1976, Pit 2 was discovered by drilling and in July, Pit 3 was discovered.[21] The excavations over an area of 20,000 square meters produced about 7,000 statues of terracotta warriors and horses, and about a hundred wooden battle chariots and numerous weapons.[21] Large structures have been erected to protect the pits; the first was finished in 1979. A larger necropolis of six hundred pits was uncovered by 2008.[22] Some pits were found a few kilometers away from the mound of the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.[20]

Archaeological studies[edit]

Chariot found outside of the tomb mound

The necropolis complex of Qin Shi Huang is a microcosm of the Emperor's empire and palace, with the tomb mound at the center. There are two walls, the inner and outer walls, surrounding the tomb mound, and a number of pits containing figures and artifacts were found inside and outside the walls. To the west inside the inner wall were found bronze chariots and horses. Inside the inner wall were also found terracotta figures of courtiers and bureaucrats who served the Emperor. Outside of the inner wall but inside the outer wall, pits with terracotta figures of entertainers and strongmen, as well as a pit containing a stone suit of armour were found. To the north of the outer wall were found the imperial park with bronze cranes, swan and ducks with groups of musicians. Outside the outer walls were also found imperial stables where real horses were buried with terracotta figures of grooms kneeling beside them. To the west were found mass burial grounds for the labourers forced to build the complex. The Terracotta Army is about 1.5 km east of the tomb mound.[23][24]

The Terracotta Warriors

The tomb mound itself at present remains largely unexcavated, but a number of techniques were used to explore the site. The underground palace has been located at the center of the mound. Archaeological survey and magnetic anomaly studies indicate a 4-meter high perimeter wall, measuring 460 meters north to south and 390 meters east to west, which is made of bricks and serves as the wall of the underground palace. On top is an enclosing wall made of rammed earth of 30–40 meters in height. There are sloping passageways leading to the four walls. The west tomb passage is linked to a pit where the bronze chariots and horses were found. The tomb chamber itself is 80 meters long east to west, 50 meters north to south, and is about 15 meters high.[25] There are, however, disagreements among the academic community about the depth at which the palace lies, with estimates ranging from 20 meters to 50 meters.

According to the scientific exploration and partial excavation, a significant amount of metal is present in the underground palace which has a very good drainage system. Sima Qian's text indicates that during its construction the tomb may have reached groundwater, and the water table is estimated to be at a depth of 30 meters. An underground dam and drainage system was discovered in 2000 and the tomb appeared not to have been flooded by the groundwater.[25] Anomalously high levels of mercury in the area of the tomb mound have been detected,[25]: 204  which gives credence to the Sima Qian's account that mercury was used to simulate waterways and the seas in the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. However, some scholars believe that if the underground palace is excavated, the mercury would quickly volatilize. "A Preliminary Study of Mercury Buried in the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor", an article published in Archaeology magazine, Volume 7, says that during the measuring of soil mercury content, one measured point reached 1440 parts per billion; the rest of 53 points reached an average content of around 205 ppb. There is also a claim that the mercury content is actually a result of local industrial pollution. It is reported in "Lintong County Annals" that from 1978 to 1980, according to general investigation on workers involved with benzene, mercury and lead, 1193 people from 21 factories were found poisoned."[26]

In December 2012, it was announced that the remains of an "imperial palace" of great size had been found at the site.[27] Based on its foundations, the courtyard-style palace was estimated to be 690 meters long and 250 meters wide, covering an area of 170,000 square meters, which is nearly a quarter of the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The palace included 18 courtyard houses and a main building that overlooked the houses. The archaeologists have been excavating the foundations since 2010 and have found walls, gates, stone roads, pottery shards and some brickwork.[28]

Opinions on possible excavation[edit]

Outlines of various pyramids overlaid on top of on another to show relative height
Comparison of approximate profiles of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor with some notable pyramidal or near-pyramidal buildings. Dotted lines indicate original heights, where data is available. In its SVG file, hover over a pyramid to highlight and click for its article.

Beginning in 1976, various scholars proposed to explore the underground palace, citing the following main reasons:

  • The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor is in a seismic zone, so underground cultural relics need to be unearthed for protection;
  • to develop tourism; and
  • to prevent grave robbery.[29]
Bronze swan

However, opponents of such excavations hold that China's current technology is not able to deal with the large scale of the underground palace yet. For example, in the case of the Terracotta Army, the archaeologists were initially unable to preserve the coat of paint on the surface of terracotta figures, which resulted in the rapid shedding of their painted decoration when exposed to air.[30][31] The State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) indicated that research and evaluations should be conducted first so as to develop a protection plan for the underground palace, and rejected a proposal by archaeologists to excavate another tomb close by thought to belong to the Emperor's grandson over fears of possible damage to the main mausoleum itself.[32]


