Ep. 023: China's Eight Immortals

A well-known group of "fairies"

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The images of the individual immortals in this episode of the Newsletter came from Tianhou Gong (Temple) in Shenzhen, Guangdong. They are depicted there in pairs on the sides of the incinerators used for burning "grave goods."

Ya Got Any Eights?

You can't swing a dead mao (cat) in China without hitting the "lucky number" eight. Its significance may be rooted in a pun: eight in Chinese, ba, sounds a little like "fortune," fa. (Seems like a stretch to me.) Just as likely is geometry or geography: it's the number of corners on a cube (which can define a three dimensional space), and is commonly used on a compass (north, south, east, west, and the four points between).

Whatever the reason, it shows up in the dangedest places. Chinese businesses might be named "88" or even "888." There was an uproar back in the 1990s in a Chinese enclave near Los Angeles when the phone company changed the area code from 818 to 626.

And there's a ton of "eight trivia." Two examples: Sichuan Airlines paid about $280,000US for the phone number "28 8888 8888" back in 2003; and the Beijing Olympics started at 8:08:08 on 8/8/08. You could look it up!

Anyway, all this to say that it's probably no accident that one of China's most popular set of "fairies" is known as the "Eight Immortals."


The Chinese character for xian shows a person (in combining form) next to a moutain.

In Chinese, the Eight Immortals are called the "Ba Xian" (pronounced like Bah Shyen--sort of). That word xian is a slippery little sucker. Made up of a two-part character that looks like a person standing next to a mountain (you'll see why in a minute), it mainly refers to a kind of Daoist scholar who was trying to achieve longevity or even immortality, somewhat like the alchemical tradition in medieval Europe. For some reason--perhaps because of the "magic" element of the practice--these philosophers came to be called "fairies" in translation and other kinds of magical people. The word has also been translated transcendent (one), super-human, saint, alchemist, wizard, magician, genie, elf, nymph, hermit, recluse, and many more.

Oh, and why the mountain? Like hermits of all cultures, the Daoist philosophers retired to mountains to perform their practices. China has many such sites, and Bill Porter (Red Pine), whom I've mentioned before, visited one of them south of Xi'an in his 2009 book, Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.

The Great Eight

Statue of The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea in Xiasha Village, Shenzhen

The Eight Immortals were originally just eight... immortals. That is, they were eight individuals with their own legends. Although most are said to have been born in the Tang Dynasty (618-907, considered the peak of China's traditional culture), they weren't really seen as a group until the Jin (1115-1234). Thenceforward, stories began to appear in which the Immortals acted together in various combinations. One of the most familiar of these is "The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea." Numerous stories can be found in Man-ho Kwok and Joanne O'Brien's The Eight Immortals of Taoism: Legends and Fables of Popular Taoism.

Now, let's meet them one by one.

Lu Dongbin with his fly whisk

1. Lu Dongbin ("Cave-guest Lu") is the de facto leader of the Eight. He may carry a sword to fight off evil spirits, or a fly-whisk with which he can walk on the clouds. He was a real person who lived in the Tang Dynasty, but one of the most famous legends about him is called the "Yellow Millet Dream."

One night, when he was a young man, Lu fell asleep while cooking millet at an inn. In a dream, he took the imperial exam and scored very high, thus obtaining a high office, and soon he worked his way up to vice minister. Marrying the daughter of a rich man, he fathered a boy and a girl, and was again promoted until finally he was prime minister.

Alas, others became jealous, and accused him of wrongdoing. He fell from official grace; his wife ran off; his children were killed; and he lost everything. As he lay dying, he woke up--and the millet had just finished cooking! Realizing that worldly success was fleeting, he then set out on the path to cultivate the Dao.

Li Tieguai is holding his crutch; his gourd of elixir is on his back.

2. Li Tieguai, or "Iron-Crutch Li"--as his name implies--has a crutch under his arm, and also carries a potion-filled gourd. His eyes look strange, so he's called Kong Mu ("Hollow Eyes").

