Explore the latter years of the Han Dynasty, where emperors indulged in opulence, surrounded by nature's marvels and grand architectural feats.
In the first year of Han Emperor Zhao’s Shiyuan era (86 BC), the Lingchi (Overflowing Pool) was excavated, and its width reached a thousand paces. In the middle of the pool, they planted lotus with branched stems. Each lotus plant had four leaves, and these leaves resembled the overlapping covers of carriages. When the sun shone on them, the lotus leaves would droop to shade the roots and stems, much like sunflowers leaning toward the sun. These lotus plants were called “Low-light Lotus.” The fruit of these lotus plants resembled black jewels and could be worn as ornaments. The lotus leaves were not easily withered and emitted a fragrance that could be smelled for over ten li (a Chinese unit of distance). Chewing on these lotus leaves would keep one’s breath fresh for a long time, nourish the blood, and alleviate illnesses. People in the palace highly valued these lotus leaves and would chew on them during banquets or when entering the palace. Some even used the lotus leaves to make clothing, while others folded them to shield themselves from the sun or playfully used them for various activities. The phrase “折芰荷以为衣兮” from the Chu Ci (Songs of Chu) means precisely this. In the Lingchi, there was also a kind of reverse-growing arrowhead (ling), with stems resembling tangled threads. A single arrowhead plant could produce thousands of leaves. The roots of the reverse-growing arrowhead floated on the water surface, and its fruits were buried in the mud at the bottom of the pool. It was also known as the “Purple Arrowhead,” and consuming it was believed to grant immortality. Emperor Zhao of Han often had palace women frolic in the pool, spending their days in feasting and revelry. The local people presented a large trough, but Emperor Zhao found it too cumbersome and clumsy, considering even paddles made of cinnamon wood and boats made of pine wood unwieldy. So, he ordered craftsmen to make a boat from patterned catalpa wood with an orchid-wood rudder. They also carved soaring phoenixes and ospreys as decorations on the bow. The boat gently swayed on the water’s surface with the slightest breeze, and it lingered even after the sun had set, sometimes lasting all night. Emperor Zhao had palace women sing a song: “During the beautiful autumn, we float on the vast waves, dancing with delicate hands, plucking a lotus leaf. The cool breeze stirs a sense of melancholy as we row the boat and sing a song. The rifts in the clouds reveal the sunlight, heralding the dawn, while the moon descends and hangs in the Milky Way. For generations to come, may they find joy and delight in this!” Emperor Zhao was very pleased to hear this song. Later, in Emperor Zhao’s later years, there were more advisors and counsel, and he gradually reduced his indulgence in leisure activities. He buried the Lingchi, destroyed the Shangtai, and as time passed, the phoenix boats, arrowhead plants, and lotus flowers were also abandoned and destroyed. Today, there are no remnants of the Shangtai, and the Lingchi has become level ground.
In the second year of Han Emperor Zhao’s Yuanfeng era (79 BC), Emperor Zhao constructed the Gui Terrace south of the Lingchi to observe distant clouds and mists. He also diverted water from the Taiye Pool in the east. There was a twin-trunked tree in that area, with branches at the top spanning across the water channel, and branches at the bottom extending over the canal bank to the south, eventually merging into a single trunk. During late autumn, Emperor Zhao would often ride a boat adorned with carvings of Chinese herb houttuynia, orchids, cloud patterns, and ospreys, spending entire days and nights fishing below the Gui Terrace. He used fishhooks made of golden threads emitting fragrances, white silk threads for fishing lines, and red carp as bait. On one occasion, he caught a white dragonfish. This white dragonfish was three zhang long (approximately 30 feet) and resembled a large snake, lacking scales. Emperor Zhao remarked, “This is not an auspicious creature,” and ordered the imperial kitchen to prepare it as pickled fish. The flesh of the white dragonfish was purple, its bones were green, and the taste of its flesh was extremely delicious. Emperor Zhao distributed the pickled fish among his ministers. Later, Emperor Zhao desired to enjoy this delicacy once more, but the fishermen were unable to capture it again. It was then realized that the white dragonfish was a mysterious and divine entity.
