China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, was obsessed with acquiring immortality after several assassination attempts.
Although he managed to escape each unscathed, Qin was fearful of death and sought the fabled elixir of life, which he thought would allow him to live forever.
To that end, he visited Zhifu Island (in today’s Shandong) – known as the Mountain of Immortality – three times. On his third tour, one of the search parties returned and presented the monarch with a five-character message that was said to be written by the Immortals. The note predicted that Qin’s demise would be brought about by Hu.
Hu was another name for Hun, the barbarian tribes that lived beyond China’s northwest frontier.
So when the Emperor returned to the capital, he sent 300,000 men to clear the Huns from the area. After this had been accomplished, he ordered the army to build a great wall to keep the nomads out for good (this later became the Great Wall).
The emperor, still obsessed by fears of his own death, fell prey to anyone who promised him eternal life.
In the end he was to die of a mercury overdose, having consulted court scientists and doctors who had promised that taking mercury pills would render him immortal.
The lesson? Andy Grove, of Intel fame, once said that only the paranoid survive. But in Qin’s case it seems to be the opposite.
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