The Mystery of Qin Shi Huang’s Everlasting Lamps 

A burning oil lamp.

When the excavation of Emperor Qin Shihuang's mausoleum took place, archaeologists found oil lamps that appeared to have been burning for thousands of years. (Image: Auk002 via Pixabay)

Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor in China and his achievements were outstanding. He ended the war among kingdoms and realized the first great unification in Chinese history. He unified measurements and writing, built the Great Wall to resist foreign invasions, and thus earned his title as the great emperor.

The First Emperor had great political ambitions and made tremendous achievements during his life. After his death, he left a wealth of valuable heritage for future generations. Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum is the largest in ancient China. According to historical records, Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum was built by 720,000 construction workers over a period of 37 years. A large amount of stone that was used to build the mausoleum was transported from Zhongshan and Junershan, on the north bank of the Wei River, to Linyi. The project was very difficult. Therefore, Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum is known as “one of the eight wonders of the world.” 

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Everlasting lamps were still burning when Qin Shi Huang’s tomb was opened

When the excavation of Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum took place, in addition to the discovery of the pit containing the Terracotta Warriors nearby, archaeologists also found everlasting lamps. When they opened the tomb, the lamps were still burning. It was indeed creepy, as if they had been lit thousands of years ago. It is because of this that many archaeologists are particularly curious: Can the lamps in Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum actually have been burning for thousands of years?

Terracotta army found at the mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor.
The pit containing the Terracotta Warriors was also found nearby. (Image: BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons)

People in the Qin Dynasty used oil lamps. Once the oil burned out, the lamp would not light up. Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum was built thousands of years ago, and according to modern science, it is not possible that these everlasting lamps could always burn. Archaeologists have found descriptions of everlasting lamps in some ancient books, which they say are fueled by oil made from the mermaids, and can burn for long periods. It is said that for building the imperial mausoleum, many mermaids were captured, and oil from them was poured into the everlasting lamps.

Because technology was not developed then, people could only use whale oil as fuel. According to scientific calculations, if equipped with a cubic meter of whale oil, an ordinary oil lamp could burn for nearly 5,000 days, that is, burn for about 14 years. Although the combustion time is relatively long, it is not possible to burn for thousands of years, and there is no condition for continuous combustion in closed, oxygen-free chambers.

A whale diving.
Because technology was not developed then, people could only use whale oil as fuel. (Image: via Pixabay)

The age-old mystery was finally solved by an American scholar. The American scholar believes that these lamps have not burned for thousands of years in the absence of oxygen in the tomb, and so they must have been extinguished.

Later, when archaeologists opened the mausoleum and oxygen entered the chamber, the lamp wicks containing white phosphorus burned up and re-ignited the lamps. As soon as this statement was put forward, it was unanimously agreed upon by Chinese and foreign scientists, so that the mystery of the millennium has been solved.

Translated by Felice and edited by Helen

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