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Qin Shih Huang built replicas of the palaces of the six kingdoms he conquered. He also built or started building a giant palace near his capital city and as many as 270 palaces in a ring around his capital city and connected them with underground tunnels. He would travel from palace to palace through the underground tunnels so that nobody would know where he slept each night.

And I would appreciate it if someone could provide translations of the Chinese historical accounts of those palaces building activities.

The earliest source for those stories would probably be the Records of the Grand Historian of China written about a century later.

I have read those stories in many modern sources for many decades and I would like to know the original versions.

history.com:ancient-china/qin-dynasty mentions two of the constructions of Qin Shih Huang:

Replicas of palaces of conquered countries:

Each time Qin made a new conquest, a replica of that state’s ruling palace was constructed across from Qin Shi Huang’s Palace along the Wei River, then linked by covered walkways and populated by singing girls brought in from the conquered states.

Moving from palace to palace through underground tunnels:

Advised by the sorcerer Lu Sheng, Qin Shi Huang traveled in secrecy through a system of tunnels and lived in secret locations to facilitate communing with immortals. Citizens were discouraged from using the emperor’s personal name in documents, and anyone who revealed his location would face execution.

Wikipedia:Epang_Palace lists as a source http://china-tour-guide.blogspot.com/2006/12/protected-sitesepang-palace-site.html

According to historical record, after Qin united the six states, Emperor Shihuang forced over 700,000 people to build the Epang Palace on the south bank of the Weishui River in the his 35th reign year (212BC). Only the front hall was completed during Emperor Shihuang's reign. As described in The Records of the Great Historian-The Biography of Qin Emperor Shihuang, the front hall of the Epang Palace was 500 steps from east to west and 50 zhang (1 zhang = 3.3 m) from south to north, with a capacity of 10,000 people. A road from the palace led straight to Zhongnan Mountain and a channel way was dug near the peak of the mountain. Crossing the Weishui River from the Epang Palace, one will arrive at lands belonging to Xianyang City.

After the death of Emperor Shihuang, the succeeding emperor continued to construct the palace, with a storied building built every 5 steps and a pavilion every 10 steps. Groups of buildings and pavilions stretched westward to Xianyang City and eastward to Lintong City, covering more than 300 li (1 li = 500 m) and towering high into the sky. Renowned poet Du Mu of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) described in details about the Epang Palace in his Epang Palace Fu (fu is one of the Chinese literary forms akin to poetry). During wars at the end of the Qin Dynasty, Xiang Yu captured Xianyang City and burned down the splendid Epang Palace.

It also links to https://archiv.oriens-extremus.org/47/OE47-06.pdf Replica palaces:

In an effort to weaken the feudal aristocracy by taking them away from their land Qin transported 120,000 wealthy families from all over his empire to his capital in present-day Xian. In Xian, Qin showed off his power by building replicas of the palaces the aristocrats left behind (it is said Qin built an additional 270 palaces for himself, many of which were built in accordance with the layout of the stars). In all of China Qin, reportedly built 700 palaces, filled with treasures and beautiful women from all over China. Unfortunately from an archeological point of view no remains of any of these palaces have survived.

https://factsanddetails.com/china/cat2/sub2/entry-5416.html

270 palaces connected by underground passageways:

In an effort to weaken the feudal aristocracy by taking them away from their land Qin transported 120,000 wealthy families from all over his empire to his capital in present-day Xian. In Xian, Qin showed off his power by building replicas of the palaces the aristocrats left behind (it is said Qin built an additional 270 palaces for himself, many of which were built in accordance with the layout of the stars). In all of China Qin, reportedly built 700 palaces, filled with treasures and beautiful women from all over China. Unfortunately from an archeological point of view no remains of any of these palaces have survived.

https://factsanddetails.com/china/cat2/sub2/entry-5416.html

I note that archaeologists claim that only the vast platform of the Epang palace was completed and there is no evidence of a fire, while for 2,000 years many writers have assumed it was at least partially completed and that it was burned in 207 BC. And many people have believed that fabulous exaggerated literary accounts of the Epang palace were true.

One of the quotations above follows such as literary depiction of the Epang Palace.

And the quoted mentions of building replicas of palaces of conquered countries, and building 270 palaces with underground connections also vary a bit from one writer to another.

So I would appreciated any translations of descriptions of the palaces of Qin Shi Huang from the Grand Historian or other early sources.

The annals of Qin say that Qin Shih Huang started building a palace outside of his capital city Xianyang, south of the river Wei, in 212 BC. The planned size is given as 500 Qin paces or about 690 meters or about 2,263.7 feet east to west and 50 zhang or about 115.5 meters or 378.9 feet north to south.

