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Death came quite unexpectedly to Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China and a man obsessed with immortality. Magicians had assured him that ‘no-death’ herbs, growing on the Isles of the Immortals off the north-eastern coast, would make him live for ever. Qin repeatedly sent expeditions to find these fabulous islands, but unfortunately he died in 210 BC while awaiting the return of his latest fleet. He was just 48 years old.

The quest for immortality was not unique to the luckless Chinese emperor. The burial site of the Lady of Dai, who died in 168 BC, was discovered in the north-eastern province of Henan in 1972. When the tomb was opened her body was found to be perfectly preserved, even though she had been buried over 2,000 years before. She had not been embalmed, but her tomb had been sealed in such a way that it was completely free of oxygen.

In ancient china people had good reason to believe that immortality was achievable. Official Chinese encyclopedias and religious texts recorded tales of men and women who became immortals, speeding skyward in full view of entire villages. They told of hermits of great age with the countenance of youth, living on dew and air alone.

Those aspiring to immortality followed the path of Daoism (or Taosim), one of the three great religions of China. To achieve longevity, a combination of techniques – respiratory, dietary, gymnastic, meditative and sexual – had to be mastered. One then supposedly became a xian, a demigod who was able to fly, change the weather, assume animal forms, be invisible and perhaps live for ever. Magic amulets with stylized characters, drawn by specialists, were worn for personal and spiritual protection against death. Daoists also practiced a form of tai qi (or t’ai chi) – a physical exercise that were modeled on the movements of long-lived animals, such as tortoises and cranes.

By the third century BC, magicians were claiming they could attain longevity through the careful use of medicinal herbs. One hundred years later, alchemists were working with metals and minerals in search of the formula for immortality. Unlike alchemy, in the West, which aimed to transmute base metal into gold, the quest of Chinese alchemy was the secret of eternal life.

Perhaps the unfortunate emperor and the Lady of Dai did achieve a kind of immortality. The Lady died but she never grew old. And Qin Shi Huangdi, his mausoleum watched over by fabulous life-size stone warriors, will be remembered as the man who initiated the construction of the Great Wall of China.