Zhang Peng (214-281): Quest for Immortality

Zhang Peng was born in 214 C.E. in northern China, shortly before the start of the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280 C.E.), to a minor official. His father managed to hold onto his position after Cao Cao (155 – 220 C.E.)  rose to power by keeping a low profile. Belonging to the family of an official, Zhang Peng learned to read and write and was expected to take the examination and become an official as well. But when traveling Daoist monks came to the village where his father was stationed, Zhang Peng decided to join them and learn The Way. He travelled with them for many years and saw many sights, but the truly remarkable part of Zhang Peng’s life starts later with his search for immortality, inspired by figures such as Laozi, Zhuge Liang, and the first Qin Emperor. Zhang Peng lived during a period of extraordinary changes in China, with warfare among the Three Kingdoms, the violent Daoist cult conflicts, and the arrival of Buddhism in China.

The Three Kingdoms period of China began in 220 C.E. with Cao Cao’s death and his son’s proclamation of the Wei dynasty.[1] But the Han had ruled only in name for a much longer period of time before that, with powerful families and eunuchs competing for power over puppet emperors. In 189 C.E., powerful landowners banded together to remove eunuch influence. They then devolved into a power struggle amongst themselves. In 200 C.E., Cao Cao crushed the last of his rivals and became the greatest power in northern China. But open warfare had broken out between Cao Cao and the two other kingdoms that formed the Three Kingdoms. Shu Han was the continuation of the Han dynasty through Liu Biao and his descendants, and was centered in the central Yangzi valley and Sichuan Basin in the southwest. The Wu were founded by Sun Quan and was centered in the lower Yangzi valley. After Cao Cao’s disastrous defeat by the combined forces of Liu Biao and Sun Quan at Red Cliff, the three powers proceeded to wage war against each other, never able to completely defeat one another. In 265 C.E., the Wei were overthrown by a powerful family who founded the Jin dynasty and proceeded to conquer Shu Han in the same year and Wu in 280 C.E., reunifying China.[2] This proved short-lived as it devolved once more into competing states in 290 C.E., followed by invasions of northern barbarians in the early 300’s C.E.

Daoism changed during the Han dynasty, with the purported author of The Way and Integrity Classic, Laozi, being deified.[3] Temples to Laozi were built and he was worshipped by people hoping for salvation. Daoism was supported by the Han state as an alternative to Confucian values, and the religion grew from the influx of laymen. Even though Daoism had become a more mainstream religion and no longer emphasized the search for immortality like it once did, many laymen and monks continued to believe in and search for immortality. But the spread of Daoism also led to the formation of Daoist cults who believed that they could create a utopian society. Some were peaceful, while others, such as the Yellow Turbans, were looking to create their utopian society through violent revolution. In addition to their utopian visions, these cults also practiced traditional Daoist healing and searched for immortality.[4] Violent Daoist cults destabilized the Han and continued to threaten following states for years to come. They had a strong presence in many areas during the Three Kingdoms period and the kingdoms not only fought each other but also these sects.

Zhang Peng was the second youngest of four children and the only son. His father taught him to take the examination until he was seventeen years old, when a group of Daoist monks came to his village in a rural region of north China. Zhang Peng was entranced by the Daoists’ words and pleaded with his father to let him become a monk and travel with them. Because he was his only son, his father forbade him. However, Zhang Peng was smart and wily and managed to convince his father to let him go. The Daoist monks agreed to let him travel with them and they began to teach him The Way. Zhang Peng and the Daoists traveled across China, from Wei to Wu and Shu Han, to communities of Daoist sects such as the Five Pecks of Rice, and to small villages and large cities like Luoyang. The monks taught Daoism to the people in the places they visited and performed rituals and divinations. During these travels, the monks taught Zhang Peng The Way. And Zhang Peng learned quickly, such that by the age of twenty-four he was teaching alongside them as an equal.

