Xu Fu

Born in 200 BCE


Primary Goal:
To find Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou, islands which supposedly had immortality-giving herbs.
Made two long voyages for Emperor Qin; may have sailed to Japan or as far as America.

The Background Story: Emperor Shih Huang Ti

Emperor Shih Huang Ti founded the Qin Dynasty. During his reign, he unified many different regions of China. He also completed the Great Wall of China, built irrigation systems, developed trade with other countries, and expanded China’s borders through exploration. Although silk was China’s main export, they began to import glass, wool, linen, and spices from India and Southeast Asia. Shih Huang Ti held more power over more people than any other Chinese ruler. He was an incredibly ambitious man, who, near the end of his life, began, in vain, to search for a way to escape death. When he died, he was buried in a tomb guarded by an army of terra cotta soldiers, horses, and chariots. Chinese exploration stopped for a time when the next emperor, Kao Tsu, stopped trading with other countries.

The Idea

According to Chinese legend, there were three mysterious islands located thousands of miles to the east of China. These islands were known as Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou. Supposedly, immortals lived there in palaces, all the animals were pure white in color, and there were herbs growing there that would grant eternal life. In fact, should those same herbs be put upon the head of a man who had been dead for three days, he would come back to life. The islands were cloud-covered, and could hide themselves from any passing ships by sinking below the water, or by causing a wind to come and blow a ship away. Nevertheless, in 219 BCE, Emperor Shih Huang Ti sent a holy man named Xu Fu on an expedition to find these islands and bring back the coveted herbs.

Xu Fu

Xu Fu was a Buddhist monk, explorer, and navigator. He set out on this important voyage to spread the Buddhist religion, expand the borders of China across the Pacific Ocean, and search for the miraculous herbs for the Emperor, making it a voyage of colonization and exploration. Xu Fu’s sailing fleet was made up of bamboo rafts that were large enough to carry food, water, and people. Emperor Shi Huang Ti sent 3,000 men and women who were skilled in a variety of trades to start a new colony in distant lands. Xu Fu used his knowledge of the stars and planets to help him navigate across the open ocean. Flotsam (trees and leaves in the water) gave clues about the location of land and helped sailors find currents that would transport their ships faster. Xu Fu also probably used a Chinese invention, the compass, to direct his fleet.

Xu Fu began telling the story of his voyages by saying he returned only after many years away at sea. He claimed that as he approached one of the islands, a dragon appeared. “Bring me young men of good birth and virgins and workmen of all trades,” said the dragon. “Do this – and you will receive the herbs.” This pleased the Qin Emperor, and he gave Xu Fu 3,000 more young men and women, as well as food supplies. Xu Fu set out again, and after several years he returned. However, he still had no herbs.

“To obtain the herbs of Penglai is quite possible,” he said to the emperor, “but we have had difficulty with great sharks, which is why we have not been successful.” He requested from the emperor archers to shoot the sharks, which the emperor granted.

Some tell the end of the story as so: the emperor dreamed he was fighting a sea god with a human face. So he went out to sea to protect the coast of China, and, the legend says, he killed some great sea animal. Soon after that, however, in 210 BCE, the emperor died. Xu Fu never returned, and people believed he must have found “some calm and fertile plain, with broad forests and rich marshes, where he made himself king.”

It is not known whether Xu Fu reached the North or South American coasts, because none of the fleet ever returned to China. Some historians feel that it was possible that a few rafts made it across the Pacific, because some of the art and culture of the native peoples of Central and South America is a lot like that of the Chinese. Where did they really go? One theory is that they landed in Japan, and that Xu Fu is actually the founder of the Japanese empire. Others believed they crossed the Pacific and landed in Central America, where they influenced the Mayan civilization. Whatever happened, this marks an early Chinese attempt at exploration and colonization.

The China Voyage

An attempt to re-create Xu Fu’s voyage took place in 1992, by Tim Severin and his crew. A copy of Xu Fu’s bamboo raft was built in Vietnam, where there are still skilled artisans who know how to cut and shape bamboo. Unlike Xu Fu, these explorers carried modern navigational equipment like a GPS and a satellite telephone. They attempted to follow Xu Fu’s route by using the same ocean currents, stars, and planets. The sailing raft was made from bamboo stalks that were tied together, with a mast for a sail. The passengers lived in reed huts tied to the raft. As the raft sailed along, small fish swam under the boat. Historians feel that Xu Fu and the colonists would have eaten them in addition to rice and other foods carried aboard. Unfortunately, the rope holding the bamboo poles together rotted, and the recreated raft began to sink. The explorers were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Xu Fu and his explorers would not have been so lucky.