Chinese Mythology: The Eight Immortals

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The Eight Immortals – Public Domain

The Eight Immortals

In Chinese mythology, the Eight Immortal were a legendary group of eight individual beings who had transcended the human state to become endowed with divine and supernatural attributes or powers.  Each immortal is endowed with a power that can give life or help their fight against evil.  Most of the Eight Immortals were born during either the Tang or Song dynasties and venerated by Taoists and became popular in Chinese culture.  This work is a brief introduction to the Eight Immortals who were; He Xiangu, Cao Guojiu, Li Tieguai, Lan Caihe, Lü Dongbin, Han Xiangzi, Zhang Guolao and Zhongli Quan and concludes with an observation about their popularity.

He Xiangu

He Xiangu was the only known female member of the Immortals.  While Lan Caihe, another Immortal, is often depicted dressed as a young girl, or sometimes a young boy, making gender uncertain, that of He Xiangu is clearly female. He is her family name and her father was known to be He Tai and was thought have lived during the Tang Dynasty.  She is often depicted holding a lotus flower and a musical instrument called a sheng.  Sometimes she is accompanied by the Fenghuang a mythical bird that was said to reign over all birds.

According to legend when she was born she had six long hairs growing from her head which indicated her as special. When she reached the age of 14 or 15 years old she experienced a dream where a divinity instructed her to eat powdered mica to make her body become light and delicate and to give her immunity from death.  She followed these instructions and abstained from sex and cut down on her food intake becoming like a wraith.  During the reign  of  Emperor Zhongzong during the Tang Dynasty, she gained immortality and transcended to Heaven.

Cao Guojiu

According to tradition, Cao Gujiu was descended from Cao Bin a distinguished Chinese general who went to great lengths to avoid killing non-combatants and innocent people and discouraged looting and pillaging by his troops over his defeated enemies.  Cao Gujiu was believed to be the younger brother of Empress Cao, who was married to Emperor Renzong of the Song Dynasty.  Cao had a younger brother by the name of Cao Jingzh who abused his position who and was corrupt and bullied those below him.

The actions of his younger brother embarrassed and ashamed Cao and he begged him to stop but to no avail.  Cao would use his own fortune to try and make amends for the misdeeds of his brother.  His younger brother’s bad behavior had made him enemies at the court of the emperor and he was charged with abusing his power and position.  Cao was so ashamed of his brother that he resigned from his own position and became a recluse in the countryside.   While living as a recluse he met Zhongli Quan and Lü Dongbin who taught him the magical arts. After many years of practice and dedication to Taoist principles he transcended the human condition to become immortal.

Li Tieguai

Li Tiegua had a reputation of being irritable and bad-tempered but was seen as being compassionate and caring towards the poor, sick and those in need.   He carried a gourd in which he carried special medicine which he dispensed to those in need.  Li Tiegua is often depicted in a rather unattractive way as being an old man with a wispy beard and unkempt hair.  He used an iron crutch to aid his walking and was often depicted as a type of clown or beggar who used his powers to benefit those in need.  He could be found wherever the sick needed curing or the oppressed needed freeing.   Li had been the apprentice of Lao-Tzu the founder of Taoism.

Lan Caihe

The age and gender of Lan Caihe are not known for sure.  Lan can be depicted as either a boy or girl often in clothing that was worn by either sex and  often carrying a flower basket made of bamboo, or castanets of the same material.  According to legend Lan was carried to Heaven by a crane or a swan while in a drunken stupor. Lan and was said to have become an Immortal when five hundred years worth of magic was transferred him by Sun Wukong who was also known as the Monkey King.

eight_immortals_crossing_the_sea_-_project_gutenberg_etext_15250

The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea – Public Domain

Lü Dongbin

Lü Dongbin was said to have been born on the 14th day of the 4th month of the Chinese calendar.  When he was born the room was magically filled with a sweet fragrance.  According to tradition Lü Dongbin was a clever scholar and poet who was elevated to immortal status.  He is often depicted wearing the clothes of a scholar and carrying a sword on his back that he used to banish evil spirits. He was one of the most famous of the Eight Immortals and was especially revered by Taoists.

