Witness the Early Han Dynasty's blend of mystical occurrences, Emperor Wu's pursuit of immortality, and the extraordinary talents of its people.
During the impoverished days of Emperor Gaozu of Han, Liu Bang’s father wore a three-foot-long sword adorned with inscriptions that were difficult to decipher. It was speculated that these inscriptions might have originated from the time of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty when he campaigned against the Guifang tribe. He once ventured into the mountains of Feng and Pei, where he encountered a metalworker in a deep valley. Emperor Gaozu sat down beside the craftsman and asked, “What kind of weapon are you forging?” The craftsman smiled and replied, “I am forging a sword for the Emperor. Please, do not let this secret out!” Emperor Gaozu considered it a mere jest and didn’t doubt the craftsman’s words. The swordsmith continued, “The iron sword I am currently forging, once sharpened on a whetstone, will be extraordinarily sharp. However, if I could obtain your waist-worn dagger and melt it down together with the iron, I could craft a divine sword. With this sword, you can pacify the realm, and celestial deities will descend to assist in governing the country. It will also eradicate Xiang Yu, Chen Sheng, and Hu Hai completely. As of now, the Wood Virtue has declined, and the Fire Virtue is on the rise, signaling extraordinary times.” Emperor Gaozu replied, “My dagger is known as a dirk. Its sharpness is unparalleled, capable of cutting through serpents and dragons in water, slaying tigers and rhinoceroses on land, and keeping all manner of ghosts and spirits at bay. When used to cut jade or engrave metals, its edge remains unwavering.” The craftsman said, “Even with the exceptional swordsmithing skills of someone like Ou Ye, if we do not melt down your dirk to forge the sword, and instead use ordinary whetstones from Yuedi, it will still be nothing more than an average weapon.”
Emperor Gaozu then removed the dirk from his waist and threw it into the furnace. Soon, smoke billowed, flames soared into the sky, and even the sun dimmed. After the sacred sword was forged, they slaughtered pigs, cattle, and sheep as offerings, anointed the sword with the blood of the three sacrificial animals, and prayed to the deities. The swordsmith asked Emperor Gaozu when he had obtained this dirk. Emperor Gaozu replied, “During the reign of King Zhao of Qin, one day I encountered a commoner in the countryside. He handed it to me on a country path, claiming it was a mystical relic from the Yin and Shang eras, passed down through generations, with ancient inscriptions detailing the dirk’s forging year and month.” After the sword was completed, the craftsman carefully observed it and found that the inscriptions on the dirk were still intact, confirming Emperor Gaozu’s earlier account. The swordsmith then presented the sword to Emperor Gaozu. Later, Emperor Gaozu bestowed the sacred sword upon Han Gaozu Liu Bang, who wore it for many years and used it to defeat Xiang Yu, Chen Sheng, and Hu Hai. After unifying the realm, Empress Lü Hou stored the sword in the imperial treasury. The guardians of the treasury often witnessed white clouds floating outside the treasury, resembling dragons and serpents. Consequently, Empress Lü renamed the treasury as the “Lingjin Treasury.” However, when the Lü clan came to power and held absolute control, this white cloud phenomenon disappeared. When Emperor Hui of Han ascended the throne, he used this treasury to store imperial weapons and renamed it the “Lingjin Inner Palace.”
Xiao Qi Lu said: The origin of all things takes on countless forms, and the paths of transformation are not singular. The intuitive resonance among these changes does not follow a set pattern either. As for the prophecies recorded in oracles and astrological books, they can all find confirmation in past historical events. Folk songs and local legends can also be verified by future facts. When examining diagrams and consulting ancient texts, there is often a systematic arrangement. By observing the predictions of craftsmen, one can speculate on the far-reaching effects of these fantastical statements. Liu Bang’s three-foot sword corresponds to the unity of Heaven (one) and Earth (two), thus three represents the yang aspect, aligning with the sacred virtue of Heaven and Earth. According to the “Hooking Life Decree,” it is said, “Xiao He is the Maostar incarnate, while Xiang Yu, Chen Sheng, and Hu Hai are the Three Rogues.” The Zhou dynasty symbolizes the Wood element, and the Han dynasty aligns with the Fire element, so perhaps these are also signs of such portents!
