In ancient China, the Qin Dynasty’s centuries-long endeavor to conquer the warring Chinese kingdoms was completed by King Zheng of Qin (r. 247-210 BCE), who finished absorbing all of China’s feudal realms into a single Qin Dynasty Empire in 221 BCE. Once he had successfully fought and battled his way to becoming the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (or Qin Shi Huangdi, as he was titled), the emperor found himself far less occupied with military matters than he used to be, allowing him to pursue other interests in life. In particular, the emperor was evidently fond of touring the lands of his empire and also investigating and searching for supernatural items, places and beings. The emperor fulfilled these two interests simultaneously by inquiring about and searching for the lairs of immortals and gods while he traveled on his cross-country tours.
During one of the First Emperor’s supernaturally-inquisitive journeys through his empire, he and his entourage traveled to a shrine at Mt. Xiang. The emperor’s alleged route to this mountain was recorded by the ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian (r. 145-90 BCE), who wrote that the emperor was overseeing an expedition of divers at the River Si when he decided to plot his course to the Mt. Xiang shrine. As told by Sima Qian, the emperor set off from the River Si and “proceeded southwest across the Huai River to Mt. Heng and Nan Province. Floating down the river, he reached the shrine at Mt. Xiang” (Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, Shi Ji 6). As the emperor and his party reached the site of the shrine, the local weather—always in fluctuation—was said to have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Great gusts of wind began to blow, and the previously navigable river became perilous to cross.
Stuck for the time being, the First Emperor began investigating Mt. Xiang and its shrine. When he learned that the mountain had a patron deity, the emperor tasked his accompanying agents and scholars with the assignment of gathering information about the region’s resident spirit. According to the tales, they discovered that an empress from China’s earliest myths and legends allegedly had a tomb on the mountain, and it was she who was reigning as the region’s patron goddess. As told by the aforementioned historian, Sima Qian, the First Emperor asked, “’What sort of deity is the Mistress of the Xiang?’ The academicians replied, ‘They say she was the daughter of Emperor Yao and the wife of Emperor Shun and that she is buried here’” (Records of the Grand Historian, Shi Ji 6). Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun traditionally were dated to the 24th and 23rd centuries BCE, making the Mistress of Mt. Xiang one incredibly ancient spirit.
Upon hearing the stories of the ghostly ancient empress, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty had a peculiar reaction. Although he was, by all accounts, a man who believed in supernatural beings and otherworldly powers, the First Emperor decided not to show any respect or reverence to the possible regal ghostly presence of the empress on Mt. Xiang, even though she was suspected to have some control over the region’s weather. As the story goes, instead of being impressed and awed by the spirit’s display of supernatural power, the First Emperor contrastingly began to grow angry that the spirit empress was using her powers to impede his travels. Fueled by this indignation, the First Emperor revived his old talents as a conquering king and mobilized a force of men to make war against the rival power that he wanted to punish. Therefore, the increasingly eccentric emperor unleashed the manpower that he had on hand to do battle against the mountain. The tale of this peculiar punitive campaign was recorded by Sima Qian, who stated, “The First Emperor, enraged, ordered 3,000 convict laborers to cut down all trees on Mt. Xiang, leaving it denuded. Then he returned from Nan Province by way of the Wu Pass” (Records of the Grand Historian, Shi Ji 6). Such was the punishment that the emperor allegedly inflicted on Mt. Xiang and its spirit empress. As revenge against his travels being supposedly delayed by supernatural interference, the peculiar emperor reportedly deforested the mountain that the spirit called home.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene from the Eight Landscapes of Lu Han (c. 17th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.