He was regarded as someone who was intelligent and scholarly with a strong desire to help others elevate their own spiritual growth but was seen as having certain character flaws. For example, he was known to be a “womanizer’ who was susceptible to getting drunk and he had bouts of anger, but he was also known for being a prolific poet.

Lü ‘s master was Chang An who put him through Ten Trials before he was told the secrets of life to become an Immortal.  He then improved upon the method so that more people could benefit which was considered to be his major contribution to the wellbeing of mankind and he strove to improve the health and life of many people.

Han Xiangzi

Han Xiangzi was a student of Lü Dongbi.  He is often seen in depictions holding a dizi, which is a kind of Chinese flute and was honored as the patron of flutists. He was believed to have composed a piece of music called Tian Hua Yin.  It is not known if Han Xiangzi actually existed at all but if he did he was thought to have been a grandnephew of an important scholar, poet, and politician by the name of Han Yu who was said to have dedicated three poems to him.

Zhang Guolao

Zhang Guolao was believed to have been a real historical figure and sometimes known as Zhang Guo.  He was thought to have lived from the about the end of the 7th century to about the middle of the 8th, living on Zhongtiao Mountain as a hermit at the time of the Tang Dynasty.

Zhang was a practitioner of necromancy and claimed he has been the Grand Minister to the legendary Emperor Yao in a previous existence.  He was known to enjoy drinking wine and made his own which was reputed to have medicinal and healing powers and greatly favored by others of the Eight Immortals.   Zhang was also a qigong master and was said to be able to abstain from food for many days existing only on small sips of his wine.

He had many special powers and was said to be able to turn invisible, drink poison without harm, make flowers wilt by pointing his finger at them and snatch birds from out of the sky.  In art, he is often depicted on the back of a white mule.  When the journey was over he would fold the mule up and place it in a box, or in his pocket for safe keeping.  When he needed the mule again he would he would pour water from his mouth onto it and the mule would regain its shape. His symbol was a fish-drum a kind of percussion instrument and sometimes he is shown with a peach or phoenix feather.

Zhongli Quan

Legend tells how when Zhongli was being born the room was filled with light and that he cried non-stop for seven days.  From this and because had was born with special physical features such as high cheeks and red lips, a square shaped mouth, deep-set eyes, long eyebrows wide ears, and a broad forehead he was known to be destined for greatness.  The first words he was said to have spoken  were,

 “my feet have wandered in the purple palace of the immortals, my name is recorded in the capital of the jade emperor.”

When he grew up he became a general and led his army against Tibet.  He was beaten in battle by the Tibetans and had to escape into the mountains.  He was found in the mountains by an old man who took him back to his spiritual sanctuary. The old man taught him alchemy and magical rituals and after three days of intensive teaching dismissed him telling him to go back into the world and use his powers to help people.  He left the sanctuary with a magical fan that could bring the dead back to life and turn stones into gold or silver and he used this to alleviate hunger and poverty wherever he found it.

There are two versions of how he finally achieved immortality.  The first tells how the frequent use of his magical powers and special fan to help people caused him to join the shimmering cloud and become immortal.   In the second he was meditating near a wall when it collapsed on top of him but behind the wall was a vessel of jade that bore him to the shimmering cloud to become one of the Immortals.

The Popularity of the Eight Immortals

Since ancient times the depiction of the Immortals in art has been popular with Chinese artists and the tradition was continued when Taoism flourished and they depicted the Immortals in their own style.  Perhaps their popularity was their association with prosperity and longevity but they were also the seen as the heroes of the general population who cured them of illness and disease, fought for them against oppression and taught them how to evolve spiritually to greater heights.

© 16/11/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright November 11, 2016 zteve t evans

 

 

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