Daoism or Taoism is a tradition of Chinese origin emerged as a religious and philosophical system at about the same time as Confucianism , around the 6th–5th century BCE. It emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao or Dao (A Chinese word that signifies “the way” or “the path”. Tao is the natural order of the universe that underlies everything from the creation of galaxies to the interaction of human beings.) Later, with the growing popularity of Buddhism, Daoism acquired all the trappings of a religion.
The “Eight Immortals” were the central figures of Daoist myth. They were a group of legendary xian (immortals) in Chinese mythology. Each of them were able to bestow life or destroy evil. These legendary beings have been part of Chinese oral history long before they were recorded in the works of writers of various dynasties – Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming.
The Eight Immortals: Photo acquired by Henry Walters, 1915
They had all gained eternal life through seeking the Daoist way. Though they were not gods, their immortality gave them superhuman powers. Each Immortal’s power can be transferred to a tool and they would bring health, prosperity and good fortune to individuals and set an example of ideal behavior that could be followed by ordinary people to gain wisdom in life. They were said to live on a group of five islands in the Bohai Sea, which includes Mount Penglai. They were cheerfully addicted to wine. So they were sometimes described as the “Eight Drunken Immortals”.
These eight immortals were:
- He Xian’gu (何仙姑)
- Cao Guojiu (曹國舅)
- Li Tieguai (李鐵拐)
- Lan Caihe (藍采和)
- Lü Dongbin (呂洞賓)
- Han Xiangzi (韓湘子)
- Zhang Guolao (張果老)
- Zhongli Quan (鐘離權)
He Xian’gu was the immortal woman and was the patron of unmarried girls. At birth, she had six long hairs on the crown of her head. She acquired her immortality when a divine spirit appeared to her in a dream and instructed her to grind and eat a mother-of-pearl stone. During the Jinglong era (707–710 CE) in the reign of Emperor Zhongzong of the Tang dynasty, she gained her immortality and ascended to Heaven in broad daylight.
She is usually shown carrying a peach or a lotus blossom and sometimes she is depicted with the musical instrument known as sheng, or a fenghuang (mythological birds that reign over all other birds) to accompany her.
Cao Guojiu is believed to be a descendant of Cao Bin, a general of the early Song dynasty (an era of Chinese history that began in 960 and continued until 1279), and a younger brother of Empress Cao, the wife of Emperor Renzong of the Song dynasty. His name translates literally as “Imperial Brother-in-Law Cao”.
By being ashamed of his younger brother’s misconduct he gave up his official career and went to the countryside to lead a reclusive life and seek the Daoist way and there he met the immortals Zhongli Quan and Lü Dongbin, who taught him Taoist magical arts. After many years of practice and cultivation to Taoist principles he went beyond the human condition and become an immortal. As an immortal, Cao Guojiu was the patron of nobility.
Li Tieguai was the first immortal among the Eight Immortals in the Taoist pantheon. He had a reputation of being irascible and ill-tempered but was seen as benevolent towards the poor, sick and those in need.
Because of his great skill in magic, Li Tieguai was able to free his soul from his body. Once, while his soul was visiting a sacred mountain, one of his disciples thought he was dead and decided to prematurely cremate his body. So, as his own body was no longer available to him, his soul had to inhabit in a body of a beggar. Li came to be regarded as the patron of pharmacists.
Lan Caihe was either a girl or a effeminate man. He was depicted as a youth, an aged man, or a girl. Lan was said to have wandered the streets as a beggar while singing about the brevity of mortal life. It was believed that She/he gained her/his immortality by kindness in attending to the needs of filthy beggar. The beggar turned out to be Li Tieguai. Even though some believes that Lan Caihe became an Immortal by being transferred 500 years of magical powers by Sun Wukong or the Monkey King. It is believed that Lan Caihe was the patron of the poor.
Lü Dongbin was a Tang Dynasty Chinese scholar and poet. He was considered The chief leader of the Eight Immortals and one of the most widely known of the group of deities. One story relates that early on after becoming immortal, he had a strong temper as a “young” immortal.
Lü Dongbin’s birthday is said to be on the fourteenth day of the fourth month of the Chinese calendar. When he was born the room was magically filled with a sweet fragrance. He is often depicted carrying a magical sword on his back that he used to banish evil with. Chinese scholars regarded Lü Dongbin as the guardian of the ink makers.
Han Xiangzi was a disciple of Lü Dongbin and was believed to be the great-nephew of a Doaist-philosopher, poet and politician Han Yu. Han Xiangzi is often depicted carrying a dizi (Chinese flute). He was believed to have composed a piece of music called Tian Hua Yin. During the sea voyage of the “Eight immortals”, Ao Bing, son of the “Dragon king of the Eastern Sea”, tried to steal the dizi and take Han Xiangzi as his prisoner. So there was a great battle between the immortals and Ao Bing which the immortals were naturally victorious. Han Xiangzi was regarded as the patron deity of flutists.
Zhang Guolao is believed to be a real historical figure. His existence is said to have begun around the middle or end of the 7th century, and ended approximately in the middle of the 8th. The epithet Lao at the end of his name indicates the he was old.
Zhang Guo used to ride a white mule that could go incredible distances and then be folded up and placed in a bag. He was a great necromancer and his mule had extraordinary powers. Zhang was the most eccentric of the Eight Immortals who was seen clearly in the style of Chinese martial arts dedicated to his memory. He was known to be quite entertaining, often making himself invisible, drinking water from the petals of poisonous flowers, snatching birds in flight from the sky, as well as wilting flowers simply by pointing in their direction. Zhang Guo would grant both happy marriage and the gift of children.
Zhongli Quan learnt the way of Daoism from Li Tieguai, then disappeared into the clouds and achieved the immortality and became the messenger of the heaven. He was believed to wield a large fan which can resurrect the dead and transform stones into silver or gold.
Zhongli was born in Yanjing and it is believed that a bright beams of light filled the labor room during his birth. Stories say that either seven days or seven years later he began to speak and the first sentence he uttered was, “my feet have wandered in the purple palace of the immortals, my name is recorded in the capital of the jade emperor.”
Zhongli was sometimes shown holding a peach. The peaches of Xi Wang Mu. The immortals would eat them to renew their immortality. He is represented as a Fat Man with his bare belly showing.
Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels