To reach eternity, aim for destruction, or creation?

Qin Shi Huangdi, first Emperor of China

Qin Shi Huangdi was on a quest to gain immortality. But the man who had vanquished six kingdoms and created an Empire, who inspired either admiration or terror in millions found neither joy nor tranquility while sitting on the imperial throne.

Empire building

Like all notorious conquerors, the path to be “great” and rule an Empire is laden with violence. It is said that the price for taking the Empire was in cutting 130,000 enemy heads.

Qin Shi Huangdi was described as “a man of scant mercy who has the heart of a tiger” and it was predicted that “if the King of Qin ever gets his way with the world, then the whole world will end up his prisoner”.

Destruction of memory

Building an empire might be done with the sword, keeping it together is done with ideas. China already had ancient traditions, but no political unity. To integrate different kingdoms into a single authority, one central concept would be needed. When Qin set out to build an empire, the main schools of thought were Confucianism and Legalism. The reader is given a simplified explanation of the two main schools of philosophy.

The existence of books enabled scholars to “band together to criticise the laws and directives”, threatening the Emperor's authority. It was therefore ordered that “all records of the historians other from those of the state of Qin be burned“. Destroying books wasn't enough to quash threats, next was the extermination of those producing the very ideas that might threaten the Emperor's power, the scholars.

Towards eternity

Soon after becoming Emperor, Qin went on a more ambitious quest, reaching eternity. But the man who had vanquished six kingdoms and created an Empire, who inspired either admiration or terror in millions found neither joy nor tranquility while sitting on the imperial throne.

In the absence of an elixir to cure death, the only other way to reach eternity is in building a tomb where one hoped to have all the amenities to keep on living in the underworld. To build it the Emperor would use the manpower of the Empire, as he “had over 700,000 men from all over the Empire transported to the spot“, digging the ground, shaping it like the place where the immortals live, a mountain.

It took 38 years for 700,000 men to build the mausoleum, and to fill it with treasures so numerous that four decades after its discovery, archeological work is still ongoing, revealing awe inspiring artefacts.

The First Emperor lived in a permanent state of fear, terrified of being denied eternity if the evil spirits could see him. And frightened by the conspiracies and attempts on his life, he stayed out of sight in his palaces, putting to death anyone who might reveal his whereabouts. Qin Shi Huangdi gained his power and place in history by destroying, burning the books, and burying alive the scholars.

It is historians who write books and create for posterity the image of the Emperors, so the first Emperor's cruelty led them to deny him the place in eternity he wished for. And in the absence of an elixir to cure death, the only other way to reach eternity is in building a tomb where one hoped to have all the amenities to keep on living in the underworld.

Qin Shi Huangdi had succeeded at reaching eternity, not by destroying the memory of others, but thanks to the genius of the architects and artists who conceived for him such a monumental tomb, and the numerous talented artisans who produced incomparable works of art.


This is a preview of the chapter about the first Emperor of China and his mausoleum. How to gain eternity : in destroying the past or in building? From the book Lost Treasures.