In the second year of Emperor Hui of the Han Dynasty (193 BC), there was nationwide praise for the uniformity of cultural artifacts such as standardized chariots and written scripts. The entire nation enjoyed peace, and warfare came to a halt. People from distant lands and foreign countries arrived at the imperial court bearing tributes, and they communicated through intermediaries and translators. At that time, there was a Daoist named Han Zhi, a descendant of the Daoist Han Zhong. He had crossed the great sea to reach the Han court, claiming to be an envoy of the East Sea God. He had heard of the benevolent rule of Emperor Hui of Han, and out of respect and sincerity, he came to the Han court. There was also a place known as the Eastern Extremity, far beyond the land of Fusang, where emissaries from the Ni Li kingdom came to pay their respects. The people of Ni Li were four feet tall, with two horn-like protrusions on their heads. Their teeth protruded outside their lips, and from birth, they had fine, divine hairs covering their bodies, serving as their clothing. They lived in deep caves and had extraordinarily long lifespans beyond measure. Emperor Hui of Han said, “Daoist Han Zhi is proficient in the language of distant lands. Please ask about the lifespan of the people of Ni Li and the events spanning their generations.” Han Zhi translated the words of the Ni Li people and replied, “Time passes in a continuous cycle, and the lives and deaths of people succeed one another, like drifting dust or gentle rain. Their existence and demise cannot be quantified.” Emperor Hui of Han then inquired, “Can you tell me about the era before Nüwa?” Han Zhi conveyed the answer, saying, “In the era before Nüwa, the winds and rains were harmonious in all directions, and the four seasons followed a regulated pattern. They managed the operation of all things in the world without the need for force or appeasement.”
Emperor Hui of Han then inquired about the history before the era of the Fire-Starting Man (Chu Shi Ren). Han Zhi conveyed the response, saying, “Since the Fire-Starting Man invented drilling wood to create fire and transformed the unpleasantness of raw meat into a more palatable form, the elderly have been loving, and the youth have been filial. However, since the time of Xuanyuan (the Yellow Emperor), the world has become tumultuous and unstable, marked by mutual killings. Social customs have become frivolous and extravagant, and societal order has started to fall into chaos and turmoil. People have cast aside propriety and indulged in lust and debauchery through song, dance, and the company of women. The accumulated virtues of generations have become shallow and reversed, and the simple and honest customs and traditions have been lost.” Han Zhi conveyed the Ni Li emissaries’ response to Emperor Hui of Han. The emperor remarked, “The dim and distant past is too remote. It’s challenging to express these insights unless one is in communion with divine beings and possesses a deep understanding of the principles.” After this incident, Han Zhi withdrew from public life, and his whereabouts became unknown. Emperor Hui of Han ordered the construction of an altar for immortals north of Chang’an city, naming it “Han Shrine.” There is a saying, “The deity of the Cold resides in the north of the city.” According to the “Spring and Autumn Annals,” offerings were made to the deity of the Cold. The terms “Han” and “Cold” share a similar pronunciation, so the correct name is undoubtedly “Han Shrine.” In the second year of Emperor Hui of Han (193 BC), the emperor issued a decree to summon one hundred palace maids, ten thousand patterned silk fabrics, and ten large ships to send off the Ni Li kingdom’s emissaries. He also ordered the reduction or forgiveness of penalties for criminals.
Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty missed his deceased consort, Lady Li, dearly, but they could never meet again. At that time, the Kunming Lake had just been excavated, and Emperor Wu rode on a boat shaped like a flying bird, leisurely cruising in the lake. He composed a song and had the palace ladies sing it. The sun was already slanting in the western sky, and a cool breeze gently rippled across the water. The songbirds sang melodiously. In this moment, Emperor Wu recited this song, “Silken sleeves flutter silently in the wind, jade steps covered in dust. Empty chambers are cold and lonely, leaves fall by tightly closed gates. Gazing at that beautiful lady, how can I meet with you? My emotions intertwine, and my heart remains restless.” Emperor Wu listened to the songstress’s singing, and a profound sorrow overcame him. He felt troubled and overwhelmed by grief, so he ordered the attendants to light a dragon oil lamp, illuminating the entire cabin. However, his sorrow only grew more unbearable. Observing the emperor’s melancholy, the attendants offered him a fine wine from Hongliang along with wine vessels made of patterned conch shells, which were from the country of Poqi. The wine was produced in Hongliang County, which was under the jurisdiction of the Right Fufeng Commandery. It wasn’t until the reign of Emperor Ai of Han that the county’s name was abolished. Later, people in the southern regions adopted this method of brewing wine. The saying “Yunyang produces fine wine” nowadays is likely due to the similar-sounding names “Hongliang” and “Yunyang” being confused. After drinking three cups of wine, Emperor Wu’s countenance gradually brightened, and his mood became more cheerful. He then ordered the songstress to come forward and serve him.
Emperor Wu of Han rested in the Yanliang Chamber, lying on his bed, where he dreamt of Lady Li presenting him with a type of fragrant herb called “Hengwu.” Startled, he awoke from his dream and sat up, but the scent of Hengwu still lingered on his bedding. Months passed, and the fragrance had not dissipated. Emperor Wu missed Lady Li even more and hoped to see her in his dreams again, but eventually, it never occurred. Tears welled up in Emperor Wu’s eyes, soaking his seat, so he renamed the Yanliang Chamber to the “Chamber of Lingering Fragrance Dreams.” Originally, Emperor Wu held a special affection for Lady Li, and after her passing, he constantly longed to meet her in his dreams, sometimes even yearning to encounter her during the day. His deep sorrow and exhaustion due to his yearning for Lady Li deeply disturbed the concubines in the palace. Later, Emperor Wu summoned Li Shaojun and said, “I miss Lady Li very much. Can you make me see her?” Li Shaojun replied, “You can see her from a distance but not be together in the same tent.” Wu Di said, “Just seeing her once will be enough. Please bring her.” Li Shaojun explained, “There is a kind of hidden sapphire stone in the deep sea, which is deep blue and light as a feather. It is hot when the weather is cold and cool when the weather is hot. Carving a human figure from this stone, its wisdom is no different from a real person. If we bring this stone statue back, Lady Li will also come. This stone statue can convey human language, but it has no human breath, which is why it is known as a divine object.”
Emperor Wu asked, “Is this stone statue obtainable?” Li Shaojun replied, “I hope Your Majesty will provide me with a hundred luxurious boats and a thousand powerful men, all capable of floating on water and climbing trees. I will ensure they are proficient in the Dao arts and grant them the elixir of immortality.” So, Li Shaojun led the boats to the hidden sea, and it took ten years for him to return. Some of the people who had gone with Li Shaojun to the hidden sea ascended to become immortals and never returned, while others assumed different forms, pretending to be dead. Only four or five people returned. After obtaining the hidden sapphire stone, Emperor Wu immediately ordered craftsmen to carve a statue in the likeness of Lady Li according to the original drawing. Once it was carved, Li Shaojun placed the stone statue inside a tent made of gauze, just like Lady Li was alive. Emperor Wu was overjoyed and asked Li Shaojun, “Can I get closer to her?” Li Shaojun said, “This is like a dream in the middle of the night; how can it appear before your eyes during the day? This stone is poisonous and is meant for distant viewing, not for approaching. Your Majesty, please do not be easily enchanted by this supernatural object!” Emperor Wu heeded Li Shaojun’s advice. After viewing Lady Li’s stone statue, Li Shaojun had it ground into powder and made into pills, which Emperor Wu consumed. From then on, Emperor Wu no longer wished to dream of Lady Li. Later, Emperor Wu built the Lingmeng Terrace and offered annual sacrifices to Lady Li.
