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Xu Fu and the Quest for Immortality

The Fascinating Legend of Xu Fu: the Journey of China’s Enigmatic Explorer in search for the Elixir of Life

Xu Fu (徐福 or 徐巿), also known as Xu Fu Shi or Xu Fu Fang, was a prominent Chinese alchemist, explorer, and court sorcerer who lived during the Warring States Period in ancient China. Born in the state of Qi in 255 BC, Xu Fu devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge and the search for eternal life. One of the most significant events in Xu Fu’s life was his appointment by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, as the chief alchemist and head of the court sorcerer. Qin Shi Huang was obsessed with finding the secret of immortality, and he believed that Xu Fu was the key to his quest. In 219 BC, Xu Fu was given the task of finding the elixir of life from the immortals on the mythical Mount Penglai, located in the eastern seas. Accompanying him were three thousand virgin boys and girls, along with the purportedly thousand-year-old taoist magician Anqi Sheng. Xu spent several years at sea searching for the mountain but was unable to locate it.

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The Records of the Grand Historian, 史記, written by the Chinese astronomer/astrologer and historian Sima Qian, is an ancient Chinese historical text that contains a wealth of information about China’s past. Among the many stories found in this text is an account of the travels of Xu Fu. Setting out from the eastern coast of China, Xu Fu’s expedition sailed across the sea towards the legendary land of Penglai. Along the way, they encountered many challenges, including storms and sea monsters. Despite these obstacles, they persevered and eventually reached their destination. Upon arriving in Penglai, Xu Fu and his team searched for the elixir of life, but were ultimately unsuccessful in their quest. Xu Fu decided to stay in Penglai and explore the region further. He eventually returned to China several years later, but the details of his journey remain shrouded in mystery.

“Then the First Emperor of the Ch’in sent Hsii Fu to sail over the sea in search of the spirits, and he returned and lied to the emperor, saying, ‘In the midst of the sea I met a great spirit who asked me if I were the envoy from the Emperor of the West. When I answered that I was, he asked me what I was seeking for. “I am looking for the medicine which increases one’s years and brings long life,” I said. 
“Your king of Ch’in,” replied the spirit, “is too stingy with his courtesy! You may see the medicine, but you cannot take it back with you!” 
‘Then he led me to the southeast, to the mountain of P’eng-lai, where I saw palaces and towers surrounded by lawns of grass. There was a messenger there, copper-colored and shaped like a dragon, with streams of light pouring from his body and lighting up the sky. When I saw him I bowed before him twice and asked, “What sort of offerings should I bring?” and the Sea God (for that was what he was) replied, “If you will bring me the sons of good families, and beautiful maidens, along with the products of your various craftsmen, then you may have the medicine!’” 
When the First Emperor heard this, he was overjoyed and immediately sent Hsu Fu back cast again, accompanied by three thousand boys and girls of good families and bearing presents of seeds of the five types of grains and articles produced by the various craftsmen. But when Hsii Fu reached P’ing-yuan and Kuang-tse, he halted his jouney, made himself king of the region, and never returned to the Ch’in. With this, the people were filled with sorrow and bitterness and six families out of every ten favored revolt.” (Sima Tan, Records of the Grand Historian, II: 374-75)

Undeterred by his first failure, Xu Fu embarked on a second journey to the eastern seas in 210 BC. This time, he claimed that a giant sea creature was blocking the path, and he requested archers to kill the creature. Qin Shi Huang agreed to his request and sent the archers, who killed a giant fish. Xu Fu set sail again, but he never returned from this trip. According to The Records of the Grand Historian, Xu Fu and his fleet arrived at a place with “flat plains and wide swamps” (平原廣澤) and proclaimed himself king. It is believed that he settled there with his followers and continued his search for the elixir of life until his death. Despite never finding the mythical mountain or the secret to eternal life, Xu Fu’s legacy lives on as a legendary explorer who ventured into unknown territories in search of knowledge and enlightenment.

The location of Xu Fu’s final destination has been a subject of debate and uncertainty throughout history. Records of the Three Kingdoms, the Book of the Later Han, and Guadi Zhi all state that he landed in “Danzhou” (亶州), but the location of Danzhou remains a mystery. Even today, scholars are unsure of the exact location where Xu Fu may have settled. In the Later Zhou period (AD 951-960), more than 1,100 years after Xu Fu’s final voyage, monk Yichu wrote that Xu Fu had landed in Japan and named Mount Fuji as Penglai. This account has led to the “Legend of Xu Fu” in Japan, and there are many memorials to him in the country. However, modern scholars have differing opinions on the historical accuracy of this claim. Some scholars view the legend of Xu Fu’s settlement in Japan as a possible historical occurrence, while others find inconsistencies and lack of compelling evidence.

Chinese navigator Xu Fu
A Japanese illustrion of Xu Fu, 1923 (source)

One factor that complicates the theory of Xu Fu settling in Japan is the genetic research that suggests the Japanese population is an admixture of the indigenous Jōmon people and later migrants. The Jōmon people migrated to the Japanese archipelago around 14000 BCE during the Paleolithic era, while the Yayoi people migrated from North East Asia to Japan around 1000 BCE. This means that the voyage of Xu Fu took place after the Jōmon and Yayoi settled in Japan, and rice cultivation was already introduced with an established agricultural society. The native Japanese religion Ko-Shintō was also a diverse animism of the Jōmon period that predates Xu Fu’s supposed arrival.

Furthermore, there are no specific records of where Xu Fu ended up, or if he even survived. The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the earliest written records of Japanese history, lack any mention of Xu Fu. The written stories about Xu Fu came at least 100 years after his disappearance, leaving much of his journey to the realm of legend and speculation.

According to legends, Xu Fu’s influence extended beyond China and into ancient Japan. It is believed that Xu Fu brought with him new farming techniques and knowledge that improved the quality of life of the Japanese people. Additionally, Xu Fu is credited with introducing many new plants and techniques to ancient Japan, although these accounts were written much later.

Xu Fu’s contributions to Japanese society were significant, and the local people came to worship him as the “god of farming,” “god of medicine,” and “god of silk.” As a result, numerous temples and memorials dedicated to Xu can be found throughout Japan, where he is still revered today.

In Xuzhou, China, there is even a Xu Fu Research Institute attached to Xuzhou Teachers College. This institute is dedicated to studying Xu Fu’s life and legacy, as well as the historical and cultural connections between China and Japan.

Xu Fu’s impact on ancient Japan was far-reaching and long-lasting. He introduced new agricultural practices and technologies that allowed the Japanese to increase their crop yields and improve their overall quality of life. His knowledge of medicine and the use of herbs also helped the Japanese people to improve their health and wellbeing.

In addition to his contributions to agriculture and medicine, Xu Fu’s expertise in silk production helped to establish the silk industry in ancient Japan. He is said to have introduced new techniques for raising silkworms and weaving silk that greatly improved the quality of the final product.

Overall, Xu Fu’s impact on both Chinese and Japanese history cannot be overstated. His legendary contributions to agriculture, medicine, and silk production continue to be celebrated to this day, and his legacy lives on through the many temples and memorials dedicated to him in Japan.

Featured image: The expedition in search of the medicine for immortality, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (source)
Sources: Wikipedia, Records of the Grand Historian

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