Li Shaojun

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LI SHAOJUN (second century bce), magician and alchemist at the court of the Chinese emperor Han Wudi (14087 bce). According to a contemporary history, the Shi ji, Li, like many earlier magicians, first gained prominence in the northeastern coastal area of China, present-day Shandong. There he won a reputation among the nobility for his magical remedies and especially for warding off old age. Though he never explicitly claimed to be more than seventy himself, he let it be known that he had witnessed events decades or even centuries earlier than would have been possible for a septuagenarian. In 133 bce Li attracted the attention of the emperor himself. He recommended that Wudi should worship the God of the Stove (Zaojun) as a preliminary to transforming cinnabar into gold; this gold was then to be used to make eating utensils that would confer on the food served from them longevity-producing powers. Eating these foods was in turn a precondition for sighting the immortal beings of the magic isle of Penglai, off the Shandong coast. Only then would Wudi's performance of the imperial feng and shan sacrifices on the sacred Mount Tai win immortality for himself as well. Li claimed that he had already visited Penglai and there had met the immortal Master Anqi.

Although Li's career at court was cut short by his death before the emperor had succeeded in encountering immortals himself, Wudi continued to send out expeditions in search of Master Anqi, on the assumption that Li had in fact not died but had himself been transformed into an immortal. A legend (attested in the fourth century ce) claims that before Li's death, the emperor dreamed that an emissary riding on a dragon flew down and announced that Li had been summoned by the god Taiyi. Some time after Li's death, Wudi had his coffin opened and found in it only his gown and hat. According to another account, Li came to court only in order to acquire for his own use the ingredients for an elixir of immortality too expensive for an impoverished private citizen. The emperor's well-attested concern with the supernatural inspired further legends during the period of disunion that followed the fall of the Han in 220 ce. These elaborated on Li's career in yet greater detail. In some he is confused with the necromancer Shaoweng, a later thaumaturge at Wudi's court.

To modern scholars Li remains a significant figure as the first recorded alchemist in Chinese history, the first devotee of the pursuit of immortality who was said to have feigned death, and the first of many known to have worshiped the God of the Stove. The Shi ji account also states that Li practiced the avoidance of cereal foods, a discipline that would figure prominently in later ages as a means of achieving longevity or even immortality. Later hagiography is probably correct, however, in depicting him as but one among many magicians of his day with similar preoccupations.

See Also

Alchemy, article on Chinese Alchemy.


The Shi ji account of Li Shaojun's activities is translated in volume 2 of Burton Watson's Records of the Grand Historian of China (New York, 1963), pp. 3839. For a translation of some early legends, see James R. Ware's Alchemy, Medicine, and Religion in the China of a.d. 320: The Nei P'ien of Ko Hung (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), p. 47. A modern assessment of Li Shaojun is Holmes Welch's Taoism: The Parting of the Way, rev. ed. (Boston, 1965), pp. 99102.

New Sources

Strickmann, Michel. Chinese Magical Medicine. Edited by Bernard Faure. Stanford, Calif., 2002.

T. H. Barrett (1987)

Revised Bibliography