In the first year of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty’s Yuanfeng era (110 BC), the Fuxin Kingdom presented Lanjin mud as tribute. This gold mud was sourced from a hot spring where, during the peak of summer, the spring’s water frequently boiled and erupted like scalding water and fierce flames, frightening away even the flying birds. People from the Fuxin Kingdom often saw individuals by the water refining this gold mud to create various objects. The gold mud had a texture like loose mud and a color akin to top-grade gold. After multiple smeltings, its color would turn white, emitting a shine resembling silver, hence the term “silver candle.” People frequently used this gold mud to seal various documents, wooden boxes, and palace gates throughout the land. Once coated with this gold mud, evil spirits dared not trespass. During the Han Dynasty, high-ranking generals embarking on military campaigns and envoys traveling to distant lands mostly used this gold mud to seal documents and affix their seals. Wei Qing, Zhang Qian, Su Wu, and Fu Jiezi used such gold mud seals when embarking on their expeditions or diplomatic missions. However, after the passing of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, this type of gold mud ceased to be used.
To the south of Rinnan Commandery, there is an area known as “Lewd Spring.” It is said that the water there flows from underground, converging to form deep waters, hence the name “Lewd Spring.” It is rumored that the water here is sweet and delicious, and drinking it makes both men and women indulge in lascivious behavior. In shallower parts of the Lewd Spring, only a wine cup can float, and people can wade across by lifting their clothes. In wider and deeper areas, two boats can travel downstream or upstream together, following the winding watercourse. The sound of the water from the Lewd Spring, as it strikes the rocks, resembles the sounds of people’s merry songs and laughter. Those who hear it are easily swayed by their desires, hence the name “Lewd Spring.” At that time, some wild ducks and geese with golden feathers would fly and play in groups over the water flow on the sands. Bird catchers captured one of them and were astonished to find that it was a real golden duck. When Qin Shi Huang’s Li Shan Mausoleum was looted in the past, a person walking in the mountains saw a golden duck flying south and landing on the Lewd Spring. Later, during the reign of Sun Hao of Eastern Wu in the first year of Baoding (266 AD), Zhang Shan was appointed as the Administrator of Rinnan Commandery. In Rinnan Commandery, someone captured a golden wild duck and presented it to Zhang Shan. With his extensive knowledge, Zhang Shan investigated the golden duck’s casting date and discovered that it was from Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum.
In the past, Qin Shi Huang constructed his own tomb, collecting rare treasures from all over the world. He buried workers alive, placed the treasures from distant foreign lands in the tomb, and created shapes resembling rivers, seas, large rivers, small rivers, as well as various mountains inside the tomb. He used sandalwood and rosewood to make boats and oars, and cast wild ducks and geese in gold and silver. He used glass and various precious stones to create turtles and fish. In the sea within the tomb, he carved jade elephants and jade whales, and they held fire-igniting pearls in their mouths to serve as stars, replacing candles. The light from these fire-igniting pearls inside the tomb would shine outside, creating a marvelous and grand spectacle. The workers who were buried alive in the tomb did not die when the tomb was later looted. They had carved stones into statues of dragons, phoenixes, and immortals in the tomb. They also created stone tablets and inscribed them with inscriptions, poems, and praises. During the early years of the Han Dynasty, when this tomb was excavated, archaeologists examined various historical records but found no mention of the carving of immortals, dragons, or phoenixes. It was then discovered that these stone statues were made by the workers who had been buried alive. Subsequently, people transcribed the inscriptions on these stone tablets, which mostly contained resentful words about the cruelty of King Qin, and they became known as “Resentment Inscriptions.” Sima Qian’s “Records of the Grand Historian” briefly mentions this event.
Dong Yan often rested in the Yanqing Chamber, where the bed was made of stone with intricate patterns, resembling colorful silk fabric. This lightweight stone was from the Zhizhi Kingdom. Over the bed, there hung curtains adorned with purple glass pendants, and in front of the bed, there was a screen decorated with fire-igniting pearls. Lamps and candles fueled by sesame oil were placed around the room. There were also plates made of purple jade, crafted in the shape of coiled dragons, embellished with various gemstones. One day, a servant stood outside the door to fan and cool Dong Yan. He remarked, “Does jade need to be fanned to become cool?” The servant, curious, put down the fan and reached out to touch, only to discover a screen in front. Dong Yan also used top-quality jade to create a plate, filled it with ice, and placed it on his lap. The jade plate was as smooth and transparent as the ice. The servant, thinking that there was no plate beneath the ice and fearing it would wet the bedding, brushed away the ice along with the plate. As a result, the jade plate and the ice shattered. Dong Yan took these mishaps in good humor. This type of jade was presented as tribute from the Qiantu Kingdom. Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty gifted it to Dong Yan. During the reigns of Emperors Ai and Ping of Han, many households still possessed such plates, but most of them had already become damaged. However, during Wang Mang’s rule, it became increasingly rare to find these plates.