In the first year of Han Emperor Xuan’s Dijie era (69 BC), in the eastern part of the Lelang Commandery, there was a country called Beiming that sent envoys to the Han Dynasty, offering local products as tribute. It was heard that their country was located east of Fusang, where they witnessed the sun rising from the west each day. The region remained dimly lit throughout the day and was suitable for cultivating various grains. It was known as the “Rongze” region, covering an area of three thousand li (approximately 1000 miles). The grains cultivated in Beiming were of exceptional quality, and consuming these grains was believed to grant longevity. Among them were the “Sun-Soaked Rice,” which matured in just one hundred days after planting. There was also the “Reversal Rice,” which could resurrect the dead and extend the lives of those with short lifespans. Another variety was the “Bright and Clear Rice,” which promoted longevity, and the “Cleansing Intestines Rice,” which, when consumed, prevented hunger for several years. In addition, there was the “Branch-Swaying Grain,” with long, flexible stems that would sway even in the absence of wind, benefiting bone marrow. The “Phoenix-Crowned Grain” had grain spikes resembling a phoenix’s crown, granting increased vitality to those who consumed it. The “Dragon-Swimming Grain” featured stems and leaves that curved like swimming dragons. The “Jade Cream Grain” had a silver-like appearance, and consuming both the “Dragon-Swimming Grain” and the “Jade Cream Grain” would make one feel light and agile. Furthermore, there was the “Twining Light Bean” with delicate, intertwining stems, and the “Sword-Carrying Bean,” whose pods resembled swords, growing horizontally or diagonally. There was also the “Drooping Sun Bean,” which, it was said, would cause its leaves to droop and cover the ground upon seeing the sun. Consuming these beans was believed to prevent aging and illness. The “Vital Essence Wheat” prolonged life and fortified the Qi. The “Harmonious Wheat” nurtured and regulated the five organs and six viscera. The “Light-Hearted Wheat” made one feel as light as a bird. The “Mild Wheat” could be mixed with yeast to brew alcohol, and consuming this alcohol would cause one to be intoxicated for several months. People who consumed “Mild Wheat” could endure the cold winter while being naked. Finally, the “Dew-Contained Wheat” had dewdrops in its grain spikes and offered a sweet taste akin to candied sugar when the grains were consumed.
There is a type of “Purple Sinking Flax” whose fruit does not float when it falls into water. Another variety is called “Cloud Ice Flax,” with fruits that are cold and shiny, suitable for oil extraction. There is also a “Translucent Flax,” consuming which allows people to walk at night without needing a torch. These belong to the category of sesame plants, and their consumption is believed to promote longevity and immortality. To the north of Beiming, there is a grass called “Rainbow Grass.” This grass has stems that reach one zhang (approximately 10 feet) in length, and its leaves resemble cartwheels. The roots of this grass are as thick as the central wooden hub of a cartwheel, and its flowers exhibit colors similar to a morning rainbow. When Duke Huan of Qi attacked the Mountain Rong, people from Beiming presented the seeds of this Rainbow Grass. Duke Huan then planted it in his garden, considering it an auspicious sign of his hegemony. There is a “Night-Bright Grass” that appears like arranged lamps at night but loses its illumination during the day. A type of “Purple Chrysanthemum” is referred to as “Sun Essence,” with each stem of the chrysanthemum extending over several mu (an area measurement). The Purple Chrysanthemum has a sweet taste, and those who consume it never feel hungry or thirsty throughout their lives. There is a “Charred Reed” that grows to a height of five zhang (approximately 50 feet). When it is burned to ashes and then watered, it regrows, earning the name “Spirit Reed.” A “Yellow Canal Grass” exhibits a fiery red color when exposed to sunlight, and its fruits are as tough as gold. Eating this grass makes one impervious to heat, even when surrounded by flames. There is also a “Dream Grass” with leaves resembling bulrushes and stems resembling acorus grass. Gathering it is used for divination with absolute accuracy. Additionally, there is a “Distant-Fragrance Grass.” Consuming it sharpens one’s sense of hearing, and it emits a fragrance like osmanthus flowers, with stems resembling lilies. When people from Beiming offered these unusual plants, they were planted in the imperial garden. However, most of these plants did not bear fruit and their leaves withered and turned yellow. Emperor Xuan of Han ordered the removal of these plants.
