Trying To Live Forever Killed The Creator Of China's "Forever Army"

Even the Terracotta Army can’t save you from mercury poisoning.


Rachael Funnell


Rachael Funnell

Digital Content Producer

Rachael is a writer and digital content producer at IFLScience with a Zoology degree from the University of Southampton, UK, and a nose for novelty animal stories.

Digital Content Producer

qin shi huang

The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor was guarded by statues from the Terracotta Army.

Image credit: palindrome6996 - Army of Terracotta, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons 

The pursuit of immortality and reverse aging is hot in the press right now, so we thought it was time for a reminder that sometimes, trying to live forever can stop you from living at all. While extremes in health regimens can disrupt your dating life, there’s also the risk that your “cure” for long life might push you closer to death. Just ask China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.

The life of China’s first emperor was a dramatic one, succeeding his predecessor at the age of 18, assuming royal authority at 21, ruling over China by 221 BCE, and instigating the construction of the Terracotta Army. For all his endeavors, it seemed squeezing enough life out of life weighed heavy on the emperor’s mind, as by 210 BCE he had become obsessed with finding the key to immortality.


The pursuit of the elixir of life saw the emperor visit the island of Zhifu, off China’s north-eastern coast, on several occasions due to legend that stated it was home to a Mountain of Immortality. Unfortunately, it was an alternative and less adventurous approach to a long life that would ultimately snuff his out. You see, he started taking mercury pills.

According to Lifelines In World History, edited by Mounir Farah, back in Qin Shi Huang’s day, mercury was thought to pass on great power to those who consumed it. We now know that quite the opposite is true as ingesting too much mercury will get you dead, but the belief it could extend life has, in history, been surprisingly widespread.

“For a long time, mercury has been considered an almost magical substance, and it has been used for commercial and medical purposes to eradicate the most serious diseases,” explain Meiling Zhao et al. in a 2022 paper on mercury-containing preparations. “The medical use of mercury (liquid metal mercury) is well documented in medical and alchemy monographs from ancient Greece, India, Persia, Arabia, and China.”

“Currently, mercury still plays an important role in traditional medicines in Asia and continues to be used in traditional Chinese medicine, Tibetan medicine, Ayurveda, Unani, and Siddha. Mercury has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for 3,500 years, and different forms of mercury are still used in all aspects of life.”


Qin Shi Huang may have been the first emperor to die from a long-life preparation containing mercury, but he was certainly not the last. In fact, so many have died from it that it’s even been given a name: Chinese alchemical elixir poisoning. Now, mercury is just one of the reasons archaeologists are too scared to open Qin Shi Huang's tomb.

Death, albeit a natural part of life, is understandably quite scary, so it figures that many have gone to extremes in trying to delay it. That said, don’t get so busy not dying that you forget to do some living.

[H/T: The Collector]


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