In the year 256 BCE, King Zhaoxiang of Qin absorbed the realm of Zhou and put an end to the prestigious Zhou Dynasty—a family that had allegedly held a loose and ever-weakening hegemony over the kingdoms of China for just a few centuries shy of a millennium. When the Qin Kingdom occupied the Zhou Dynasty’s land, it also got its hands on the fallen dynasty’s remaining wealth and treasures. Of the Zhou relics, the most coveted were the so-called Cauldrons of Zhou.
Despite the Zhou title of these cauldrons, the prized pots were said to have been created long before the time of the Zhou Dynasty. According to legend, the crafting of the relics was dubiously attributed to the legendary or mythical reign of the great flood-tamer, Emperor Yu (traditionally dated to the 21st century BCE or earlier). As told in the folklore and myth preserved by the ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the relics were made when “Emperor Yu collected metal from the nine ancient provinces and cast nine cauldrons. All of them used the cauldrons to boil offerings and present them to the Lord on High and the other spirits” (Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, Shi Ji 28).
When King Zhaoxiang of Qin seized the Zhou treasures in 256 BCE, the inventory reportedly included objects alleged to be the fabled sacred relics from the myth-veiled reign of Emperor Yu. As told by Sima Qian, “the Zhou people fled to the east and their sacred vessels, including the nine cauldrons, passed into the hands of Qin” (Shi Ji 5). Evidently, something was suspicious about the items, and King Zhaoxiang doubted if they were the true and authentic Cauldrons of Zhou. In particular, the king came across a disturbing legend that claimed that the real cauldrons had been lost during the long history of the Zhou Dynasty. Once more we turn to Grand Historian Sima Qian, who recorded the tale that “when the virtue of the Zhou rulers declined…the cauldrons sank into the waters and disappeared from sight” (Shi Ji 28). As time went on, later rulers of the Qin Kingdom began to increasingly doubt the authenticity of the looted cauldrons, and instead thought that the real ones remained lost.
King Zhaoxiang’s great-grandson, Zheng, was particularly convinced that the real Cauldrons of Zhou were still hidden somewhere underwater. Yet, treasure hunts would have to wait, for Zheng became a busy man when he ascended to the throne of the Qin kingdom in 247 BCE. Launching relentless military campaigns and fortifying his authority with a harsh legalistic philosophy, King Zheng of Qin conquered all of his Chinese rivals by 221 BCE, allowing him to formally assume the title of First Emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huang, or Shi Huangdi). After he became emperor and founded a new imperial dynasty, Qin Shi Huang curiously started to spend time traveling on tours around his realm and simultaneously began developing an interest in supernatural matters. His interest evolved into obsession, eventually ending in the emperor funding large expeditions that allegedly sent thousands of people off on odd quests, such as searching for immortals on magic islands in the ocean.
At the time when he was searching for the lairs of immortals, Qin Shi Huang remembered the dubious Cauldrons of Zhou that his family had obtained long ago. Since he was already planning expeditions in search of other hidden legends, the emperor naturally wasted no time pulling together a party of divers who were tasked with investigating if the real Cauldrons of Zhou were truly submerged somewhere underwater. Qin Shi Huang and his researchers concluded that the Si River was the likeliest bet for the treasures, so the emperor’s entourage and an army of swimmers marched in that direction. On the progress of this expedition, Grand Historian Sima Qian wrote, “The First Emperor returned by way of Pengcheng, where he fasted and purified himself and performed sacrifices, hoping to recover the cauldrons of Zhou from the Si River. He ordered 1,000 persons to dive into the water and search for them, but they could not find them” (Shi Ji 5). Qin Shi Huang eventually called off the search for the cauldrons, at least in that section of the river, but his interest in hunting down mysterious items, places and beings did not wane. The emperor died in 210 BCE, while still traveling around China in search of immortal entities and the enticing secrets they could share.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene from the landscapes of Shitao (Zhu Ruoji) (c. 1642–1707), leaf h, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET.jpg).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.