Immerse in Qin Shi Huang's era of skilled artisans, supernatural encounters, and his unyielding quest for immortality and magical arts.
In the first year of Qin Shi Huang’s reign, the country of Qianxiao presented a skilled craftsman named Yi, who excelled in carving and painting. If he were to spray painting pigments from his mouth onto the ground, strange and bizarre images of ghosts and groups of mysterious creatures would appear. He could also carve jade into various animal shapes, and the fur on these jade animals looked lifelike. After completing his carvings, he would inscribe the specific time of completion on the chests of the jade beasts. This craftsman could draw lines on the ground with his fingers, extending up to one hundred zhang (approximately 333 meters), and the lines he drew were as straight as a carpenter’s chalk line. Within a one-inch square area, he could draw maps of the four great rivers, five major mountain ranges, and the territories of various countries. He also painted dragons and phoenixes with such vividness that they appeared ready to take flight. However, he never painted eyes on the dragons and phoenixes because if he did, they would surely fly away. Qin Shi Huang exclaimed, “How can carved and painted objects fly away or escape?” Therefore, he had someone paint one eye on each of the two jade tigers. Ten days later, the jade tigers disappeared, and their whereabouts were unknown. Later, people from the mountains reported, “We’ve seen two white tigers, each missing one eye, walking together. Both tigers had very similar fur and shapes, different from the usual tigers we see.” In the following year, the western region presented two white tigers, each missing one eye. Qin Shi Huang opened the enclosure of the caged beasts to observe the two white tigers and suspected that they were the same ones that had gone missing earlier. He then sent someone to assassinate them. Upon examining their chests, it was indeed confirmed that these two white tigers were the same ones that had been carved in the first year of Qin Shi Huang’s reign. By the time of the forced suicide of Qin Ershi Hu Hai, the treasures of the Qin Dynasty and various mystical objects had also been lost.
Qin Shi Huang had a strong interest in matters related to immortality and the supernatural. A man from the country of Wanqu arrived in the Qin capital aboard a spiral-shaped boat that resembled a conch. Even when the boat submerged underwater, no water entered its interior. This boat was known as the “Lunbo Boat.” The man from Wanqu was ten zhang (approximately 33 meters) tall, and he covered his body with woven bird feathers and animal fur. When Qin Shi Huang conversed with the envoy from Wanqu about the time when the world was first created, the envoy spoke as if he had witnessed it himself. He said, “When I was young, I could fly ten thousand li (approximately 5,000 kilometers) in the air every day, and now, though I have grown old, I can still see things beyond the heavens while sitting down. My country is located ninety thousand li from the Salt Pool where the sun bathes, and there, ten thousand years are equivalent to one day. In our country, it is often cloudy, rainy, and foggy. However, on clear days, when the clouds part, the sky becomes completely bright, as radiant as the Yangtze and Han Rivers. During such times, black dragons and black phoenixes descend from the sky. At night, people use stones that emit light instead of sunlight. These stones are produced in the Ranshan region, where the rocks naturally emit a bright glow. When you strike these rocks, they break into pieces resembling grains, and a small stone can illuminate an entire room. In the past, the Yan Emperor began to change the habit of eating raw food, and he used this type of luminous stone for fire. Nowadays, our people all contribute these stones. Some throw these luminous stones into the mountain streams, where they tumble and flow for dozens of li, resulting in the stream being named Jiaoyuan. Our country is one hundred thousand li from the burial mound of the Yellow Emperor, and it was the son of Shaoxian who first mined copper ore in Shoushan and cast a great tripod. Once, I looked into the distance and saw the firelight of metalworking in the land of the Yellow Emperor, with smoke billowing. When I went there to see, three precious tripods had already been cast. I also saw divine clouds over the skies of Jizhou, and I knew that a sage was to be born there. Sure enough, before long, Emperor Yao was born in Qingdu in Jizhou. I also witnessed red clouds entering Fengdu and Gaodu. When I went to see, I found that a red bird had brought auspicious tokens to King Wen of Zhou.” After hearing these words, Qin Shi Huang said, “This person is a deity.” From that moment on, he believed even more in the existence of immortals and the arts of the supernatural and fantastical transformations.
Qin Shi Huang constructed the Yunming Terrace, searching across the entire nation for precious woods and seeking skilled craftsmen from all over. From the south, he obtained the valuable green cinnamon from Yanqiu, the burning sandalwood from Lishui, the red clay from Bendo, and the white bamboo from Yungang. From the east, he acquired the brocade cypress from Congling, the dragon pine from Piaopi, the starry camphor from Hanhe, and the cloud-leafed paulownia from Wanshan. In the west, he gathered floating gold from Louhai, feathered jade from Langyuan, rosy mulberry from Dilang, and fragrant jade from Chentang. From the north, he collected dry lacquer from Mingfu, texturized lacquer from Yinban, black amber from Qianliu, and fragrant jade from Anhai. All sorts of rare treasures and wonders were assembled here. Two craftsmen flew into the sky, climbed up the trees, and wielded their axes in mid-air. They began work at midnight and completed everything by noon the next day. People of the Qin Dynasty referred to the finished platform as the “Ziwu Terrace,” while others said it was named “Ziwu Terrace” because two platforms were constructed, one in the north and one in the south. Both explanations are difficult to confirm.