Construction was halted in 210 BC for the workmen to work on the emperor's tomb, but the new emperor had work on the palace resume in 209 BC.

In 207 BC Xianyang was captured by rebels and the palaces were burned. It is commonly believed that The Epang palace was burned although it was not in Xianyang, only near it.

Modern historians are skeptical that the Epang Palace could have been 378 by 2,264 feet, escepcially if it was a single gigantic building instead of a group of many connected buildings.

In 2014 archaeologists working in the area of where the Epang palace would have been found a Qin era platform of rammed earth 9 meters or 29.5 feet high, 426 meters or 1,397.6 feet north to south and 1,270 meters or 4,166.7 feet east to west. They found no evidence that buildings had been built on the platform or of fire, so they decided that only the platform had ben built and there had been no wooden palace to bother burning down in 207 BC..

https://archiv.oriens-extremus.org/47/OE47-06.pdf

There are several possible explanations for the archaeological platform being so much larger than the reported planned size of the palace.

Perhaps the Qin were planning to build a palace 380 by 2,263 feet on a platform 1,397 by 4,166 feet.

Perhaps the platform was built to a size of 380 by 2,263 feet in the reign Qin Shih Huang and enlarged to a size of 1,397 by 4,166 feet.in the reign of his son.

Perhaps the Qin planned to build several platforms in the Epang Palace complex and the size of one of the smaller platforms was recorded but that one hasn't been found yet.

Other problems with the size of the Epang palace relate to the Epang Palace of legend, and not history.

As time went on people believed that the Epang Palace had been built and was fabulously splendid but was burned in 207 BC. Poet Du Mu's (803-852) famous poem the "Epang Fu" is a classic of Chinese literature and gave thepeople of succeeding centuries their ideas about the Epang Palace. A translation by John Minford at this site:

https://chinaheritage.net/journal/the-great-palace-of-chin-a-rhapsody/

Says:

The Hills of Shu were stripped bare, To build the Great Palace of Ch’in. Stretching over three hundred leagues,

Since a league is about 3 miles the Epang Palace would be over 900 miles long.

Or maybe Du Mu meant that the Epang Palace grounds covered more than 300 square league, each square league being 9 square miles. That would be over 2,700 square miles or a square with sides more than 51.96 miles long.

Or maybe Du Mu imagined that the Epang Palace was a series of many buildings connected by covered corridors and the total length of all the corridors was over 900 miles. If there were 900 corridors, 450 in each direction, the palace grounds could be a square mile on a side with each corridor separated by 117 feet from its neighbors. It makes more architectural sense for the grounds to cover several square miles, and for there to be fewer and longer corridors spaced farther apart. And possibly, since Du Mu mentions the great height of his Epang Palace many of the buildings were several stories tall and many of the corridors had several levels.

I have some doubts about Minford's translation.

This article:

https://archiv.oriens-extremus.org/47/OE47-06.pdf

Says that Du Mu mentioned gold bricks and pearl tile bits in his description of the Epang Palace, and I saw no mention of them in Minford's translation. It also say's that Du Mu described the Epang Palace as covering more than 300 li. A li was 415.8 meters or 1,364 feet in the Qin and Han Dynasties and 323 meters or 1,059.7 feet in the Tang dynasty when Du Mu wrote. So Du Mu's poetic Epang palace should have been longer than 60.24 or 77.5 miles.

If Du Mu imagined the Epang Palace covered 300 square li, it would be about 17.32 li by 17.32 li if it was a square. That would be about 5,594 by 5,594 meters or 5.594 by 5.594 kilometers to 7,201.6 by 7,206 meters or 7.206 by 7.206 kilometers. Or 18,354 by 18,354 feet or 3.476 by 3.476 miles to 23,624.48 feet by 23,624.48 feet or 4.474 miles by 4.474 miles.

Or maybe Du Mu imagined that the total length of all the corridors connecting buildings in the Epang Palace was over 300 li or over 60.24 or 77.5 miles. Assuming that the Epang palace was a square 2 miles on a side, each corridor would be 2 miles long if it went from side to side. With a total length of 60.24 o r 77.5 miles, there would be a total of 30.12 or 38.75 corridors. With half the corridors going east-west and half the corridors going north-south, there would be about 15 to 20 corridors on each 2 mile side so they would be separated by about 528 to 704 feet. And possibly, since Du Mu mentions the great height of his Epang Palace many of the buildings were several stories tall and many of the corridors had several levels.

