Penglai, Land of Fairy Tales

Penglai County in East China's Shandong Province is a place of fairy tales.

The ancient coastal castle of Penglai, about 65 kilometres northwest of Yantai, is the abode of the gods, according to mythology.

The legend of the Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea originated here. And the famous vision or mirage, which locals claim appears every few decades, has given a fascinating and mysterious atmosphere to the place.

Ever since I was a child I had dreamed of visiting Penglai. On a sunny morning in May, I finally made the trip.

Sainted mountains

Peng Lai Ge (Penglai Pavilion) is perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. It is about 1,000 years old.

The castle is on one of the three sainted mountains inhabited by immortals. The other two are Yingzhou and Fangzhang. They have frequently been visited by emperors since the Qin (221-206 BC) and the Han (206 BC-AD 220) dynasties.

It is said that the eight immortals got drunk at the castle and crossed the sea using magic, without ships.

Their magic inspired a popular saying: "When the Eight Immortals cross the sea, each one shows his special feat. Each tries to outwit the other."

Today the saying means that everybody has his or her own way of dealing with things.

Penglai Pavilion was built in 1061 during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).

On display in the complex are works of calligraphy from famous writers, couplets on the hall columns and stone inscriptions.

"Penglai has many folk customs," said our tour guide Dai Fali.

"The most famous is the traditional fair of Penglai Pavilion held on January 16, according to the lunar calendar at the Heavenly Queen's Palace."

The Heavenly Queen is also called Mazu in Fujian Province. According to mythology, she was the daughter of Lin Yuan, inspector of Putian, Fujian in the Song Dynasty (AD 420-479). Her name was Lin Mo.

It is said she was born with red lights and fragrance, and seldom cried. She helped the poor, warded off devils and saved endangered fishing boats.

When Lin died at the age of 19, she became the Goddess of the Sea. Because she blessed ships at sea, people in Fujian offered her sacrifices.

On January 16, which is said to be her birthday, the people of Penglai hold a fair. They dance the yangge (a popular rural folk dance), play with dragon lights and walk on stilts.

Optical illusion

While visiting Penglai, I met a family from Hangzhou. When I asked them why they had come, the mother said: "For the mirage, of course."

Because Penglai sits on the southern tip of the Bohai Straits, the low temperature of the sea water and the high temperature along the coast result in the appearance of spectacular optical illusions.

Usually they occur during summer and autumn, especially after it rains and when it is overcast and misty.

Cultural treasures

Penglai Pavilion is a place to which men of letters have flocked over the centuries. They left behind them inscriptions on tablets.

Among these is an engraved essay entitled "Notes on Reading Wu Daozi's Painting," by the poet Su Shi during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

The inscription of the essay entitled "Watching the Mirage on the Tower on a Summer's Day" is by Dong Qichang, a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) calligrapher.

This ancient heritage adds a tint of history and culture to the mountains and sea.

"Penglai people are proud to meet so many famous poets and calligraphers here, who have brought cultural wealth to the area," Dai said.

The "Hai Bu Yang Bo" (Placid Seawater) board was written by Lu Qiguang, a Qing calligrapher. During the Sino-Japanese war in 1895, the word bu was struck by a cannonball that failed to explode.

"The sea churned and wars began," Dai explained. "If the bomb had exploded, we would not have the Penglai Pavilion today."

Defiant spirit

East of the castle of Penglai is the Penglai water city, with dry docks and piers.

Construction of the fortress began in 1042. It was completed in 1696. The water fortress is the earliest man-made ancient military port in the country. Along with the castle of Penglai, it is a key historical relic under State protection.

National hero Qi Jiguang of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a native of Penglai, once trained his naval force here against foreign invasion.

Listening to the story of Qi, I felt as if I could almost see him leading thousands of soldiers on the fortress.

There we saw ancient warships found from the port of the fortress, which are left at the site to remind us of his defiant spirit.

In the past 600 years, the Qis have donated many cultural relics, such as the Qi Jiguang Statue and the Father-son Governor. The Former Residence of Qi Jiguang, which is under construction, will open to visitors next year.

Tianheng Hill

West of the castle is Tianheng Hill or Dengzhou Cape, the southern end of the border between the Yellow Sea and the Bohai Sea.

Legend has it that it used to be the fort for the Tianheng 500 heroic men, who built camps on top of the barracks overlooking the sea.

Tian Heng, a Qin Dynasty general, used to station troops there. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, cannons were placed here. In the 1940s, the People's Liberation Army used them to attack Japanese warships.

The relics are still there, but other aspects of the site have changed, with a new cultural park and a plank road along the cliff.

Walking on it with clouds surrounding me, I could not help but think that the new road would have made the sea crossing much easier for the Eight Immortals.

Travel tips

Five flights every day take off from Shanghai Pudong International Airport to Yantai Airport and the flight takes about one hour. Or tourists can take Train No. 2582 departing from Shanghai Railway Station at 9:40am and arriving at Yantai at 7:00am. There they can take buses to Penglai. The bus departs every 15 minutes.

( Shanghai Star May 31, 2002)