Mount Penglai, The Island of the Immortals

The first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang, was not satisfied with having unified a vast nation, or consolidating a bunch of forts and walls together to initiate the great wall of China, or even having a vast terracotta army — he wished to live forever as well. [ref] [/ref]

The Emperor was obsessed with finding the secret to immortality. Later in life he would send expeditions to search for magical herbs that could extend life. There have even been located thousands of documents recorded on wooden slats that detail the progress of the emperors request to all his various provinces. [ref] [/ref]

While Qin Shi Huang search for immortality is certainly real, one legend from the time, advises that he authorized Xu Fu, his court sorcerer to set sail with three thousand young boys and girls to find Mount Penglai, the legendary home of the immortals. [ref] Howland, Douglas, Borders of Chinese Civilization: Geography and History at Empire’s End p87 [/ref] The Emperor’s hope was that Xu Fu, could bring back the elixir that would let him live forever. However, despite making two journeys, Xu Fu was unsuccessful.

Penglai (detail), depiction of one of the mythical islands. Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk. by Yuan Yao (active in the 18th century)

Now, modern day Penglai, on the tip of Shandong province in China, may not necessarily be the spot from which Xu Fu set sail, but the people of the city have certainly seen their fair share of mysterious visions resting on the ocean over the years. In 2006 people saw a city over the ocean, complete with high rises and cars. [ref] [/ref] This would be unusual for any regular coastal city, but people have been travelling to Penglai for the sake of viewing the mirages as early as one thousand years ago during the Sung dynasty.  [ref] [/ref] A mountain landscape can form over the water, other times a village surrounded by hills. The images are most likely caused by warm weather and humidity.

There is a possibility that modern day Penglai, or cities like it, are the source for legends of mysterious islands, that were meant to be where the immortals lived. On certain days, when the conditions are just right, a mirage (also known as  a fata morgana) can form. Cold dense air can form over the ocean, with a layer of warm air above it. This can then bend light rays passing from one layer to the next, and show distorted images from objects far away.

The image of a mysterious mountain appearing on the horizon over the ocean would certainly have people thinking all sorts of magic could be found, if only they could work out the way to sail to the island’s phantom shores.

A 19th century ukiyo-e depicting the ships of the great sea expedition sent around 219 BC by the first Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, to find the legendary home of the immortals. by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)

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