And a total area of 4 square miles for the Epang Palace would be "only" 1.695 times as large as the 2.3594 square miles of the Weiyang Palace or Endless Palace built by the Han Dynasty beginning in 200 BC. So it is possible to interpret Du Mu's description in a way which makes the Epang Palace a fairly possible building complex.

Of course, unless Du Mu had access to information about the Qin designs for the Epang Palace, his description is pretty much totally fictional.

And another legend of Qin Shih Huang says that he built 270 palaces near his capital city, and they were connected by underground passages, so nobody knew where he slept each night. And the grounds of the 270 palaces and the passages between them covered a length of several miles. If there was no space between the grounds of the palaces, and if each palace had square grounds, if the total length was X units, the total area of the palace grounds would be about 0.003672 X square units.

So if the circumference occupied by the 270 palaces was 10 units, whether the units were *li, kilometers, or miles, we can imagine different shapes for the ring of palaces.

It might be circle with a radius of 1.59155 units and an area of 7.9577 square units (or SU), or a square 2.5 units on a side with an area of 6.25 SU, or a rectangle 1.666666 by 3.333333 units with an area of 5.555555 SU. The total grounds of the 270 palaces in the circumference would be 0.03672 SU.

If the circumference of the ring of palaces was 20 units, it might be a circle with a radius of 3.11831 units and an area of 31.830 SU, or a square 5 units on a side with an area of 25 square units, or a rectangle 3.333333 by 6.666666 units and an area of 22.2222 SU. . The 270 palace grounds would have a total of 0.07344 SU.

If the circumference of the ring of palaces was 30 units, it might be a circle with a radius of 4.7746 units and an area of 71.635 SU, or a square 7.5 units on a side with an area of 56.25 SU, or a rectangle 5 by 10 units and an area of 50 SU. The 270 palace grounds would have a total of 0.11016 SU.

So according to those assumptions, the total area of all the 270 palace grounds would be a tiny fraction of all the area within the circumference they filled. And the area within the circumference they filled might be similar to the area of the Epang Palace according to some interpretations of Du Mu's poem or of his hypothetical earlier sources.

So possibly someone misinterpreted the story of the 270 places of Qin Shih Huang and thought it referred to a single palace occupying all the land within that great circumference. And they they might identify that palace occupying a vast area with with the legend of the Epang Palace occupying a vast area, and so come up with specific large dimensions for the Epang Palace.

Or someone might have heard a story about the Epang palace occupying a vast area (and maybe having 270 main units within it), and thought that was an impossibly large area for a palace, and supposed that actually the 270 main units of the Epang palace and their grounds were all in the circumference of that vast area, with other use for most of the land within the circumference. The story of the 270 places connected by underground passageways might be the basis for the story of the vast size of the Epang palace, or it might be an attempt to make the story of the vast size of the Epang palace more plausible.

Therefore, I would like to know the origin of the story that Qin Shih Huang had 270 palaces and travelled between them by underground corridors.

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  • 1
    Commenting mostly to pop this to the top of the queue. I've changed my downvote to an upvote; I think this question is now much more precise and demonstrates admirable preliminary research. I think it is worth more (positive) attention.
    – MCW
    Sep 9, 2023 at 13:49
  • I believe Xianyang palace is on the north bank, not in the south (as per the question). I'm not an expert on Sima Qian, nor Qin dynasty. There's so much data in the question, I wonder if there are other mistakes. You might want to recheck sources. "Introduction to the Urban History of China" (Springer, 2019) is a good reference. Chapter 9 is entirely dedicated to Xianyang - the city, not just the palace.
    – Pūnicus
    Oct 1, 2023 at 15:46

2 Answers 2

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This is not really an answer to my question.

A while ago I was thinking about a scene in Frank Herbert's novel Dune Messiah (1969) where a character enters the Grand Reception Hall of Emperor Paul's palace at Arrakeen on the planet Dune. They think that the Grand Reception Hall would be large enough to contain any citadel of any ruler in history.

That gives the impression that the floor of the Grand Reception Hall would be large enough to contain the entire largest citadel of any ruler in Earth's history.

And I had to wonder whether Frank Herbert actually knew how large the largest citadels of rulers of parts of the planet Earth in history up to the present time were. And whether Herbert ever thought about how much larger the ruler of an entire planet which was more technologically advanced than ancient or even present day Earth could build their citadel.

And that reminded me of what little I have read about the palaces of Ch'in Shih Huang Ti or Qin Shi Huang in various publications over the decades.

One) that he built copies of the royal palaces of every kingdom he conquered.

