The mirage cities of Penglai

Posted: July 30, 2011 by Samantha Tiner in China, International, Mythology, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

by Amy Robbins

In the ancient Chinese port city of Penglai, a mystery blooms over the water.

The city, featuring a booming tourist trade and a rich history and mythology, is
known for its recurring mirages.  Images of buildings, people, mountains, and
lights fading into view and then vanishing into the air have been recorded for
centuries, prompting tale after tale of immortals and their mountain cities that
slip between worlds.

This occurrence had not been caught on video until 1988, when it was filmed by a
television reporter.  The mirage city was captured on film again in 2005, and
later in 2006.

The  footage of the 2005 mirage is spectacular, and records an event lasting nearly
two hours.  It began at 4:55 p.m. as a small hill on the horizon and three tall
buildings to the east faded into view.  One of the buildings took on the shape
of a pagoda with shining lamps while in the east, a cross could be vaguely seen.
The slopes on the archipelago shifted form to become a peaked hill, and by
5:30, a domed church could be discerned in an easterly direction.  The scene
continued to gradually shift in shape, at its most distinct by 6:20 before
fading completely by 7:00 as the wind shifted.

A  mirage occurs when the air density is higher at one level than at another,
causing the light to bend and create a reflective effect.  An “inferior image”
is formed below the horizon, a reflection of an object above it.  A “superior
image” is formed above the horizon, when there is a cooler layer of air below a
warmer one, bouncing reflective light upward, for instance to form the illusion
of a city on the ocean.

Of course, the site of such a fascinating phenomenon would spark the imaginations
of witnesses throughout the centuries.  Elaborate stories were told of the
vanishing cities and the immortals thought to reside within them, of the Three
Mountains of Immortality known as Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou.  The Eight
Immortals of Taoist myth were thought to have crossed the sea by throwing their
instruments of skill onto the surface of the water, creating a bridge made of a
bottle gourd, a crutch, a paper donkey, a fan, and other objects personal to
each Immortal.  In 219 B.C., a Taoist master spoke to Emperor Qin Shihuang about
the Immortal Mountains and the elixir of immortality thought to be possessed by
the residents of the otherworldly city.  He sent out numerous people to search
for the fabled city, but none succeeded.  The Emperor Wudi waited on the shore
for years for the mirage to appear, and built the city of Penglai as a balm to
his sadness when the city never took form before him.  Su Dongpo, known as a
great calligrapher, poet, and politician, is said to have encountered Lü
Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals, while in Penglai.  He sought immortality
from the Eight Immortals, and they acceded to his request, but he lost courage
when it came time to leap onto the sea.

It  is truly remarkable that one could witness such an event that has recurred for
millenia, written of in ancient records and recreated in folklore and colorful
legends.  Whatever one’s explanation for the phenomena that occurs in Penglai,
it is a fascinating curiosity that speaks to our imaginations of fantastic
worlds and possibilities beyond imagination.

Link and reference list:
PengLai Mirage Video, Part One
PengLai Mirage Video, Part Two
Visions of Immortal Life in Penglai
Penglai,Land of Fairy Tales
Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea
Eight Immortals of Taoism
How Mirages Work

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Comments
  1. BJ Wragg says:

    Amy this was very interesting. Made me go look at the videos! Amazing! Good article.

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