In the second year of the Taichu era (103 BC) during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, the Great Yuezhi Kingdom presented a chicken with two heads, four legs, and one tail. When it crowed, both mouths crowed simultaneously. Emperor Wu placed this chicken in the Ganquan Palace and allowed it to mate with other chickens, hoping to hatch chickens that wouldn’t crow. However, court officials pointed out, “The Book of Oaths in the Shang Shu states: ‘The hen does not announce the dawn.’ It also says: ‘When the hen crows at dawn, it signifies a decline in the household.’ Now, if the roosters don’t crow, it is not an auspicious sign.” Consequently, Emperor Wu ordered the chicken to be returned to the Yuezhi Kingdom in the Western Regions. As the chicken was being taken back, when it reached the western gate, it turned its head and gazed mournfully towards the Han Palace, crying incessantly. This led to a folk song that said, “In the 210th year of the founding of the Han Dynasty, chickens do not crow, dogs do not bark. The palace is overgrown with thorns, and chaos abounds. Nine tigers will surely contend for the throne.” When Wang Mang usurped power, he appointed nine generals, each with a tiger as their emblem. Since then, death and turmoil plagued the nation for years, and the palace was filled with wild grass and thorns. Ordinary people could no longer hear the crowing of chickens or the barking of dogs. It is said that this particular chicken had not even reached the Yuezhi Kingdom when it flew up to the Milky Way. Its crowing sounded like that of a kun, and it soared among the clouds. The kun, also known as the xuan chicken, has similar pronunciations for “kun” and “xuan.”
In the second year of the Tianhan era, in the western region of the Qu Souchu Kingdom, there was a country known as the Qilun Kingdom. The people there were simple, gentle, and lived up to three hundred years. In the Qilun Kingdom, there was a forest of Longevity Trees. Each tree in this forest reached a height of eight thousand feet, and their towering canopies obscured the light of the sun and moon. Resting beneath these trees was believed to grant eternal life and freedom from illness. Travelers who crossed seas and mountains to reach the Qilun Kingdom could return with the assurance of everlasting youth if they carried a leaf from one of these Longevity Trees. The people of the Qilun Kingdom made clothing from grass and animal hair, weaving them into nets and garments as exquisite as modern silk fabrics. In the sixth year of the Yuanshou era, the Qu Souchu Kingdom presented a set of net clothing to Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty. However, Emperor Wu, concerned that future generations might indulge in extravagance upon finding such clothing, chose to burn it. As the clothing was incinerated, it emitted fumes resembling the smoke produced when refining precious metals.
In the second year of the Taishi era of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (95 BC), there was a country in the western regions known as the Yinxiao Kingdom. The people there were skilled in producing long whistles. The men’s whistles could be heard for hundreds of miles, and even the whistles of women could be heard from fifty miles away. Their whistles sounded like the music of reed pipes and bamboo instruments. During the autumn and winter, their whistles were clear and resonant, while in the spring and summer, they became deep and muffled. The people of this region had a unique way of whistling by curling their tongues towards their throats. Some even claimed they had two tongues that overlapped. By slowly scraping their tongues with their hands, they could produce whistles that traveled even farther. This is why “Lüshi Chunqiu” mentions the “foreign land with reversed tongues,” referring to this place. Later, enlightened rulers visited the Yinxiao Kingdom and brought about a transformation, leading the people to become more obedient and devout.