Two) that he built a giant palace, the Afang or Epang Palace.

Three) that he built a large number of palaces, often given as 270, surrounding his capital city, and that the total distance they covered was miles, sometimes given as 27 miles, and that he moved from palace to palace through underground passageways so nobody would know where he was sleeping, for fear of assassination.

So if the hundreds of palaces were connected, and used as a defense against assassination, they could be considered to be a citadel of Qin Shi Huang.

If the palaces were arranged in a circle with a circumference of 27 miles or 43.4523 kilometers, it would have a radius of 4.297 miles or 6.9 kilometers, and a diameter of 8.594 miles or 13.83 kilometers.

If the palaces were arranged in a square with a circumference of 27 miles or 43.4523 kilometers, each side would be 6.75 miles or 10.86 kilometers long.

If the palaces were arranged in a rectangle twice as long as wide, it would be 4.5 by 9 miles, or 7.24 by 14.48 kilometers.

I note that what is considered to be the largest fortress on Earth, the Ranikot Fortress or Great Wall of Sindh, has a circumference of about 32 kilometers or 20 miles, and so would require almost as large a room to fit inside. And it was built out of stone instead of wood and earth by a much less powerful ruler than Qin Shi Huang.

So I posted my question on Sept. 5, 2023, and so far nobody has provided any translations from the early historians about the palaces of Qin Shi Huang.

But I have been doing a lot of research online and made some interesting discoveries since then. And I guess that I will write answers with what I have found out.

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Many of these ideas indeed appear directly in the Records of the Grand Historian, specifically in Annals of the First Emperor of Qín (秦始皇本紀) (ctext link).

The following quotes/translations are taken verbatim from the previous link, in order of appearance in the text (but not necessarily consecutively). I won't verify any distance measurements, as that's a doctorate in itself. All translations are my own.


徙天下豪富於咸陽十二萬戶。

120,000 wealthy families from all over tiānxià (the newly-conquered realm of the Qín empire) were migrated to Xiányáng (capital of the Qín dynasty).

秦每破諸侯,寫放其宮室,作之咸陽北阪上,南臨渭,自雍門以東至涇、渭,殿屋複道周閣相屬。所得諸侯美人鐘鼓,以充入之。

Every time Qín destroyed one of the states, an imitation of their palace(s) would be constructed at the northern slopes, with the Wèi River on the south side of the slopes , stretching from Yōngmén (place name, located around the southern region of Xiányáng) eastwards ending at the Jīng and Wèi Rivers. The multi-layered passages between the palaces would connect the encircling pavilions. The palaces would be filled with the beauties, bells, and drums taken from the states.

三十五年,除道,道九原抵雲陽,塹山堙谷,直通之。於是始皇以為咸陽人多,先王之宮廷小,吾聞周文王都豐,武王都鎬,豐鎬之閒,帝王之都也。乃營作朝宮渭南上林苑中。先作前殿阿房,東西五百步,南北五十丈,上可以坐萬人,下可以建五丈旗。周馳為閣道,自殿下直抵南山。表南山之顛以為闕。為復道,自阿房渡渭,屬之咸陽,以象天極閣道絕漢抵營室也。

On the thirty-fifth year of the Emperor's reign, a road was built connecting Yúnyáng and Jiǔyuán by carving mountains and filling valleys, forming a direct passage. At this time, the Emperor believed that "Xiányáng had a high population, but the forefathers had small palaces. I heard that King Wén of Zhōu's capital was Fēng, and King Wǔ of Zhōu's capital was Hào; everything between Fēng and Hào is to be the capital city of the emperors." Thus, imperial palaces were constructed, south of the Wèi River, in the Shànglín Gardens. First to be built was the front hall, Ēpáng Palace, spanning 500 steps from east to west and 50 zhàng from south to north, capable of seating 10,000 people at the top and supporting 5-zhàng banners below. The palace was surrounded by paths. One of these led to the Zhōngnán mountains, the peak of which was made into a gated mountain pass. Another path crossed the Wèi River and connected to Xiányáng, just like how the path from the celestial poles, crossing the milky way, leads to the Encampment Mansion.

隱宮徒刑者七十餘萬人,乃分作阿房宮,或作麗山。發北山石槨,乃寫蜀、荊地材皆至。關中計宮三百,關外四百餘。

Construction was done by over 700,000 convicts working at either Ēpáng palace or Mount Lí (site of the emperor's Mausoleum). Stones for coffins were sought from the north, and materials likewise arrived from Shǔ and Jīng. Guānzhōng itself boasted 300 palaces, and more than 400 were located beyond.

