Seas of Mercury

10 Nov

Can you imagine entire lakes, rivers, and seas filled not with water, but rather mercury?  Everyone knows about the glorious monument to Chinese industriousness and might–the famous Great Wall of China.  However, people don’t often know about the wall’s history or the emperor who created it.  Researching this topic, I was astonished to discover that the emperor who created the Great Wall also created a tomb that is almost even more fascinating.

In the early 200s B.C., China was made up of seven warring states: the Han, Wei, Zhao, Chu, Qi, Yan, and Qin (1). You can see a map of these territories here:  Then, in 259 B.C., a new king was born–Ying Zheng.  The heir to the ruling family of the Qin territory, Ying Zheng ascended to the Qin throne by the age of 13 and then set out to accomplish what no one else had–the unification of China. By 221 B.C. he had conquered the other territories and created the first centralized empire of China under his rule.  By the time of his death, the king, now renamed Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, would abolish the system of feudal lords, finalize developing the Chinese writing system still used today, and standardize many of the laws and the monetary system. (2). He would also begin building the Great Wall of China, a project that took 10 years to complete and would last centuries (3).

Much of what historians know about this man’s life comes from the works of Sima Qian, a historian who lived somewhat later (145 B.C.-).  The emperor was apparently was so consumed with immortality that he began taking “medicines” made of mercury, which at that time was thought to lengthen one’s life (4).  Mercury goes by a lot of different names, “quicksilver, liquid metal, mercurio,” and it looks like a really shiny silver metal (Try searching “Mercury element’ on a search engine to see pics; it’s surprisingly beautiful) (5). However, just a little bit of mercury can contaminate an entire room–and it is quite dangerous.  It causes serious problems in the nervous system and body, and can eventually lead to death (6). Knowing this, can you imagine the impact on a guy taking medicine made out of it?  Well, he not only ate the stuff, legend says he also filled his tomb with it.

According to Sima Qian, the tomb is not so much a coffin as it is an underground palace–a really huge palace (7).  In fact, he writes that:

“They dug through three subterranean streams and poured molten copper for the outer coffin, and the tomb was fitted with models of palaces, pavilions and offices, as well as fine vessels, precious stones and rarities. Artisans were ordered to fix up crossbows so that any thief breaking in would be shot. All the country’s streams, the Yellow River and the Yangtze were reproduced in quicksilver and by some mechanical means made to flow in a miniature ocean. The heavenly constellations were shown above and the regions of the earth below (4-quoting a translation of Sima Qian’s work.” 

It seems fantastical, like something out of an Indiana Jones or Allan Quartermaine film.  I mean, it has everything you might find in a good, old adventure story: traps, palaces, treasure, poisons, magical oceans.  Except that apparently, this story is very real.  The tomb lies at the center of a large hill of dirt, but certain risks have left historians unable to uncover it as of yet.  However, in 1974, archaeologists uncovered the Emperor’s buried army not far from the burial mound (the army being another part of the legend). So far, they have discovered approximately 2,000  “life-size” stone human figures armed to the teeth in approximately 600 different pits and underground vaults spread out over 22 miles  (8, 9). Other uncovered figurines include “waterfowl,”  musicians, concubines, and officials–many replicated from the images of real people. The intricate nature of the work is truly amazing.

If Qian was telling the truth, there are also model palaces, golden and jeweled furnishings, rare treasures, and a replication of the sky created out of pearls (4,7).   Nonetheless, it is the moving oceans and rivers of “quicksilver’ (mercury) that interest people the most. Mercury rises, and if the legends are true, then soil samples should show high traces of mercury.  As so it has been found; recent tests of the soil above the tomb have shown extreme amounts of mercury, amounts that would not be present under normal situations (4).  At present, the government is refusing to dig the tomb up, partly because of the desire to respect the dead (which I completely understand and applaud them for) and because of the risks that digging it up poses (equally understandable).  For example, who want to stand around in that much mercury to start the digging?  Not me for one. But oh to just dream about such a finding! It seems like this is one legend that just might be absolutely true.

Sources Cited

  1. Cultural China,
  2. “Emperor Qin Shi Huang–First Emperor of China,” Travel China Guide,
  3. “The Great Wall of the Qin Dynasty,” Great Wall History,
  4. Wolff, Jennifer, Emperor Qin in the Afterlife
  5. “The Dangers of Mercury to Our Health–Nevada, USA,” Medical News Today
  6. “Dangers of Mercury,” Human Rights Watch
  7. “Excavation of the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum,” Travel China Guide
  8. Lubow, Arthur, “Terra Cotta Soldiers on the March,” July 2009,,
  9. Shead, Sam, “Chinese Refuse to Open the Mysterious Tomb of their First Emperor and the Remaining 6,000 Terracotta Soldiers,” Aug. 17, 2012, Daily Mail Online

One Response to “Seas of Mercury”

  1. leahmama1 December 31, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    Very well-documented and written in vivid language! I was fascinated to read about it! Thanks!! Of course, I’ve see pictures of the clay warriors but didn’t know who had them made! I enjoyed this!!

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