Zhang Peng saw much during his time traveling with the monks that deeply influenced him. He saw poverty and disease in the villages, and corruption and greed in the city. He realized how easy it would be to trick the desperate and the proud and did so to amuse himself, making them perform ridiculous acts to “cure” their illness or “divining” their futures for money. But the largest influence on Zhang Peng was the violence he saw. Battles between the kingdoms; campaigns against Daoist cults; banditry and murder on the roads. Seeing all this, Zhang Peng felt his mortality and learned to fear death. He sought something to answer these fears, and by chance met a Buddhist monk along a major road. Zhang Peng conversed with the Buddhist, and, while he was curious, did not find what he was looking for in Buddhist ideas of reincarnation and Nirvana.

Buddhism entered China through the Silk Road from India in the first century C.E. and the Buddha was known and worshipped in small numbers, but without a full understanding of the religion.[5] Many Chinese during this time who knew of the Buddha tended to view him as similar to Laozi, and early translations often clumsily used Daoist terms to try to explain Buddhist concepts. During the time Zhang Peng lived, Buddhism was not yet a major religion in China. After he died however, when the northern barbarians invaded, Buddhism began to spread rapidly due to better translations, increased activity on the Silk Road, and the desire of the new barbarian rulers of China to have a non-Chinese religion. Buddhism in its early stage in China was viewed as promising rewards and magical abilities, similar to Daoism.[6] Later in the 300’s and early 400’s C.E. Buddhism became more accurately understood. The form of Buddhism most prevalent in China is Mahayana Buddhism, which allows for more local customs to be integrated into the faith and appeals more to laypeople. Zhang Peng’s meeting with the Buddhist monk shows the increasing prevalence of Buddhism during this time.

Zhang Peng traveled with the monks until 241 C.E., when he was 27. While he was traveling, his father had inadvertently created a rivalry with another minor official nearby. They both competed to earn a higher official’s favor so that he would build the next Daoist temple in their territory. Zhang Peng’s father was insistent on having the temple be in his territory because he wanted to impress his son whenever he returned. Unfortunately, the official he had made his rival was short-tempered and petty. In 239 C.E., he had Zhang Peng’s father killed. Zhang Peng did not receive word of this for two years because he did not regularly contact his family or village. When he did hear, he bade farewell to the monks he had traveled with for ten years and headed back to his hometown to mourn for three years. But his father’s murder and the violence he had seen during his travels made him determined to find immortality, and during his period of mourning he studied Laozi, Zhuge Liang, and, most importantly, the first Qin Emperor. The tales of their achievements inspired Zhang Peng to undertake a new journey.

Zhuge Liang was a Daoist monk and the most important minister of Liu Bei.[7] Zhuge Liang was said in legends to have had control over the forces of nature. But it is known that he was a genius, both in civil and military matters. It was Zhuge Liang who secured the assistance of Sun Quan for the decisive battle against Cao Cao’s forces at Red Cliff in 208 C.E., as well as thinking of the strategy used in the battle. Zhuge Liang died in 234 C.E., but tales and legends of his exploits lived on.

The first Qin Emperor, also known as Qin Shi Huangdi, united China after the Warring States period and ruled over it for eleven years.[8] He reorganized the country into administrative units called commanderies, standardized currency, weights, measures, and roads, and created large public works. What Zhang Peng found most interesting though was the Qin Emperor’s obsession with the heavens and immortality. The Qin Emperor sent out many expeditions to search for something that would make him immortal, but he also had a magnificent tomb made. According to records that may not be entirely accurate, the tomb has a massive gold and silver relief map of the empire, with rivers of mercury and models of palaces and towers. The records also describe countless treasures and a map of the heavens made of precious gems on the ceiling. There is also an army of terracotta statues that were placed around the tomb to defend it. Finally, traps such as mechanical crossbows are said to guard the tomb. This tomb was then covered by a man-made mountain and a forest was planted on it. The workers who created the tomb were buried alive inside it, and when the Emperor died, his concubines were buried alive in the tomb with him.

