According to ancient folklore and legend, a certain Xu Fu made contact with the First Qin Emperor (r. 221-210 BCE) and claimed that he had a lead on finding three evasive spirit mountains—huge and mobile supernatural landmasses which, like mirages, could be seen but not reached in the Gulf of Bohai region. These spirit mountains, according to the legends, served as homes to a mysterious community of supernatural Chinese entities, known collectively as “the immortals.” Xu Fu claimed he had discovered specific spirit mountains called Fangzhang, Yingzhou and Penglai, of which the last was seemingly the most important. From these magical islands, an elixir (or herb) of immortality could reportedly be obtained, which was something that the First Emperor was eager to possess.
Xu Fu must have been a charismatic and persuasive man, for the First Emperor of Qin (who was obsessed with the supernatural realm and immortality) decided to place Xu Fu in command of a large expedition tasked with exploring the Gulf of Bohai and making contact with the spirit mountains. In his enthusiasm, the emperor spent a fortune on the expedition, allegedly recruiting thousands of explorers to accompany Xu Fu and providing the expedition members with enough ships for their seaborne search. Yet, despite the more-than-adequate funding and the large manpower involved in the search, Xu Fu never made any progress in his expedition—after all, he was searching for ghostly spirit mountains of legend. Xu Fu, however, reportedly kept the emperor interested and invested in the expedition by sending in fantastical reports. He came up with a number of odd excuses for his inability to find the magical mountain abodes, such as suggesting that magical barriers guarded the islands and that hostile aquatic guardians patrolled the gulf. According to the historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), one such message to the First Emperor read, “The herbs of Penglai can surely be obtained. But always there are large fish that cause difficulty, and therefore we are unable to reach the island” (Shi Ji, 6). In response, the emperor reportedly gave the explorers fishing gear and, for the biggest of fish, repeating crossbows.
Xu Fu likely knew that he could not keep the charade up forever. He would not be able to provide the emperor with immortality-bestowing herbs, and heads would roll when the truth came out. Therefore, Xu Fu decided to prepare an exit plan, and he used his influence over the emperor to get the government to provide him everything he needed to start a new life abroad. The aforementioned historian, Sima Qian, recorded the conclusion to the fantastical and folkloric story of Xu Fu, writing:
“[T]he First Emperor of the Qin sent Xu Fu to sail over the sea in search of the spirits, and he returned and lied to the emperor, saying, ‘In the midst of the sea I met a great spirit who asked me if I were the envoy from the Emperor of the West. When I answered that I was, he asked me what I was seeking for. ‘I am looking for the medicine which increases one’s years and brings long life,’ I said. ‘Your King of Qin,’ replied the spirit, ‘is too stingy with his courtesy! You may see the medicine, but you cannot take it back with you!’ Then he led me to the southeast, to the mountain of Penglai, where I saw palaces and towers surrounded by lawns of grass. There was a messenger there, copper-coloured and shaped like a dragon, with streams of light pouring from his body and lighting up the sky. When I saw him I bowed before him twice and asked, ‘What sort of offerings should I bring?’ and the Sea God (for that was what he was) replied, ‘If you will bring me the sons of good families, and beautiful maidens, along with the products of your various craftsmen, then you may have the medicine!’” (Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, Shi ji 118).
As the bizarre tale goes, Xu Fu’s imaginative account, with its cast of spirits, spirit mountains and dragonesque gods, was highly compelling to the ears of the supernatural-obsessed First Emperor. The items supposedly requested by the Sea God were said to have been quickly gathered by the emperor, and Xu Fu gladly took possession of the personnel and materials on the pretense of bringing them as an offering to the spirit mountain residents. Yet, of course, Xu Fu did not really intend to bring the caravan of people and goods to the Gulf of Bohai. He had more personal intentions. As told by the historian Sima Qian, “When the First Emperor heard this [account from the explorer], he was overjoyed and immediately sent Xu Fu back east again, accompanied by 3,000 boys and girls of good families and bearing presents of seeds of the five types of grains and articles produced by the various craftsmen. But when Xu Fu reached Pingyuan and Guangze, he halted his journey, made himself king of the region, and never returned to the Qin” (Shi ji 118). And so, after wasting the emperor’s time and squandering a great amount of the government’s money, Xu Fu reportedly was able to escape with treasure and followers. As for the First Emperor, even after the expedition leader’s disappearance, he evidently continued to believe in Xu Fu’s stories about there being spirit mountains and magical beings at the gulf. In keeping with this, the First Emperor was said to have been touring the coastline of the Gulf of Bohai (and hunting for giant fish) when he fell ill and died in 210 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Panel with immortals, dated to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), [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.