Did the first emperor Qin Shi Huang die of mercury poisoning? If so, how do we know? I've seen lots of claims that he did (and claims that he didn't), but no citation explaining what primary source backs this up. It is known he ingested mercury and modern archaeologists have detected lots of mercury around his tomb, but that doesn't quite prove he died of mercury poisoning.

If Qin Shi Huang's cause of death is unknown, are there good sources to cite for this?

Edit (background research): I understand that much (most?) of our historical record on Qin Shi Huang comes from the Shiji (史记). But I was under the impression that the Shiji was written before the discovery that mercury was poisonous, so it's implausible that the Shiji attributes Qin Shi Huang's death to mercury poisoning. (I may be wrong and mercury's toxicity was known far earlier.)

I believe the idea he ingested mercury comes from the importance of cinnabar (which contains inert mercury) in ancient immortality elixers.

More importantly, the Shiji covers Qin Shi Huang's life in this chapter but "朱", the character for cinnabar, never appears. Nor does "汞", the character for mercury. As the Shiji was written in classical Chinese, it's possible cinnabar was referred to by a different name I'm not familiar with.

If I understand it correctly (which I may not), the sentence about him dying is


Which just says he fought for two weeks before dying. (Edit 2: My reading of this that quote is garbage.) Nothing about mercury or cinnabar. Am I missing something about the Shiji or does the belief he died from mercury poisoning come from some other source?

  • 3
    Since your question is about a claim, please supply citation for it, preferably with a link, thanks. Also, what's the source for "It is known he ingested mercury"?
    – Semaphore
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 10:07
  • A team from the Hunan Institute of archaeology published their research on a cache of contemporary documents a few years ago. If I remember correctly, they mentioned an elixir containing cinnabar, which contains mercury. Commented May 31, 2018 at 10:13
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    That Shiji sentence is not about his dying at all (out of personal curiosity, why did you think it was?). Actually, it's from Jia Yi's famous essay "The Faults of Qin", and describes the First Emperor's unification of China. In any case, both of your sources are clearly only speculating that mercury poisoning might have been the cause of death, by inferring from the elixirs using modern knowledge of mercury's toxicity. Naturally, no primary sources could be cited for this. Or more to the point, AFAIK no primary sources discusses how he died in any detail.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 6:08
  • 1
    Thanks Semaphore. I wish I could accept your comment as an answer.
    – lsusr
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 7:02
  • " My reading of this that quote is " ? this that?
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 10:18

1 Answer 1


I've only read the English Wikipedia where it reads:

The cause of Qin Shi Huang's death is still largely unknown, reportedly, he died from Chinese alchemical elixir poisoning due to ingesting mercury pills, made by his alchemists and court physicians, believing it to be an elixir of immortality.

But from the view of an ancient chinese chroniker there was no mercury poisoning because it was believed to be a remedy for diseases or, in the case of the emporer, a cure for death itself.

Usually elemantary mercury was produced by heating cinnabar. This was mixed with fats or other carrier substances in order to create 'medicine'. Whilst elementary mercury has a low accute toxicity, chronic consumption causes brain damages which lead to symptoms like paranoia, from which Qin Shi Huang suffered.

So in general the mercury certainly weakened him much but the ultimate cause of his death may never be known, although it is likely that it is somehow connected with the mercury he received from his doctors.

  • 1
    You say ultimate cause of his death will never be known, but it is possible they will exhume his body, and perform an autopsy. They know just where he is buried, still in his tomb. It is within the terra-cotta warrior museum. Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 20:46
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    Sure, that's possible. Maybe the corpse will be in a well preserved condition like the body of Xin Zhui, maybe it's completely decayed. I myself am excited what we will discover as soon the tomb of the emporer will be opened. I doubt that the body will be preserved well enough to determine an ultimate cause of death but I added a 'may' to my sentence.
    – CKA
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 9:15
  • Xin Zhui - fascinating Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 9:45
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    @axsvl77 - Really? Lol ... exhumation of Qin Emperor will probably result in a rebellion.
    – J Asia
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 11:39
  • 2
    @JAsia Ha! I could visualize the response here in Beijing. Everyone on their smart phones on the subway! Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 12:01

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