A disheveled and beggarly-looking fellow, he was originally tall and handsome. So esteemed was he that the sage Laozi descended from Heaven to instruct him in wisdom!

However, once, Li left his body to visit Hua Mountain, leaving a disciple named Lang Ling in charge of his dormant body. He told his student that if he had not returned in seven days, he was to cremate his body, to prevent it from being occupied by evil spirits.

Unfortunately, after six days Lang Ling was called to the bedside of his dying mother. Torn between his responsibility to Li and his filial duty, he decided to cremate Li's body immediately.

Thus, when Li returned, there was no body--just a pile of ashes. But a beggar had died of hunger in a nearby forest, and Li's spirit inhabited his body instead--with its unkempt hair and beard, its outsized eyes, and its lame leg. He planned to seek another body, but Laozi gave him a golden band for his hair, and an iron crutch, and encouraged him to stay put. In an act of forgiveness, Li Tieguai revived Lang Ling's mother, using the elixir in his gourd.

Han Xiangzi playing his flute

3. Han Xiangzi ("Han, the child of Xiang Province [Hunan]") is often seen with a flute. He may have been the great-nephew of the great Tang Dynasty poet Han Yu.

As the story goes, Han Xiangzi was his uncle's student, but excelled him in almost every way, especially in performing feats of wonder. Once, taking a flower pot with just a little soil in it, he drew forth some plants, the flowers of which were inscribed in gold with this verse:

The clouds hide the Qinling Mountains; where then can you live?
There is deep snow on Languan Pass; your horse refuses to move on.

When the uncle asked what it meant, the boy answered enigmatically, "You shall see."

Years later, Uncle Han Yu was banished to Chaozhou. As he reached the Languan Pass, there was indeed too much snow, and his horse was unable to move forward. As he despaired, Han Xiangzi appeared and magically cleared the path!

Though the story is filled with supernatural elements, Han Yu did in fact leave a famous poem, "For My Nephew Xiang on My Demotion and Arrival at Languan Pass," which contains lines similar to those in the miracle story.

Zhongli Quan and his fan of power

4. Zhongli Quan ("Powerful Zhongli") is sometimes called "Han Zhongli" because he allegedly lived in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).

His bared chest and prominent belly resemble the so-called "Laughing Buddha," and show his open-heartedness and benevolence. Unlike Mi'le, though, he has a long beard. He also carries a large fan.

When Zhongli was born, the room was filled with bright beams of light. He immediately began crying, and kept at it for a full seven days (indicating, perhaps, displeasure with the world-as-it-is), after which--though some sources say after seven years--he began speaking.

His first sentence was, "My feet have wandered in the Purple Palace of the Immortals, and my name is recorded in the Capital of the Jade Emperor." His facial features foretold his greatness: "a broad forehead, thick ears, long eyebrows, deep eyes, red nose, square mouth, high cheeks, and scarlet lips."

He became a general and fought against a Tibetan army--and lost. He then fled to the surrounding mountains, where he met an old man who taught him the Dao. Using his new skills--and the magical fan he was given--he went about helping the poor by turning stones into silver and gold coins to keep them from starving. He also used his fan to raise the dead!

Cao Guojiu in courtly robes, with his castanets

5. Cao Guojiu may have been a historical figure named Cao Yi. Though "Guojiu" is sometimes translated "Imperial Uncle," it is more likely that--if anything--he was the "Imperial Brother-in-Law" to the Song Dynasty Emperor Yingzong.

He was once a member of the emperor's court, and is often shown in official robes (or with castanets, as he is also the patron deity of actors and the theater). But his younger brother, Cao Jingzhi, used Cao Yi's connections at court to bully others and engage in corruption. Cao Yi tried continually to persuade his brother to follow the path of proper conduct, but to no avail.

At last, Cao Yi left court in shame and went to the mountains to practice as a recluse. There, Han Xiangzi and Lu Dongbin found him. They asked what he was doing, and he replied, "I am studying the Way." "What way," they asked, "and where?" He pointed to the sky, so they asked, "Where is the sky?"--and he pointed to his heart.