In 244 C.E., Zhang Peng set out to visit sites that Laozi, Zhuge Liang, and the first Qin Emperor were said to have been, hoping to uncover the secrets of immortality. Along the way, Zhang Peng taught Daoism and advised officials on rituals in exchange for food and shelter. When this did not provide for him, he resorted to using his wiles to earn money. He scammed both upper and lower class. He made people pay for divinations, taught “cures” for fake illnesses alongside cures for real ones, and gave information on how to achieve immortality that he himself did not believe. One official he met in the Wei kingdom, named Li Bai (209 – 273 C.E.), ended up being a match for Zhang Peng. Li Bai saw through Zhang Peng’s trickery, and challenged him to a battle of wits. He claimed that he could get Zhang Peng to drink a cup of air. Zhang Peng, confident in his wit, agreed to the challenge. Over the next few days, Li Bai asked Zhang Peng many questions and came to know him well. One day, Li Bai asked Zhang Peng to tell him the stories of Laozi, Zhuge Liang, and the Qin Emperor. He called for a servant to bring a cup of water for Zhang Peng, so he would not become dehydrated while telling the stories. Zhang Peng inspected the cup, but relaxed upon seeing it was filled with water. As Zhang Peng told stories, for hours, Li Bai periodically asked for the servant to bring another cup of water. Eventually, Li Bai made him bring an empty cup, and Zhang Peng, caught up in his stories, drank from it without a second thought. Li Bai pointed this out and declared victory. Zhang Peng, thoroughly humbled by his defeat, asked what he wanted as a prize. To his surprise, Li Bai said that he was interested in his journey and would fund it, and in return Zhang Peng would no longer trick people. Zhang Peng agreed, and they formed a lasting friendship.

Zhang Peng traveled to many places, such as the grave of Zhuge Liang, the site of the battle of Red Cliff, various sacred mountains, to Daoist cults seeking immortality, and locations the Qin Emperor had visited. However, Zhang Peng was most interested in the Qin Emperor’s tomb. In 249 C.E., he heard rumors of a farmer who claimed to know of the riches of the tomb. Zhang Peng went to meet him, who he found out was a descendent of one of the workers who built the tomb and had escaped before the other workers were killed. The worker had told stories of the tomb, and these were passed down to the farmer that Zhang Peng now met. The farmer was difficult and refused to talk of the tomb without anything in return. Zhang Peng haggled for an hour before they settled on a price and the farmer told his stories. He spoke of a clay army that watches over the tomb, mechanical crossbows guarding the chambers, of rivers of mercury, a ceiling of precious gems, abundant treasure, and a man-made mountain. The description of the tomb awed Zhang Peng, but also shook him. For a man who searched so long for immortality, why would the Qin Emperor build such a magnificent tomb? But Zhang Peng pressed on, paying for directions to the tomb, spending most of his remaining money. He followed the directions and eventually found himself at the foot of a wooded mountain. Seeing the sun sink below the mountaintop, Zhang Peng no longer had the will to carry on. The Qin Emperor had all of China and immeasurable riches, but even he was unable to attain immortality. Zhang Peng, now disillusioned with Daoism, realized the years of his life he had wasted and yearned to live the rest feeling accomplished. He no longer feared death, as he realized it was futile to fight it. He told Li Bai of what he had learned and requested that he help him find a position as an official somewhere. Zhang Peng passed the examination and became a minor official in Wei, marrying a daughter of a locally renowned family, and had two sons and two daughters. He lived through the Jin overthrow of the Wei and their unification of China. Following in his father’s footsteps, he swore loyalty to the new dynasty and kept a low profile. He died, 67 years old, in 281 C.E., eight years after his closest friend, Li Bai. He had an eventful life, at first traveling with a group of Daoist monks, and then by himself in a quest to find immortality. In the end, he learned to accept death and enjoy life, dying peacefully and surrounded by family.


1 Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1994. Print. Page 100-03.

2 Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: Norton, 2000. Print. Page 144-45.

3 Hansen, 133-36.

4 Wills, 100-03.

5 Hansen, 143, 146-48.

6 Wills, 114-17.

7 Wills, 100-15.

8 Hansen, 97-103.

NATHAN CHARISSIS is a freshman at the University of Rochester and is majoring in History and Linguistics. He lives in the suburbs of Rochester and likes to play strategy games in his free time.