Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141-87 BCE) was reportedly a very spiritual person who believed in all sorts of immortals, fairies and supernatural beings. As such, magicians, mystics and other claimants of otherworldly knowledge were prevalent in the emperor’s court. The fates of these men varied; some were granted great power and privilege, while others were quickly executed for fraud—and, of course, several met both fates, achieving remarkable influence before being later executed after one misstep. Yet, there were some magicians who won their renown in the imperial court and lived to enjoy their fame. Of this special group, one incredibly mysterious man stood high above his peers and even earned respect from some of his skeptical critics.
Sometime in the 130s BCE, perhaps around 133 BCE, a curious figure named Li Shaojun strolled into the life of Emperor Wu. The man was an elderly traveling magician and occult wiseman who roamed from region to region, performing all sorts of seemingly-magical deeds in exchange for shelter and sustenance from his patrons. Li Shaojun had no family, and, as far as anyone could tell, he had no ancestral ties to any region. Even his age was unknown—when asked, Li Shaojun always claimed he was seventy, but he had been making that same exact assertion for many years.
Although Li Shaojun ranked as one of the most believable magicians of Emperor Wu’s reign, he was not one for gaudy visual effects. He did not conjure ghosts, or cause inanimate objects to levitate, or do other such tangible displays of magic. Instead, Li Shaojun was more of a psychological magician, who astounded his audiences with knowledge about all sorts of information, both mundane and supernatural.
The Grand Historian and magician skeptic, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), recorded several feats supposedly done by Li Shaojun. One time, when the magician was being hosted by Marquis Tian Fen of Wuan (died approximately 131-130 BCE), the sly showman amazed the crowd by speaking reminiscently about one of the partygoer’s long-dead grandfathers. Sima Qian wrote, “he told one of the guests, an old man of over ninety, that he had gone with the man’s grandfather to such and such a place to practice archery. The old man had in fact, when he was a child, accompanied his grandfather, remembered visiting the place that Li Shaojun mentioned. With this the whole party was struck with amazement” (Shi Ji 28).
The magician brought his talent for knowing random facts about obscure objects and people to the imperial palace and used it to astound Emperor Wu. According to Sima Qian, when Li Shaojun first appeared in the imperial court, Emperor Wu tested the magician by bringing in an old, dusty bronze vessel. The emperor then asked the famous wiseman to identify it. Without pause, Li Shaojun matter-of-factly explained to the emperor that the item in question dated from the reign of Duke Huan of Qi, specifically the duke’s tenth year of rule (c. 676 BCE). Sima Qian described the scene, “When the inscription on the vessel was deciphered, it was found that it had in fact belonged to Duke Huan of Qi. Everyone in the palace was filled with astonishment and decided that Li Shaojun must be a spirit who had lived hundreds of years” (Shi Ji 28).
In addition to his specific knowledge of bygone people and archaic objects, Li Shaojun also had a reputation for being something of a prophet. In regards to many of the other prediction-based magicians, Sima Qian often bluntly accused them of fraud, or at least hinted that they were being manipulative. Yet, in the case of Li Shaojun, Sima Qian simply wrote that he “was clever at making pronouncements that were later found to have been curiously apt” (Shi Ji 28).
When Emperor Wu and Li Shaojun had become close friends, the magician reportedly began to teach the emperor about a peculiar six-step path to immortality. Step one, curiously enough, was to offer sacrifice to a fireplace until spirits came to inhabit it. With a holy fireplace in possession, you could proceed to step two—use the blessed fireplace to magically turn cinnabar into gold. After obtaining the miraculous cinnabar-gold, the third step was to have the magical metal crafted into a cup and plate. The fourth step, Li Shajun continued, was to regularly dine off of the magical tableware. This would allegedly give the emperor a prolonged lifespan, yet not immortality. Once the emperor felt his life was lengthened, he could embark on the fifth step, which was to travel to the Gulf of Bohai to search for a mythical island called Penglai.
According to popular legend, Penglai and other mythical islands in Bohai could be seen from a distance, but never reached—they were either floating in the sky or submerged under water, and if anyone ever did sail close to one of these otherworldly islands, sudden winds would blow the seekers off course. Yet, according to Li Shaojun, the emperor could reach the magical island of Penglai after having lengthened his life by eating and drinking from the cinnabar-gold plate and cup. The sixth and final step to immortality, which could be completed after reaching Penglai, was to enlist the help of the magical islanders to correctly complete a set of mystical ceremonies known as the Feng and Shan Sacrifices. With this completed, Li Shaojun promised, the emperor could become immortal.
Ironically, Li Shaojun reportedly died not long after he divulged his knowledge of immortality to Emperor Wu. Yet, the magician had such an aura of genuineness that his death did not disrupt Emperor Wu’s faith in Li Shaojun’s teachings. Sima Qian wrote, “The emperor, however, believed that he was not really dead but had transformed himself into a spirit, and he ordered Kuan Shu, a clerk from Huangchui, to carry on the magical arts which Li Shaojun had taught” (Shi Ji 28).
Emperor Wu, as may be expected, never was able to turn cinnabar into gold in his fireplace. Yet, he skipped ahead a few steps and launched numerous expeditions to find the magical island of Penglai—a goal, like the cinnabar-gold, that he was not able to achieve. In 110 BCE, however, Emperor Wu did claim to pull off his own version of the Feng and Shan sacrifices and, around 109 BCE, he had a magician named Gongsun Qing in his palace who claimed to have grown a so-called fungus of immortality. Nevertheless, no magician or magical fungi was able to stop Emperor Wu from aging—he died in 87 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Album of the Yongzheng Emperor in Costumes (this time dressed as a Daoist magician), by anonymous court artists, Yongzheng period (1723—35), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji 28) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson (pages 25-26 of his translation). New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.