The two smiled and observed, "The heart is the sky, and the sky is the Way; you truly understand the origin of things." They schooled him, and he attained immortality.

Pretty He Xiangu

6. He Xiangu ("Female Immortal He") is the only one of the Eight Immortals who is unambiguously female. She usually carries a bottomless basket of flowers which could hold all the flowers and grasses in the world and still have room for more. She was born in Guangzhou during the Tang Dynasty.

She was working for a lazy and mean old lady, who constantly criticized her and was never satisfied. Once the old lady set off to visit her cousin, leaving the young girl alone.

Seated outside the house mending the old woman's clothes, He Xiangu saw seven humble-looking old beggars approaching. When they politely asked for some food, He Xiangu was in a quandary. Her heart told her to feed the men, but she knew the old lady would notice the missing rice (for she counted everything) and beat her black and blue.

Nevertheless, she did the right thing. The seven beggars ate and moved on. When the old lady returned, she immediately began to scream, "WHERE IS MY RICE!?" She sent He Xiangu to fetch the beggars. When they returned, the old lady forced them to vomit up her rice--and then forced He Xiangu to eat it! As the girl tearfully complied, she became lighter and lighter, until she--along with the Seven other Immortals--rose toward heaven.

Lan Caihe with his scythe

7. He Xiangu is "unambiguously female." But Lan Caihe ("Herb-Gatherer Lan") is of more fluid gender, appearing either as a woman or as a young boy. But even when male, he is effeminate, carrying a basket of flowers, jade castanets or, rarely, a tool for collecting flowers and grasses. Traveling around with one shoe off and one on, he represents the lunatic, the madman, or the fool.

Setting out to collect every flower and grass in the world, he was told that the rarest ones could be found on Hua Shan. On his way there, he stopped to rest and saw two rabbits running into a cave, carrying red flowers. Entering, he found a garden teeming with all the flowers he sought. From a beautiful flower basket in one corner, an old woman appeared and told Lan Caihe to take the basket and use it wisely--and disappeared.

Using the basket, Lan Caihe performed many feats to help the people. In one case, a wicked landowner had kidnapped a florist's daughter to force her into being his concubine. Using flower magic, Lan Caihe convinced the landlord to exchange the girl for a beautiful woman he had conjured from a seed. As soon as the victim was safely away, the "dream girl" turned into a ragged bamboo pillow!

Zhang Guolao with his donkey and bamboo instrument

8. Finally, Zhang Guolao ("Old-Fruit Zhang," famous for his medicinal wine) is easily recognized by the strange bamboo instrument he usually carries, and the fact that he's often seen riding a donkey--backwards! This donkey can be folded up as a piece of paper, then reconstituted with a spit of water and a clap of the hands.

One legend explains how Zhang, a historical person from the Tang Dynasty, gained immortality, and why he faces the wrong way on his donkey.

He was born to a poor family, and by age 12 was leading his old donkey around to deliver vegetables grown by his family. Each day, he would stop in an abandoned temple to eat his meager lunch and rest. Usually satisfied, one day he woke up still tired and hungry. Smelling a delicious aroma, he followed his nose to a hidden corner of the temple where a pan of vegetables was cooking.

Not seeing its owner, and being overcome with appetite, Zhang began to help himself, feeding his donkey a bite now and then, too.

Now, the pan had been placed there by a local schoolteacher who had been studying Daoism. The herbs in it would guarantee immortal life. Delayed in his return from school, the teacher arrived to see Zhang eating the last morsel.

Naturally, seeing this, he went after Zhang. But in his haste to escape, Zhang mounted his donkey backwards and bounced away. Suddenly, the escape became smoother, as the donkey had taken flight!

There are many, many more stories about the Eight Immortals. Some, like the one about the woman He Xiangu, have morals to them; and some seem to be just for fun! I hope you enjoyed them. Each of these great Eight could be the subject of an entire Newsletter--or book! I hereby reserve the right to revisit any one of them in a future episode.

Now, until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: If you liked China's Eight Immortals, you'll probably like Japan's Seven Lucky Gods, too!