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The Biggest Underground Palace in China

15 December 2006

In 221 BC, King Ying Zheng (259-210 BC) of Qin unified the seven warring states and established the Middle Kingdom, China. As the king believed, rightly, that an unprecedented grand era was born in the Middle Land (中土), he was convinced that he should not be in the same rank of the rulers before him. Previously, the sovereigns were titled 王, meaning King. Thus he added a character 白 (white) above 王 to form a new character 皇 (emperor), and appointed himself 秦始皇帝, First Emperor Qin.

The absolute power corrupted him, and he became obsessed with himself and his unchallenged authority. That, ironically, put him in a psychotic fear that all these could be lost once he reached the limit of his mortality, and he might resume a life in the Other World plagued by poverty and humiliation as he had experienced when he was a political hostage during his early years. So he decided to mirror his palace underground as his pre-paid property in the Netherworld to ensure his life as emperor could continue ever after.

The earliest written record about the mausoleum of the First Emperor Qin appears in the Historical Records (《史记》) compiled by Sima Qian (司马迁145-85 BC) of Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD):

As soon as the Emperor had ascended to the throne, he sent 700,000 men to Mount Li (郦山) to construct his mausoleum. The site includes three streams, and his coffin is encased in a bronze sarcophagus. This underground world is a true replica of the imperial palace above ground and crowded by fabulous treasure imaginable. Booby traps with automatic-shooting arrows were put into place to deter would-be tomb robbers. The floor of the central burial chamber floats on rivers, lakes and seas of mercury. The vaulted ceiling is inlayed with pearls and gems to emulate the sun, moon and principle stars of the constellations in the night sky. Whale oil lamps are brightly lit for an everlasting effect of illustriousness.


But for the following two thousand years, the true composition of the First Emperor’s tomb remained a myth. Not even its exact location was known apart from some vague hints in the historical documents.

Here is a passage in the Traditional Han Rites (《汉旧仪》) that quoted frequently by the historians:

Prime Minister Li Si reported to First Emperor Qin: "Sire, I’ve led 720,000 men dug deep into the Mount Li and we’ve now reached the point where the chisels can not cut the ground and fire can not be lit. When knocking, it produces the echoing sound as if we’d tapped at the bottom of the Earth, and had we gone any further we would fall into the sky of the lower world." On hearing this, First Emperor Qin ordered, "Just dig sideways for another 300 zhangs (approx. 1000 metres)."


This mark of another 1000 metres sideways makes the whole matter all the more obscure and intriguing. To start with, it could not even be sure whether the tomb is inside or outside the scope of the Mount Li.

Yet the local legends keep muttering of a hidden passageway under the Mount. During raining days when the yang qi from the sun was blocked and yin qi is heavy – as the legends go – the shouting of the yin soldiers and neighing of the yin horses in the passage could be heard. It sounds unconceivable, but Chinese archaeologists took this tale into consideration and conducted searches in the Mount Li for the alleged passageway. With the help of the latest remote detection technologies, it is finally confirmed that the hidden palace is indeed just below the mount 35m from the surface. The further investigations also revealed that the compound is surrounded by multi-layered retaining walls up to 30 m deep, and a drainage system that has a 17-metre wide base made of materials with highly adhesive properties and 84-metre wide yellow earth rampart on the top.

Site Plan of the underground palace

The first comprehensive archaeological study to the site was carried out in 1962, which produced a site plan suggesting that the underground palace covers an area of 56.25 square kilometres and consists of 78 chambers.

The most exciting result from the study probably is the suggestion that the lavish features of the burial chamber described in the ancient documents, which had long been dismissed as fables, are true. The places where high concentrations of the mercury are detected perfectly correspond to the actual locations of the major rivers and seas of China.

A computer illustration of the interior of the burial chamber
Click on the image to enlarge it

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