In the days of the Qin and early Han Dynasty, ancient China was in the midst of an immortal-hunting fervor that infected all levels of society, including the emperors. The mysterious community of supernatural Chinese entities, known collectively as “the immortals,” had similar lives to the Greek gods—both groups were said to have rarely appeared before human eyes and both divine communities spent most of their time in isolation on holy mountains. Yet, the mountain retreats of the Chinese immortals were a bit more complex than the dwelling of the Greek gods on Olympus. According to ancient Chinese mythology, the immortals lived on huge and mobile supernatural landmasses known as spirit mountains, which, like a mirage, could be seen but not reached in the Gulf of Bohai.
Belief in the immortals and spirit mountains long predated the Qin Dynasty. In fact, the 4th-century BCE Daoist scholar, Liezi, mentioned five such spirit mountains in the text that shares his name. Yet, it was King Zheng (the First Emperor of Qin) who mobilized the empire in search of the spirit islands. Sometime after King Zheng brought all of the Chinese kingdoms under his rule in 221 BCE and declared himself to be the August Emperor, a man named Xu Fu appeared before the emperor and claimed that he had a lead on finding three of the evasive spirit mountains. These three mountain-islands were called Fangzhang, Yingzhou and Penglai, of which the last was seemingly the most important. From these magical islands, an elixir (or herb) of immortality could reportedly be obtained, which was something that the First Emperor was eager to possess. Upon hearing of Xu Fu’s proposed expedition to search for the spirit mountains in the Gulf of Bohai, the First Emperor of Qin enthusiastically agreed to the plan and reportedly put Xu Fu in command of thousands of explorers.
Although Fu Xu and other explorers spent a fortune (of the emperor’s money) on their quest to find the spirit mountains, they never made any progress. In their reports back to the First Emperor, Xu Fu and his comrades came up with a number of odd excuses for their inability to find the magical mountain abodes, such as the appearances of magical barriers or hostile aquatic guardians. According to the historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), one such message to the First Emperor read, “The herbs of Penglai can surely be obtained. But always there are large fish that cause difficulty, and therefore we are unable to reach the island” (Shi Ji, 6). In response, the emperor reportedly gave the explorers fishing gear and, for the biggest of fish, repeating crossbows. Interestingly, the First Emperor was said to have been touring the coastline of the Gulf of Bohai (and hunting for giant fish) when he fell ill and died in 210 BCE.
The aforementioned Sima Qian was the Grand Historian and Palace Secretary of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141-87 BCE). Emperor Wu was reportedly the most zealous seeker of the immortals since the days of the First Emperor of Qin. When Emperor Wu was not focused on orchestrating new conquests and expanding the power of his central government, he would send out waves of explorers into the Gulf of Bohai to search for spirit mountains.
Present in Emperor Wu’s court were several magicians who claimed to have knowledge of the spirit mountains—and others even claimed to have been students of the immortals. The magicians whose teachings most affected Emperor Wu were Li Shaojun (an elderly wiseman who claimed to know how to reach Penglai) and Gongsun Qing, a long-serving courtier and magical advisor who eventually attempted to grow a so-called fungus of immortality in the emperor’s palace. Gongsun Qing did, indeed, grow some sort of strange fungus around 109 BCE, prompting the excited emperor to proclaim a general amnesty in celebration, yet it was a far cry from the herb of immortality on Penglai.
Sima Qian wrote about the magicians and Emperor Wu’s search for the magical islands in what is known as The Treatise on the Feng and Shan Sacrifices (Shi Ji 28), included in his Records of the Grand Historian. In that treatise, Sima Qian wrote down a summary of the various pieces of folklore he had heard about the spirit mountains:
“[Penglai, Fangzhang and Yingzhou] were three spirit mountains which were supposed to exist in the Gulf of Bohai. They were not very far from the land of men, it was said, but the difficulty was that, whenever a boat was about to touch their shores, a wind would always spring up and drive it away. In the past, people said, there had been men who succeeded in reaching them, and found them peopled by fairy spirits who possessed the elixirs of immortality. All the plants and birds and animals of the island were white, and the palaces and gates were made of gold and silver. Seen from afar, the three spirit mountains looked like clouds but, as soon as one drew closer, they seemed instead to be down under the water” (Shi Ji 28, Burton Watson translation pg. 14).
As happened with the First Emperor of Qin, the explorers and magicians working with Emperor Wu made little progress in their search for the immortals and the spirit mountains of Bohai. Although Emperor Wu did execute numerous magicians who were found out to be frauds, and, by 98 BCE, began to feel disheartened about his search for the magic islands, the emperor reportedly never lost faith in their existence. Yet, despite Emperor’s Wu’s decades of sending explorers into the Gulf of Bohai, and his cultivation of a home-grown fungus of immortality, the emperor never found a way to ward off old age. He died in 87 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Painting depicting the Spirit Island of Penglai by Yuan Yao (active in the 18th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.