This painting, with its ornate golden buildings peeking up through a landscape of misty forests and mountains, is a depiction of a magical island called Penglai. Although the scene was painted by an artist named Yuan Yao in the 18th century, the folklore and legends about Penglai stretch back to China’s earliest history. Penglai, so the stories claimed, was a magical mountainous island where many immortal deities and beings lived. Like the supernatural deities that lived on it, the island of Penglai, itself, was said to have had its own magical properties—it frequently moved about (never staying in one place), and out of its soil grew herbs that could be turned into elixirs of immortality. These elixirs were incredibly tempting to early emperors of the Qin and Han Dynasties. King Zheng of Qin (the eventual First Emperor of the Chinese Qin Dynasty, r. 221-210 BCE) and Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (r. 141-87 BCE) were particularly known to have devoted great fortunes and manpower to searching for Penglai and other magical islands. Emperor Wu’s palace secretary and Grand Historian, Sima Qian, wrote the following passage about the elusive immortal-inhabited islands:
“[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” (Records of the Grand Historian, Shi Ji 28).
Such is the scene that Yuan Yao re-created in his painting. It shows the magical island of Penglai, the much-coveted destination that early emperors tried but failed to discover. One who succeeded in reaching the island might find wise immortals and strange spiritual beings, bearing potions of immortality for those worthy to receive such a gift. For a more in-depth article about the expeditions launched by early emperors to search for these magical islands, click HERE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.