In the second year of the Dijie era of Emperor Xuan of the Han Dynasty (68 BC), the country of Hantu presented some precious and extraordinary items as tribute. The envoys from Hantu stated, “Our country is located 70,000 li away from the capital of the Han Dynasty. In our country, birds and animals can speak. When chickens and dogs die and are buried underground, they do not decay. After several generations, a family in our country was playing by the mountains and the seashore. They heard the sounds of chickens crowing and dogs barking underground. The family dug into the ground and found the chickens and dogs, which they brought back home to raise. Although their feathers had long fallen out, they soon grew new ones. Over time, the feathers of these chickens and dogs became shiny and beautiful.”
In the Zhangye Commandery, there was a prosperous family named Zhi, who were famous for their filial piety. Zhi Qi, styled Junzhen, demonstrated exemplary filial piety throughout his life. His residence was located one hundred li away from the family tomb. Whenever he walked at night, there were often birds flying on his left and right, carrying lit candles in their beaks. Zhi Qi climbed high mountains, crossed rivers, and wept incessantly along the way, never worrying about the rugged and difficult roads. Even during the night, it was as bright as day for him. When his tears fell on stones, deep marks would appear. If his tears touched withered wood or grass, they would rejuvenate and flourish. Zhi Qi’s tears seeped into the ground, causing the earth to become salty. Locals referred to this place as the “Brine Village.” During the reign of Emperor Zhao of the Han Dynasty, his outstanding filial piety and unique family traits were recognized and celebrated. A monument was erected in their honor, naming the place “Filial Piety Sensation Village.” Rituals and ceremonies were held there throughout the year, and a ancestral temple was built.
Xiao Qilu said: “What a person thinks in their heart has no secrets that cannot be revealed. Righteousness is manifest in the hidden, and even obscure things will eventually reveal themselves. The sun, about to set, rises back to the zenith due to Lord Luyang’s waving of his spear, and the heavens weep in May during summer as a response to Zou Yan’s gaze at the sky. For ordinary folks, there are already extraordinary phenomena. How much more, then, when seeking the favor of those deities to understand the utmost filial piety of people! Even wood and stone may resonate with this, and birds and beasts may gather in response. Wang Pou wept incessantly because of his father’s death, and the spring trees withered and dropped their leaves; Wei Shu Tong rose early to fetch water for his mother, and the great river suddenly produced a horizontal stone; Xin Shan observed filial piety to his mother, and the phoenix rested on his door tree; Heng Nong practiced filial piety to his stepmother, and the tiger was moved to send a dream. The filial piety of Zhi Qi is similar to these. It is said that during the reign of Emperor Zhao of the Han Dynasty, a yellow swan landed on the Taiye Pool, which is now known as the Linchi Pool, perhaps a pool with two names. During the reign of Emperor Xuan of Han, there were miraculous items like small millet and black millet, which were not said to be the grains of the present time. Could it be due to the merits of Shen Nong and Hou Ji’s cultivation? Or as Wang Zinian said, they are not the grains consumed in recent times. If we examine the names of these grains, they are all exotic plants that do not exist. As for flying birds, walking beasts, divine trees, and strange plants, they are all stories of wonders, treasured and unique things handed down through generations.”
Emperor Cheng of the Han Dynasty enjoyed traveling incognito, and he built a Night Revels Palace near the Taiye Pool for this purpose. The pillars in the Night Revels Palace were all painted with lacquer, and thick black silk curtains were hung. Various items, clothing, and vehicles were favored in black. Since Emperor Cheng liked to move about in the darkness, he naturally disliked the illumination of lamps and candles on his path. The beautiful palace women in the Night Revels Palace wore black clothing. From Empress Ban Jieyu down to the palace maids, they all wore black ribbons, adorned with jade pendants, and dressed in exquisite satin garments, covered with mantles made of magnolia gauze and raw silk. It was only upon arrival at the Night Revels Palace that they would bring out the lamps for illumination. After the festivities and banquets, the palace women would dance gracefully to the gentle beat of the drums. Their dance steps were light and did not raise any dust. Emperor Cheng enjoyed evening outings and had a Flying Palace built, which measured one square zhang and was similar in size to the present-day carriages. Emperor Cheng selected strong warriors from the Imperial Guards to carry the Flying Palace and move swiftly. Sitting in the carriage, Emperor Cheng felt as if the soldiers were running at great speed, and there seemed to be thunderous sounds within the Flying Palace. It was said that this was because the soldiers were running so fast, and therefore, the Flying Palace was also known as the “Cloud Thunder Palace.” The palaces that Emperor Cheng liked to visit were paved with felt and thick silk fabrics to muffle the noise of wheels and horse hooves. Although Emperor Cheng indulged in private banquets, the common people did not complain. Every time Emperor Cheng returned to the palace in his carriage, he would generously distribute the clothing of his beloved concubines and precious food to the people along the road. The impoverished and weak would cheer “Long live!” Therefore, during the reign of Emperor Cheng, the country prospered, the people were prosperous, and weapons were stored for a long time. Later, due to the frank advice of Liu Xiang and Gu Yong, Emperor Cheng of the Han Dynasty burned down the Night Revels Palace and the Flying Palace and discontinued the revelry and banquets. This is what people often say about being able to draw a straight line with an inked string, as heeding counsel is as swift as turning a hoop.