盧生說始皇曰:「臣等求芝奇藥僊者常弗遇,類物有害之者。方中,人主時為微行以辟惡鬼,惡鬼辟,真人至。人主所居而人臣知之,則害於神。真人者,入水不濡,入火不爇,陵雲氣,與天地久長。今上治天下,未能恬倓。願上所居宮毋令人知,然後不死之藥殆可得也。」於是始皇曰:「吾慕真人,自謂『真人』,不稱『朕』。」乃令咸陽之旁二百里內宮觀二百七十復道甬道相連,帷帳鐘鼓美人充之,各案署不移徙。行所幸,有言其處者,罪死。

Lú Shēng (alchemist in service of the emperor) informed the emperor: "Our(your ministers') search for the fungi, magical herbs, and immortals has been constantly fruitless; harmful influences are affecting our techniques. According to the arts of healing and divination, the sovereign should occasionally move undercover to avoid evil spirits; if evil spirits are avoided, immortals will arrive. For the subjects and ministers to have knowledge of their sovereign's whereabouts harms the connections with the gods. An immortal is one who cannot be soaked by water, burned by fire, rides with the clouds, and lives as long as heaven and earth. As long as your majesty is governing tiānxià, your majesty cannot live a peaceful and pure life. We pray that the whereabouts of your majesty are not known to your subjects, so as to obtain the elixir of immortality." To this, the emperor replied: "I long to be an immortal; I shall refer to myself as an immortal, and stop referring to myself with the royal I". The emperor thus ordered the 270 imperial palaces within 200 of Xiányáng to be connected with covered walkways and multi-layered passages, furnished with curtains, bells, drums, and beauties, all appointed to their set location without movement (between locations). Those who spoke about the emperor's movements and location were executed.

沛公遂入咸陽,封宮室府庫,還軍霸上。居月餘,諸侯兵至,項籍為從長,殺子嬰及秦諸公子宗族。遂屠咸陽,燒其宮室,虜其子女,收其珍寶貨財,諸侯共分之。

The Duke of Pèi (Liú Bāng, founding emperor of the Han dynasty) marched into Xiányáng, sealed the palaces and treasuries, and the troops returned to Bàshàng. After residing there for over a month, the troops of the vassal lords arrived, commanded by Xiàng Jí, and killed Zǐyīng along with the other nobles of the House of Qín. A massacre ensued in Xiányáng; its palaces were burned down, boys and girls were enslaved, treasures were taken, and divded among the vassal lords.


Several notes:

  • 270 palaces in a ring around his capital city

    I didn't interpret this text saying that the palaces were constructed in a ring around the capital city. The text says that the constructed palaces had interlinked (connecting) passages with the surrounding or encircling pavilions, and were constructed within the vicinity of the Jīng and Wèi Rivers, and they are within 200 lǐ of the capital (Second readings of the text, and corrections, are welcome!).

  • and connected them with underground tunnels

    "Underground tunnels" hinges on the translation of 「甬道」. The other terms which appear, which I gave as multi-layered passages and covered walkways (「複道」, 「閣道」) are also contestable translations. The following are some images from Google which illustrate what these terms may mean, and you'll have to interpret them in the context of their physical location in the passage (whether it's described as surrounding a palace, leading to a mountain, crossing a river, part of a mountain pass, ...):

    • 甬道

      甬道

    • 複道

      複道

    • 閣道

      閣道

  • Citizens were discouraged from using the emperor’s personal name in documents

    This wasn't particular to the First Emperor of Qín; see naming taboo.

  • During wars at the end of the Qin Dynasty, Xiang Yu captured Xianyang City and burned down the splendid Epang Palace.

    This isn't stated explicitly in Records of the Grand Historian; all that was stated was that Xiàng Yǔ led the sacking of Xiányáng and palaces were burned down. It is unknown whether all palaces were burned down, and Ēpáng was never explicitly named as a palace which was part of the sacking.

  • it is said Qin built an additional 270 palaces for himself, many of which were built in accordance with the layout of the stars

    Whether the 270 palaces were built for himself hinges on the translation of 「宮觀」. This term is sometimes interpreted as a kind of "holiday palace", somewhere for emperors to relax and enjoy scenery at. Also, "many of which were built in accordance with the layout of the stars" seems like it refers to the astronomical analogy drawn in Records for one of the constructed paths out of Ēpáng (like how the path from the celestial poles, crossing the milky way, leads to the Encampment Mansion). I didn't see anything else in the text which talks about the palaces being laid out according to the stars.

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