Xiao Qilu recounted: At the beginning of the Western Han Dynasty, it inherited various problems left by the Six States. At that time, people all over the world yearned for a government of sage wisdom and virtue. Therefore, the common people lamented that the downfall of the ruthless Qin came too late and complained that the Han Dynasty arrived too tardily. Emperor Gaozu of Han, the founder of the dynasty, vigorously expanded the territory and laid the foundation for his rule. Emperor Xiaohui of Han worked to reduce harsh legal punishments, aiming to achieve governance through inaction. Their virtues were compared to those of the legendary ancient Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, and their teachings reached every corner of the land. During the reign of Emperor Wu of Han, he further magnified the achievements of his predecessors. He inspected the country, traveled to mountains and rivers, initiated an era, and established an era name. He allowed the principles of ritual and music to be heard throughout the empire to revive the simple and pure customs of ancient times. Emperor Wu of Han also transformed the Qin Zhuanxu calendar into the Taichu calendar, conducted grand ceremonies to worship Heaven and Earth at Mount Tai, and offered sacrifices to hundreds of deities to invite numerous auspicious omens. Even though the “Book of Documents” records “respectful and enlightened” rulers, and the “Yu Shu” contains deeds such as “broad learning and deep thinking,” could they truly surpass the era of Emperor Wu of Han? Observing the education of Duke of Zhou and Confucius, they never advocated empty doctrines. However, Emperor Wu of Han delved into Huang-Lao teachings, studied the art of immortality, and sought blessings through rituals. This led to candid advice from individuals like Zhang Chang, who criticized and urged people to reject the practice of seeking immortality, and accused figures like Chang Hong, King Huai of Chu, King Huai of Chu, Qin Shi Huang, and Xu Fu. As a result, individuals like Xinyuan Ping eventually faced execution.
As for immortals, they revered inner tranquility and serenity, forgetting the existence of the physical body, and adhering to a solitary and austere life, free from worldly distractions. However, Emperor Wu of Han often enjoyed traveling incognito and actively engaged in campaigns and conquests. He expanded his palace, opened up vast hunting grounds, which forever deviated from the path of attaining immortality and departed from the Daoist principles of “profound unity in preserving the Way.” He first ordered the execution of Shaoweng but soon regretted it. Later, he was deceived by the false words of Luandai. As for Lady Li, Emperor Wu was completely immersed in his affection for her, fixated on her charms, and deluded into believing that her departed soul could be resurrected. He adorned newly constructed palaces, eagerly awaiting the return of her spirit. Perhaps, this excessive devotion and infatuation with his consorts, along with the accumulated worldly desires over the years, made it impossible for him to rid himself of such feelings. He wished to transcend into the realm beyond the mortal world, to coexist with the heavens and the earth, like trying to capture a fleeting shadow, an unattainable goal. Even though he couldn’t reach the pinnacle of the Dao, he had a deep understanding of its mysteries. Therefore, the subtle and profound secrets of both the Yin and Yang realms could not be hidden from him, and there was no place in the universe where the essence of the spirits was concealed. Investigating various books recounting the deeds of immortals and examining folklore from different regions, there is no disagreement on this matter.
The rise and fall of dynasties are the results of the succession of the Five Elements – Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth. This is a general law of changes in qi. When there are signs of the dominance of Metal and Earth, the Wei and Jin dynasties come to power. Dong Yan rose from a background of trading in jewelry and gained the favor of the emperor through a cook. He accumulated wealth beyond that of anyone in the realm due to the emperor’s temporary favor. Dong Yan’s home not only stored miraculous treasures but he also flaunted these rare treasures to others. However, unexpectedly, he fell out of favor one morning. This indeed indicates signs of rise and fall! The purpose of making coffins is to prevent damage from ants and to gather scattered bones. Sages have the deceased enter coffins as a matter of proper etiquette. They dislike excessive extravagance and waste, as well as excessive simplicity and poverty. Regarding the frugality of someone like Dantai Mieming in burying his son, and the extravagance in the burials of Empress Dowager Lu and Emperor Qin Shi Huang, they both err in their improper use of resources. Alas, when people die, their physical forms disappear, and their souls are extinguished. They quickly turn into the earth within a coffin. As the world changes, those rare treasures also turn to ashes in an instant. It is a waste of the living’s wealth to impose it on the dead, and it brings no benefit to the deceased’s body or reputation. Once a person dies, they depart from the earthly realm forever, and they have no recollection of their good days in life. Confucius said, “It is better to decay quickly!” Just as long as the limbs are gathered. Sages admonish us in this way; isn’t it worth our attention?