Classic Chinese Stories: The Eight Immortals

The Jade Emperor was the ruler of the Three Realms.
The Jade Emperor was the ruler of the Three Realms.

The Context

In the ancient Chinese cosmos there are different levels of existence, the structure of which mirrored classical Chinese society. Thus the Jade Emperor was in overall charge of three realms of Heaven, The Underworld, and this world of humans. It was a celestial mirror of human bureaucracy from the Han period. The overall emphasis was on the structure and perfection of the overall system rather than individual achievement.

Han Xiang Zi
Han Xiang Zi
Iron Crutch Li
Iron Crutch Li
Zhong Li Quan
Zhong Li Quan
Zhang Guo
Zhang Guo
He Xiangu
He Xiangu
Lan Caihe
Lan Caihe
Cao Guojiu
Cao Guojiu

The figure of the Immortal 仙

It became part of Chinese belief that humans could, through training and cultivation, gain immortality. There were connotations of both physical immortality and spiritual alchemy in this idea of immortality. The character for 'immortal' is 仙 which is a combination of characters for 'man' and 'mountain' suggesting both a preference for cultivation of the Tao in out of the way places, and possibly (this is a thought I have not researched) a shamanistic allusion to the world mountain.

The Eight Immortals 八仙

The 8 Immortals (八仙: 八 just means '8') are a very famous group of immortals. They are traditionally said to have existed in the Tang or Song dynasties... mythical beings can be tough to pin down! Their tales have appeared in well known stories and dramas as well as more recently in movies and television series. The stories surrounding them are both inspirational and entertaining. Some of the stories are about the 8 Immortals as a group and some about individual immortals. One interesting aspect of stories about individual immortals (for example the Immortal Lu Dong Bin) is that the story changes to match the agenda of the teller. Taoist sources have Lu Dong Bin as a hero defeating the rogue Buddhist priests, whereas the Buddhist versions of the same story have Lu Dong Bin as the villain who loses to the wise and powerful Buddhist monk. Not much has changed over they years, it seems.

Here are the names and brief details of each of the eight. The order is random except for Lu Dong Bin coming first, simply because he is my favourite!

Lu Dong Bin 吕洞宾

Apparently a historical person, it is said the even during his birth there was a sign that he was special, as a 'divine' fragrance permeated the house where he was born. As a young child he was outstandingly gifted and could memorise long texts effortlessly. This early promise was not realised in later life when he attempted and twice failed the imperial entrance exams for the civil service. Dismayed by his failure, Dongbin took to drinking. It was during this time of despair that Lu met Zhong Li-quan, a Taoist sage who was to teach Lu Dongbin to become an immortal. Once whilst Zhong was cooking some yellow millet, Lu fell asleep and dreamt that he took the imperial exam and passed. He went on to have a great career and was happily married. However others became jelous of his success and planned against him. His own wife betrayed him and Lu Dongbin ended up dying in the street. Eighteen years had elapsed in the dream, in as much time as was needed to cook some yellow millet. As a result of the dream which was 'given' to him by Zhong, Lu Dongbin overcame his attachment to worldly success and went on to become an immortal by overcoming ten trials set him by Zhong. Lu Dongbin carries a magical sword which he gained from a dragon on Fire Mountain. The sword confers magical powers as well as martial skill.

Han Xiang Zi 韓湘子

Han Xiang Zi has become the patron saint of musicians as he is always pictured with his flute. He studied Taoism from Lu Dong Bin although an alternative version of his story has it that he gained immortal status during a visit to the Queen Mother of the West's Peach Garden when an accident transformed him into an immortal. Han Xiang Zi is another one of the immortals who may have been a historical figure. He is said to have been the nephew of Tang dynasty politician Han Yu.

Iron Crutch Li ( 李铁拐 )

Said to be the oldest of the 8 immortals and to have trained in Taoism with the founder, Lao Zi. He is associated with medicine and healing as he carries a magic gourd which contains healing medicine. He is another immortal who finally attained immortality through an accident. Li had a practice of leaving his body and visiting the heavens. On one occasion he instructed his disciple to watch his body, whilst he took his spirit out, for seven days. At the end of seven days the disciple was instructed to burn the body as it meant that Li had already become an immortal. Unfortunately the disciple was called home to see his dying mother after only six and a half days. He burned the body early and left. When Li returned, the only body he could find to go back into was that of a recently deceased, lame beggar who walked with a crutch.

Zhong Li Quan (鐘离權)

Another of the older immortals he is said to have lived during the Han dynasty. There were auspicious signs of his spiritual nature at his birth however he went on to become a general in the Han army. Having been defeated in a battle Zhongli was isolated and lost, wandering in the mountains when he was approached and taken to safety by a sage. The sage took Zhongli to the house of a Taoist adept who trained Zhongli in Taoism. Zhongli was particularly good at alchemy and was sent by his teacher to benefit the people through his alchemical skill. To this end there is a popular story of Zhongli saving a group of peasants by creating enough silver for them to buy food. He carries a fan which can bring the dead back to life and is especially well known for being the teacher of Lu Dong Bin.

Zhang Guo Lao ( 張果老)

Another of the 8 immortals based on a historical figure who is said to have lived around the 7th century AD. He was a specialist in magic and alchemy. He also seems to have bee the winemaker for the 8 immortals! He possessed a magic donkey made from card that he would ride for long distances in a short time, and then fold back into card when he had finished. He also had a fish drum which was apparently useful for divination. Zhang Guo Lao actually became an immortal by accident. Waking up after a nap one day at an abandoned monastery, he was attracted by a fragrant aroma of cooking. Being hungry and assuming that the gods had left a meal for him he ate the stew he found not knowing it had been prepared by a Taoist adept to convey immortality!

He Xiangu (何仙姑)

The female immortal! Perhaps the only one, as the gender of Lán Cǎihé seems to be uncertain. As a young teenager she met Lu Dongbin and later she had a dream in which a heavenly being instructed her to eat a certain mineral in order to begin her transformation into an immortal. She is said to have floated up to heaven in broad daylight and become an immortal. She carries a lotus flower that she uses for healing.

Lan Caihe (藍采和)

The immortal about which there is least information, even gender is uncertain. Often depicted in a blue gown as a young adult / teenager and as a wanderer. He or she was initiated into the Way by Iron Crutch Li when they met drinking one day!

Cao Guojiu (曹國舅)

Ashamed of his younger brother who used imperial connections to escape retribution for many crimes, Cao Guojiu left worldly life and became a recluse. After several years of cultivation alone in his cave, Cao was visited by Lu Dongbin and Zhongli Quan who tested his understanding and then inducted him into the immortals. He carries a jade tablet that can purify the environment.

On tv

Singapore television series

The above is from a Singapore television series. If anyone knows where I can obtain this series, please send me a message!

Check this out

One of the most famous 8 Immortal stories: The 8 Immortals Cross the Eastern Sea.

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valleyforge84 profile image

valleyforge84 4 years ago

VERY interesting. Loved all the pictures!So informative I loved it!

parwatisingari profile image

parwatisingari 4 years ago from India


oldrick profile image

oldrick 4 years ago from UK Author

Thanks, I am glad these traditional myths are so popular!

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