Luan Da was reportedly a tall, handsome man, who presented himself with grandiose flair and steadfast confidence. He had a reputation for being a man of wisdom, not only in strategy and engineering, but also in knowledge of magic and all things supernatural. The charismatic Luan Da lived in a perfect age for someone of his talents, for Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (c. 141-87 BCE) spent decades trying to discover the secrets of immortality with a sense of desperation unseen since the days of Shihuangdi (r. 221-210 BCE), the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty.
Luan Da first made a name for himself in the kingdom of Jiaodong, where he became a palace attendant of Emperor Wu’s half-brother, King Kang (r. 150/148-122/120 BCE). The magician eventually was rewarded with the title of “master of magical arts” in that kingdom and gained great respect among the members of the royal family, especially with the childless queen of Jiaodong, who presumably hoped the magician could help her give birth to a son. Nevertheless, when King Kang died, the queen still had not produced an heir, so noble titles were instead bequeathed to two sons born to King Kang’s concubines.
Interestingly, instead of joining the courts of the new kings, Luan Da seemed to follow the widowed queen for several years after King Kang’s death. He may have also traveled to the domain of the queen’s brother, the marquis of Lecheng. Whatever the case, Luan Da would soon be moving away from the courts of petty kings and lords to begin a remarkable rise to great power and influence in the imperial capital.
While Luan Da was in Jiaodong, a talented illusionist named Shaoweng had enthralled Emperor Wu with magical performances, especially by performing a trick where he seemingly conjured up the ghost of the emperor’s deceased concubine. Yet, Shaoweng made a fatal mistake in one of his performances—during a show where the magician found a mysterious note in a sacrificed ox’s stomach, the emperor realized with outrage that the handwriting on the note was that of Shaoweng. Realizing that the magician had fed the note to the ox before the fraudulent performance, the emperor immediately sent Shaoweng off to the executioners. Although the magician was indeed killed, Emperor Wu remained unwavering in his belief of magic and supernatural paths to immortality.
With the emperor’s favorite magician now dead, but his interest in magic in no way sated, it was the perfect environment for Luan Da to be introduced to the imperial court. With good reference from the former queen of Jiaodong and the marquis of Lecheng, Luan Da strolled into the capital city with his usual grandiosity and charisma. Before long, the smooth-talking and mystically-alluring magician had the emperor totally mesmerized.
Luan Da claimed to have great magical powers, and the way he said he obtained these skills was the stuff of Emperor Wu’s dreams. The magician told the emperor that he had studied under several immortals, although they apparently cut him off from their teachings because he was not of noble blood. In addition to being an acquaintance of immortals, Luan Da claimed that he had knowledge of an elixir of immortality—something that Emperor Wu was desperate to obtain. The magician also touted that he had knowledge of other supernatural talents, such as conjuring ghosts and using alchemy to create gold.
Although both the magician and the emperor wanted their partnership to go forward, the two men were cautious at first; Emperor Wu because he had recently dealt with a fraudulent magician, and Luan Da because the emperor had just executed someone in the magical line of work. The emperor and the magician both made demands of the other. Emperor Wu wanted to see the prospective magician perform a feat of magic. Luan Da, however, wanted to be given certain protections, including a marriage to a woman of the imperial family, before he used any of the abilities taught to him by the immortals. Emperor Wu, as emperors usually do, got his way, and Luan Da was promised nothing until he could prove that he could really perform magic.
Emperor Wu’s challenge to Luan Da was something straight out of the world of Harry Potter—wizard’s chess. Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), a Grand Historian and palace secretary to Emperor Wu, wrote, “In order to test Luan Da, the emperor instructed him to give a minor display of his magical powers by making some chessmen fight. When the board was set up, the chessmen were seen to rush against each other of their own accord” (Shi Ji 28). The emperor, who apparently thought it was authentic magic, eagerly brought Luan Da into his inner circle and began raining gifts and titles down on the magician.
Luan Da would become the most rewarded magician in Emperor Wu’s reign. He indeed was allowed to marry a woman of the imperial family—to Emperor Wu’s own daughter, Princess Wei, no less. He was also raised to the nobility by being named Marquis of Letong. Along with his prestigious marriage and his noble title, Luan Da was also given various other auspicious titles such as General of the First Profits, General of the Heavenly Man, General of the Earthly Man, General of the Great Way, and General of the Heavenly Way. These titles were apparently handed out in rapid fashion. Sima Qian wrote, “In no more than a few months from the time he was granted an audience with the emperor, Luan Da bore at his girdle six seals, those of his five generalships and his marquisate, and his honour awed the empire” (Shi Ji 28). The magician, of course, also obtained great tangible wealth with his titles, including a magnificent mansion, several ornate carriages, a thousand servants, and a huge treasure of gold.
Although Luan Da was living the good life, he was also facing increasing pressure. As a performer, he was expected to constantly show new kinds of magic, and, as an occult researcher, the emperor expected him to be making groundbreaking discoveries about immortals and immortality. Luan Da, however, had seemingly hit his limit with levitation tricks and ghost séances. With expectations rising and results dwindling, Luan Da decided it was time to take a sabbatical and left the capital city indefinitely.
As a pretense for his departure from the city, Luan Da claimed that he was leaving to meet with the immortals—after all, now that he was a nobleman with marriage ties to the imperial family, the immortals would surely divulge to him the highest levels of their magical knowledge. Yet, by then, the emperor was becoming suspicious. Luan Da was indeed allowed to journey off in search of the immortals, but Emperor Wu secretly sent spies to keep a watch on the magician’s every move. Those spies eventually brought Luan Da’s magical career to an end. Sima Qian wrote, “They reported that Luan Da had in fact met with no spiritual beings at all, and that the story of his going to visit his teacher was all nonsense. Since it seemed that Luan Da’s magical powers were exhausted, and since his claims in most cases were not borne out by the facts, the emperor had him executed” (Shi Ji 28). Sima Qian claimed that Luan Da was executed around the time of Emperor Wu’s campaign against Southern Yue, placing his death around 112 or 111 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (“Four Generals of Zhongxing” by Southern Song Dynasty artist Liu Songnian (1174–1224), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.