The Eight Immortals of Taoism
The Eight Immortals (Bāxiān 八 仙) are among the important figures of Chinese Taoist mythology. They are originally mere mortals, having fought all their lives against evil and having acquired great wisdom. They achieved immortality through the practice of Tao ☯.
They embody the victory over death, by a perfect union with the essence of life, through figures representative of society. They are found in different forms: icons, talismans, people. Their mission is to fight against evil, yet their identities were only defined during the Ming dynasty.
The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea
Several adventures of the Eight Immortals are known, but the one entitled The Immortals Cross the Sea is the most famous. Wanting to go to the magical island of Pengaï, the Immortals, following a proposal by Lu Dongbin, decide not to go there by boat.
To reach the island, each Immortal has to transform his talisman into a boat, proving his knowledge of magic.
- Li Tieguai threw himself first into the water by grabbing his stick, and the others followed him.
- Cao Guo knocked two planks together to beat the measure
- Lan Caihe used his flower basket
- He Xiangu, took his Lotus flower
- Han Zhongli used his fan
- Lu Dongbin, with his sword
- Han Xiangzi blew in his jade flute
- and Zhang Guolao rode his donkey
This legend gave a proverb: "As the Eight Immortals cross the sea, each one shows his prowess".
Only this method, far from the traditional navigation, does not please the dragon king of the eastern sea at all. 🐲 The creature sends his troops against the Immortals. During the confrontation, Lan Caihe is taken prisoner, but the other Immortals do not allow themselves to be defeated and continue the fight.
They manage to kill the son of the dragon king, who in anger calls out to the other dragon kings from the western, southern and northern seas.
The dragons unleash huge waves, but Cao GuoJiu counters them with his jade plate. The fight being deadlocked, Bodhisattva Guanyin intervenes and restores peace between the Eight Immortals and the Dragon Kings.
Who are The Eight Immortals ?
Each of the Eight Immortals represents one person in the company. Among them are a woman, an old man, a nobleman, a nobleman, a soldier, a cripple, a vigilante, a beggar and a scientist. Although they are divine beings, they are far from the perfection of the deities of the Chinese pantheon.
He is the least ancient member of the Group of Eight Immortals. Some sources list him as the younger brother of Empress Cao.
In reaction to the conduct of his brother who would have taken advantage of his social situation to commit crimes with impunity, and after having been, according to some versions, for a moment his accomplice, he would have decided to withdraw from the world to cultivate the Dao.
Lu DongBin and Zhong LiQuan (see below) are said to have given him the magic elixir 🍵 that made him immortal. He is represented with two tablets of jade, insignia held by the civil servants who came to meet the emperor; they are sometimes interpreted as castanets that earned him his role as patron of actors.
He is the symbol of success in the field of studies and can purify the world.
She is represented holding a lotus which symbolizes spiritual fulfillment, and sometimes also a sheng, a peach of immortality, a wooden ladle or a flycatcher, accessory of the religious.
The tradition makes her a woman of the Tang dynasty having dedicated herself to celibacy to devote herself to the Dao, herbalist and diviner. Her real identity is uncertain because many regions claim her to be a child of the country and each one offers a biography.
An immortal would have appeared to her and would have taught her to eat mother-of-pearl powder or mica. She is generally presented as a model of filial piety who first goes in search of herbs to heal her mother, and as a helpful soul who puts her art at the service of the population.
She is also a giver of children. Like most immortals, she does not die but disappears as she ascends to heaven.
He is assimilated to Han Xiang, grandson or grand-nephew of Han Yu, writer and civil servant of the Tang Dynasty. He is represented as a young man playing the flute and is the patron saint of musicians 🎶.
Unlike his seven counterparts, he would have undergone his divine mutation not during his lifetime but after his death. He would have died from a fall while trying to pick peaches, symbol of immortality.
Lan CaiHe is the least known of the Eight Immortals, whose age and sex remain unknown.