  1. ^ Portal, Jane. "The first emperor of China: new discoveries & research: later this month the British Museum unveils an unprecedented loan exhibition of the terracotta warriors and other discoveries made at the 3rd-century BC tomb complex of Qin Shihuangdi, China's first emperor. Jane Portal, the exhibition's curator, explains the importance of the new finds." Apollo Sept. 2007: 54+. Academic OneFile. Web. 11 July 2016
  2. ^ Liu Yuhan (30 April 2012). "New York City welcomes the Terracotta Warriors". China Daily. Retrieved 13 July 2012.
  3. ^ "Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor".
  4. ^ Li Xianzhi (13 October 2009). ""Teenage warriors" discovered in China's terracotta army". Xinhua News Agency. Archived from the original on 16 October 2009. Retrieved 13 July 2012.
  5. ^ "世界文化遗产——秦始皇陵".
  6. ^ Clements, Jonathan (2007). The First Emperor of China. Sutton. p. 158. ISBN 978-0750939607.
  7. ^ Shui Jing Zhu Chapter 19 《水經注•渭水》Original text: 秦始皇大興厚葬,營建塚壙於驪戎之山,一名藍田,其陰多金,其陽多美玉,始皇貪其美名,因而葬焉。
  8. ^ 司马迁 (1982). 史记. 卷六.秦始皇本纪: 中华书局. ISBN 978-7101003048.
  9. ^ Chinese Text Project Shiji, original text: 九月,葬始皇酈山。始皇初即位,穿治酈山,及并天下,天下徒送詣七十餘萬人,穿三泉,下銅而致槨,宮觀百官奇器珍怪徙臧滿之。令匠作機弩矢,有所穿近者輒射之。以水銀為百川江河大海,機相灌輸,上具天文,下具地理。以人魚膏為燭,度不滅者久之。二世曰:「先帝后宮非有子者,出焉不宜。」皆令從死,死者甚眾。葬既已下,或言工匠為機,臧皆知之,臧重即泄。大事畢,已臧,閉中羨,下外羨門,盡閉工匠臧者,無復出者。樹草木以象山。
  10. ^ Portal, Jane (2007). The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0714124476.
  11. ^ "史记·卷六  十二本纪 秦始皇本纪第六".
  12. ^ Charles Higham (2004). Encyclopedia of Ancient Asian Civilizations. Facts on File. p. 274. ISBN 978-0816046409.
  13. ^ Tanner, Harold M. (2010). China : a history. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co. p. 424. ISBN 978-1603842051.
  14. ^ Zhewen, Luo (1993). China's imperial tombs and mausoleums (1 ed.). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. ISBN 7119016199.
  15. ^ Han Shu汉书·楚元王传》:Original text: "项籍焚其宫室营宇,往者咸见发掘,其后牧儿亡羊,羊入其凿,牧者持火照球羊,失火烧其藏椁。" Translation: Xiang burned the palaces and buildings. Later observers witnessed the excavated site. Afterward a shepherd lost his sheep which went into the dug tunnel; the shepherd held a torch to look for his sheep, and accidentally set fire to the place and burned the concealed coffin.
  16. ^ "China unearths 114 new Terracotta Warriors". BBC News. 12 May 2010. Retrieved 3 December 2011.
  17. ^ "Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Retrieved 9 June 2012.
  18. ^ Yu Fei (29 September 2009). "Living with the Terra-cotta Army". Archived from the original on 18 March 2016. Retrieved 25 May 2016.
  19. ^ Glancey, Jonathan (12 April 2017). "The Army that Conquered the World". BBC.
  20. ^ a b c d Zhang Zhongli (1997), p. 16.
  21. ^ a b Zhang Zhongli (1997), p. 19.
  22. ^ Danielle Elisseeff 2008, p. 193.
  23. ^ Anthony Barbieri-Low. "The Necropolis of the First Emperor of Qin – Excerpt from lecture in History 1420: Ancient China". University of California, Santa Barbara. Archived from the original on 20 November 2011.
  24. ^ "The First Emperor – China's Terracotta Army" (PDF). British Museum. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 December 2016. Retrieved 15 June 2017.
  25. ^ a b c Duan Qingbo (2007). "Scientific Studies of High Level of Mercury in Qin Shihuangdi's Tomb". In Jane Porter (ed.). The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army. Harvard University Press. pp. 202–207. ISBN 978-0674026971.
  26. ^ 常勇; 李同 (1983). "泰始皇陵中埋藏汞的初步研究". 考古.
  27. ^ ""Imperial palace" found at first Chinese emperor's cemetery". Xinhuanet. 1 December 2012. Archived from the original on 4 December 2012. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  28. ^ Jonathan Kaiman (3 December 2012). "China unearths ruined palace near terracotta army". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  29. ^ Ma Lie (27 November 2012). "Nine held over tomb robbery in Xi'an". China Daily. Retrieved 13 July 2012.
  30. ^ Ma Lie (19 May 2010). "More Terracotta Warriors rise from the earth". China Daily. Retrieved 13 July 2012.
  31. ^ Ma Lie (9 September 2012). "Terracotta army emerges in its true colors". China Daily. Retrieved 13 July 2012.
  32. ^ Tang Danlu (26 February 2012). "No excavation for mysterious tomb near Qinshihuang Mausoleum". Xinhua News Agency. Retrieved 13 July 2012.

External links[edit]

You may also like