Zhang Yi and Su Qin shared similar aspirations and enjoyed traveling to learn. At times, they even resorted to selling their own hair to support each other and make a living. Occasionally, they worked as laborers for hire and copied books. They were selective in their reading and only studied the works of sages. Once, when they came across “Three Tombs” and “Five Classics” while on the road without a place to copy them, they used ink to write on their palms and thighs. They would transcribe them when they returned home and used split bamboo to make bamboo slips. Both of them often begged for food on the road, and they peeled tree bark to weave book covers to store excellent books from all over the world. They would rest under large trees, sleeping in their clothes. One day, a scholar saw them and asked, “Why are you two so diligently devoted to studying?” Zhang Yi and Su Qin inquired, “Sir, where are you from?” The scholar replied, “I was born in Guigu Valley.” Guigu, also known as Guigugou, where ‘gui’ means ‘return,’ or it’s the name of a valley. So, Zhang Yi and Su Qin requested to learn from him, and the scholar taught them the art of assisting in governance and extraordinary debating skills. He reached into his chest and pulled out two volumes of persuasive texts, both discussing matters aligned with the times. “Records of Ancient Matters” mentions, “This scholar was Guiguzi, as ‘gui’ and ‘gui’ have similar pronunciations.”
Prince Ying of Qin was declared Emperor for a total of one hundred days, but Prime Minister Zhao Gao conspired to assassinate him. At that time, Ying was sleeping in the Wangyi Palace, and during the night, he dreamt of a person who was ten zhang tall, with very black hair and beard, wearing jade shoes, riding a red chariot pulled by a red horse. This person arrived outside the Wangyi Palace gates and expressed a desire to meet Emperor Ying. The palace guards allowed him entry. Ying then had a conversation with him, and the person said, “I am a messenger sent by the heavens, just arrived from Shaqiu. There will be great turmoil in the world, and someone with the same surname will seek to kill you.” The next day, Ying became suspicious of Zhao Gao’s treachery. He had Zhao Gao imprisoned in the jail in Xianyang, suspended in a well. After seven days, Zhao Gao had not died. They changed the method and boiled a large cauldron of water, but even after boiling for seven days, the water did not boil, so they killed him. Ying asked a jailer, “Was Zhao Gao perhaps a deity?” The jailer replied, “When we first imprisoned Zhao Gao, we found a green pill in his bosom, as big as a bird’s egg.” At that time, a diviner explained, “Zhao Gao’s ancestors learned the art of refining divine pills from Han Zhong. They could sit on hard ice during winter or lie in a burning furnace during summer without feeling hot or cold.” After Zhao Gao’s death, Ying discarded his body on a well-traveled road. Thousands of mourning commoners cried as they witnessed this, and some claimed to have seen a green sparrow flying out of Zhao Gao’s corpse, soaring into the sky. The efficacy of the Nine Transformations Divine Elixir was thus confirmed. The person Ying saw in his dream was the spirit of Qin Shi Huang. The jade shoes he wore in his dream wer
Luyu said: Humans, born with inherent beauty and spirituality, rarely do not admire longevity and pray for immortality. However, if one deviates from their talents and innate qualities, their desire for longevity becomes increasingly distant. Why is this so? It is because the opulence of grand palaces and houses encourages extravagant behavior, the allure of graceful women leads to indulgence, the enchanting melodies of classical music like “Nine Shao” and “Six Ying” bring delight, arbitrary and capricious rewards and punishments only serve to display one’s power, desires that have long stagnated in the heart overwhelm the spirit, willpower is worn down by ceaseless pursuits, ultimately leaving one’s thoughts barren and vitality greatly diminished. Qin Shi Huang considered his achievements greater than the Three Sovereigns and his eternal reign surpassing the Five Emperors, yet he fell under the influence of Xu Fu, who misled him into searching for immortality. When Qin Shi Huang ventured out on an eastern tour, he perished in the sands. King Zhao of Yan was able to host and honor various immortal beings, causing the gathering of numerous deities. King Zhao of Yan also wished to abandon state affairs to roam the world of immortals, leaving the mundane behind in pursuit of the ethereal realm. This is akin to equating a field irrigation ditch with the Milky Way, or comparing short-lived fungi to the everlasting Chinese juniper. It’s like ascending Kunlun Mountain with aspirations to transcend heaven and earth, or thinking that by filling a basket with dirt, one can scale the heavens. How can one aspire to reach the heavens without any steps in place? The “Baopuzi” states: “The realm of learning is as vast as cow hair, but the knowledge one acquires is as rare as unicorn horns.” As for individuals like Qin Shi Huang and King Zhao of Yan, although they were initially touched by the allure of immortality, they did not attain the profound depths of it. This is likely because their narrow desires remained abundant, and the emotions accumulated in their hearts were never severed.
As for those with vast and boundless magical abilities and exceptionally high moral cultivation, they are the ones capable of incredible transformations. Therefore, it is said that only those peers who stroll through the clouds, ride on the mists, and soar through the skies as immortal companions can live alongside them. Experts and masters of various arts and crafts come from all corners, and with them come extraordinary treasures. They masquerade as deities, constantly changing and exploring the mysteries of things through their endless transformations. Ordinary people only see the surface and find it difficult to explain the intricacies; their feats are unpredictable and filled with wonders. “Huainanzi” records: “The art of swallowing thunder and spitting fire is derived from the ‘Wanbi’ scripture.” Placing feathers on a large stove, igniting fiery flames on frozen water surfaces, sailing on conch-shell boats, breeding pearls from flying clams, and colorful clouds descending into water—there are a thousand paths to ten thousand extraordinary phenomena, and ancient classics have not provided detailed accounts. Since the existence of divine transformations, these exceedingly marvelous phenomena lack any basis for understanding by later generations. How could they be comprehended by those who are shallow and deluded, or imitated by short-lived and ignorant humanity! Looking at the accounts of Wangzi Nian, Su Qin, and Zhang Yi, although their perspectives on governance differed, their pursuit of fame and their experiences were consistent. In the world, some things may appear similar due to phonetics, while others differ due to customs. If one thoroughly examines various texts, can it really be said that only Su Qin and Zhang Yi had differing views?