Visions of immortal life in Penglai

By Mark Frank
0 CommentsPrint E-mail, June 17, 2010
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Summer is the season for mirages in Penglai. Strange things have been seen rising from the water during the hotter months in this coastal city on the northern tip of Shandong Province.

The most recent full-scale apparition of the famous Penglai mirage may have been on Sunday, May 7, 2006. A report in the China Daily declared, "Rare Mirage Appears off East China Shore," and explained that "mists rising on the shore created an image of a city, with modern high-rise buildings, broad city streets and bustling cars as well as crowds of people all clearly visible." It was estimated that 30,000 people flocked to Penglai. The illusion was widely photographed and videotaped.

The Penglai lighthouse [Photo by Mark Frank]

The Penglai lighthouse [Photo by Mark Frank]

The Penglai mirage is one of the world's most frequently-occurring cases of fata morgana, a kind of optical illusion in which layers of mist at varying temperatures refract light in such a way that remote objects like buildings, cars and mountains are temporarily projected and magnified on the horizon from various directions.

Wooden fishing boats docked in an inlet in Penglai. [Photo by Mark Frank]

Wooden fishing boats docked in an inlet in Penglai. [Photo by Mark Frank]

Perhaps it is because of its frequent mirages that Penglai has been enveloped in folklore for thousands of years. It is often described as a "fairyland of the world." This is a translation of the Chinese phrase "renjian xianjing," which might be better translated into English as "place of immortals among humans."

In a way, Penglai represents to the Chinese what the Fountain of Youth represents to the western world: the futile quest for immortality on earth. The first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, reputedly came here to launch an expedition in search of the elixir of life. He believed that the elixir was to be found on a sacred island off the coast near Penglai that may or may not have been a mirage. The sailors that he commissioned blamed their failure to obtain the elixir on vicious sharks, and the devastated emperor is said to have wandered up and down the coastline firing at sharks with a crossbow in revenge.

The great poet, politician and calligrapher Su Dongpo also sought immortality in Penglai more than a thousand years later. One version of his legend says that while wandering the streets of Penglai as prefect of Dengzhou during the Song Dynasty he saw a man whom he believed to be Lü Dongbin, one of the eight immortals of Taoism, because the openings on the receptacles that the man carried formed the shape of his name. Su Dongpo then followed the eight immortals, disguised as beggars, to the top of a pavilion where they enjoyed a drunken feast and then set off on a fantastic journey across the ocean, wielding their magical weapons to cross over the water. Su begged them to take him along as the ninth immortal, and although they yielded to his request he ultimately lacked the courage to leap out onto the water.

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