Emperor Cheng of the Han Dynasty often spent leisure time in autumn playing and boating with Zhao Feiyan at the Taiye Pool. They used sandalwood to craft their boat, as the valuable trait of sandalwood was that it would not sink in water. The boat was adorned with mica in the shape of a heron at the bow, and this boat was known as the “Cloud Boat.” They also carved large paulownia wood into the shape of twisting dragons, intricately decorated to resemble real dragons, which sailed alongside the Cloud Boat. The boat’s rudder and oars were made of purple cassia. In the middle of the pool, Emperor Cheng and Zhao Feiyan would gaze up at the clouds, dip their hands in the pool’s water, and enjoy the beauty while collecting water chestnuts and lotus flowers. Emperor Cheng often worried that the boat’s swaying might startle Zhao Feiyan, so he had skilled boatmen use metal chains to secure the boat to the water’s surface. Whenever a gentle breeze blew, Feiyan almost seemed like she would fly into the water with the wind. To prevent this, Emperor Cheng would tie Zhao Feiyan’s skirt with a green rope, and they would only return to the palace after enjoying their time on the water. However, Zhao Feiyan gradually grew distant from Emperor Cheng, and she often lamented, saying, “I am but a humble servant. When will I have the chance to share such boating moments with Your Majesty again?” Today, there is still a Wind-Avoiding Pavilion on the Taiye Pool, which is where Emperor Cheng of the Han Dynasty tied Zhao Feiyan’s skirt.
Xiao Qilu said: Sitting dignified on the imperial throne, showing respect by remaining silent with folded hands, this is the nobility of a ruler. Therefore, there should be proper etiquette in the daily life of an emperor, and all actions should adhere to the established rules. When going on inspection tours, the Grand Preceptor should play music in accordance with the ceremonial norms for the emperor’s carriage procession, and upon entering the palace, the Junior Preceptor should conduct the ritual for the emperor’s ascent to the hall. In front of the emperor’s temporary residence, flags should be raised, and warriors should guard the surroundings, ensuring that the palace is well-maintained and peaceful for the emperor’s rest. However, Emperor Cheng of the Han Dynasty disregarded the noble position of an emperor. He engaged in private outings, fraternized with his concubines, and was fond of matters related to immortality. Gu Yong, as a result, boldly spoke out in admonishment. As the “Book of History” states: “Neglecting small details will ultimately lead to the ruin of great virtues.” This principle applies here.
Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty indulged in a debauched and extravagant lifestyle, and as a result, most of the officials recommended to him were sycophants who flattered him. The favored high-ranking officials also competed to adorn themselves with alluring beauty, using sweet and pleasing words to win Emperor Ai’s favor. Among these favored officials, Dong Xian was the most prominent. He wore a sheer single-layered garment made of fine silk, which was as delicate and transparent as a cicada’s wing. When Emperor Ai entered the bedroom to rest, he would have Dong Xian change into lightweight, short-sleeved clothing, avoiding the use of elaborate belts and long robes to allow for greater ease and comfort. Consequently, people in the palace followed Dong Xian’s example and started cutting off their sleeves. Some even suggested that it was Emperor Ai himself who cut off his own sleeves, as he feared waking Dong Xian, who was taking a nap.