It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to examine an “ancient text” for evidence of UFOs, and the recent internet buzz about a medieval Chinese UFO sighting provides a good opportunity. The trouble is that the text in question is written in Chinese, a language I don’t speak, and is rarely translated into English or discussed except by ancient astronaut theorists and ufologists.
According to recent articles bouncing around UFO forums and Asian blogs, there is a new flurry of excitement about chapter 369 of Sheng Kuo’s Dream Pool Essays (1088 CE), in which the author reports the appearance of a glowing pearl, allegedly seen by several witnesses. I’m not sure why this is making the rounds now, since the passage was first noticed in 1979 by a Chinese professor named Zhang Longqiao, who published is in a Beijing newspaper. It was allegedly translated in an American newspaper, according to Paul Dong, but I do not know more than that. Dong repeated what he says was the Zhang passage in his 2000 book China’s Major Mysteries (reproducing material from his 1984 book), and it appears in Shi Bo’s La Chine et les Extraterrestrials (1983), from which Jacques Vallée translated it secondhand into English for Wonders in the Sky (2009).
Dong is supposedly textually dependent on Zhang, while I am not aware of the origin of the text used by Shi Bo. There are some striking differences. Let’s start with the Zhang-Dong version, as translated in Dong:
In the years of Emporer [sic] Jiayou (1056-1064), a UFO as bright as a pearl often made its appearance over the prospering city of Yangzhou of Jiangsu Province, particularly at night. At first the object was seen on a lake in Tienzhang County in eastern Anhui and later on the Pishe Lake northwest of Gaoyou County in Jiansu. Subsequently it was often seen by the local inhabitants near the Xingkai Lake. One night, a man living by the lakeside found a shining pearl close by while studying outdoors. The object opened its door and a flood of intense light like sunbeams darted out of it, then the outer shell opened up, appearing as large as a bed with a big pearl the size of a fist illuminating an interior silvery white. The intense silver-white light, shot from the interior, was too strong for human eyes to behold; it cast shadows of every tree within a radius of ten miles. The spectacle was like the rising sun, lighting up the distant sky and woods in red. Then all of a sudden, the object took off at a tremendous speed and descended upon the lake like the sun setting.
It goes on to say that a poet witnessed the “moonlike pearl,” and that it became a tourist attraction when it would randomly appear and disappear now and again.
Obviously, this passage has been tampered with since the word “UFO” did not exist in 1088. Let’s take a look at the Shi Bo translation, as rendered into English in Wonders in the Sky:
“In the middle of the reign of emperor Jia You [1056-1063], at Yangzhou, in the Jiangsu province, an enormous pearl was seen especially in gloomy weather. At first it appeared in the marsh of the Tianchang district, passed by the lake of Bishe and disappeared finally in the Xinkai lake. The inhabitants of that region and travelers saw it frequently over a period of ten years. I have a friend who lives on the edge of the lake. One evening, he looked through the window and saw the luminous pearl near his house. He half-opened his door and the light entered, illuminating the room with its brightness. The pearl was round, with a gold-colored ring around it. Suddenly, it enlarged considerably and became bigger than a table. In its centre, the luminary was white and silvery, and the intensity was such that it could not be looked at straight on.” [Vallée begins writing here:] The light it emitted even reached trees that were some 5 kilometers away and as a result these cast their shadow on the ground; the faraway sky was all alight. Finally, the round luminous object began to move at a breathtaking speed and landed on the water between the waves, like a rising sun. (emphasis in original)
A key difference is immediately apparent. In the Zhang-Dong version, the pearl opened its doors like a space craft, revealing a silver illuminated interior. But in the Shi Bo version, the man opened the door to his house, letting in the light from the glowing pearl. In the Shi Bo version, the story is much less like a spaceship and much more like a folk tale. Neither version makes the object bigger than a few feet in diameter, and therefore it is not an intergalactic spacecraft unless the aliens are really tiny.
But both Zhang and Shi Bo had an agenda in translating this passage, and both have produced translations that emphasize the otherworldly. A translation by someone who is not involved in ufology produces, yet again, dramatically different results. Weng Zengqi, a contemporary Chinese writer who died in 1997, included the passage—in the original Chinese—in a decidedly non-paranormal essay on his hometown. Since it was quoted in the original Chinese and by a non-ufologist, it is not likely to have been altered. Translators Ren Zhong and Yuzhi Yang rendered his essay into English in 1995. This, therefore, is most likely an accurate rendition since it is less likely subject to paranormal bias. This version is revealing:
During the reign of Jiayou [1056-1064], in the city of Yangzhou there was a big pearl that came out often on rainy days. It was first seen in pools in Jianchang County, and then in Pishe Lake, and then in the Newly Opened Lake. It was often seen by both locals and travelers. One night, in his study by the lake, a friend of mine saw a big pearl. At first, it opened its shell slightly, and some reflecting light shown like gold. Then, the oyster, half as big as a mat, opened wide, revealing a pearl the size of a palm, glittering inside the shell. The dazzling light, brilliant as the rising sun, cast the shadows of trees several miles away and lit the sky as if by wildfire. Suddenly, it flew far away and then floated quietly like the moon in water.
Weng suggests that the lake, which he used to work on, was so clear that it would reflect the sun and moon, which appeared like great pearls in the water.
You can see that in this version, the story is much more a folktale about a giant oyster and its magic pearl rather than a spaceship of any kind. There is nothing in this translation about the pearl changing sizes, and the translation states that the light was not silver-white (like a stereotypical silvery UFO) but rather gold like the sun, and the light is not generated by the pearl but reflected from some unknown source. Finally, the pearl did not fly off and crash-land in water but rather was likened to the moon’s reflection in water.
At this far remove, and without being able to read the original, I can’t say what the object might have been—or if it had any factual reality at all. But given the wild differences between the two ufological translations and between both and the non-ufological translation, the whole thing stinks of another case of manipulating an old text to conform to modern expectations. Sheng Kuo, after all, wrote of many wonders, and this one was not something observed firsthand but rather a local story heard secondhand from a friend and from townsfolk proffering an explanation for their local lake was named “Pearl Lake.” If I had to guess, I would say that the townsfolk were historicizing a local myth about the sun, the lake, and pearls. I know that Chinese mythology holds that pearls fall from the sky when dragons fight (= Hindu myth that pearls fall as rain and are eaten by oysters), and Chinese art depicts dragons’ pearls as flaming, just as in Sheng Kuo’s story. Many religious scholars believe that these pearls represent lightning, suggesting that the Pearl Lake glowing pearl originated in a lightning myth—hence the reason it was only seen during rainstorms. Others believe these pearls were considered to be fallen bits of the sun or the moon.
But, as I said, there isn’t enough material here, and I’m not familiar enough with Chinese mythology or folktales to offer much more than that. But given this information, the alien spacecraft hypothesis seems the least likely choice, supportable only by fabricating material and altering the original text.
If anyone reads Chinese, do let us know what the actual Chinese passage says.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.