He could be a hermaphrodite and represent the union of Yin and Yang but in his most famous representation, he appears as a young boy carrying an inexhaustible bamboo basket containing flowers 💐 representing happiness and longevity, and sometimes a PaiBan, a hoe-shaped instrument used to mark the rhythm of songs.
A few rare portraits show him as an old man, although it is written in his legendary biographies that he did not age. He would have been born during the Tang Dynasty and would have lived in Xi'an under the reign of XuanZong.
His habits were eccentric and considered bizarre. He wore light clothes in winter and warm clothes in summer. He walked with one bare foot and another shoe. He left the chain of coins earned by begging on the ground behind him and, depending on his mood, distributed the money to the poor or spent it on drinking.
He often sang the songs of immortals, and is said to have himself disappeared into heaven on a crane.
He looks like an old, lame, ugly, shaggy and scruffy beggar, but wearing a golden headband. He leans on a cane and holds a gourd, a symbol of immortality, which is said to be filled with medicinal alcohol or elixir of long life, or, if necessary, he can hide inside.
He is usually irascible, but compassionate with the sick people he patronizes. He can ride a QiLin. His most widespread legend claims that he was a Taoist master of good looks.
One day when he had left his body to travel to the lands of the immortals, his assistant, disturbed by the death of his mother, thought he had really passed from life to death and cremated his remains.
Upon his return, he had no choice but to take the body of an old lame beggar who had recently died 💀. To console him, his master Laozi reminded him of the need to go beyond appearances and offered him an iron cane. Without rancor, he resuscitated the mother of his assistant thanks to a potion contained in his gourd.
Lü DongBin is a semi-legendary and deified Taoist alchemist of the Tang Dynasty, an important figure in internal alchemy. He is considered by the QuanZhen school as one of his Five Ancestors of the North.
He is also the best known of the Eight Immortals, leader of the group alternating with Zhong LiQuan of whom he is said to be a disciple. Young and unmarried, he is said to have given up a civil servant's job for a life of hermit. Becoming a disciple of Zhongli Quan, he separated from his master once his apprenticeship was completed and remained on earth instead of enjoying with him the pleasures of heaven.
His rich legend presents him as compassionate, very wise and very powerful, but also sometimes as eccentric, fond of wine and women. There are several temples in China 🏯 of which he is the main deity and he is known by various divine names; his birthday is celebrated on the 14th of the 4th lunar month or the 4th of the 1st month.
He is depicted dressed as a civil servant, carrying a sword that can ward off evil and destroy evil passions, and sometimes a fly swatter, the badge of the religious. He is said to have been born in 796 under Emperor DeZong. It is at the time of an excursion to the capital that he would have met Zhong LiQuan who would have given him his alchemical secrets after having imposed ten tests to him.
Certain sources also make him meet the immortal Fire Dragon, another legendary Taoist of the time. Lu DongBin is at the center of a rich folklore propagated by Taoist currents and written and oral popular literature.
Most legends insist on his compassion and social sense as much as on his alchemical know-how and his gifts of immortality, testifying to the spirit of post-Tang Taoism which openly claims, in the name of the fundamental community of the Three Teachings, certain ideals stemming from Buddhism or Confucianism.
Thus, he renounces following Zhong LiQuan in the land of immortality to devote himself to saving all beings in this world, which is a decal of the bodhisattva vow. In the same vein, he renounces a technique allowing him to transform for 500 years a vile metal into gold, for fear of harming the one who would be its owner at the time of the fateful deadline.
On the other hand, another current of popular folklore likes to turn him into an anti-conformist hero, eccentric, astute, a drinker and runner, which in no way diminishes his prestige in the eyes of the faithful.
A tradition in certain regions such as Taiwan is that couples avoid appearing together before him because he would try to separate them; some claim that he acts out of spite because of his failure with He Xiangu.
Zhang Guo or Zhang GuoLao, "Zhang Guo the Elder", is a semi-legendary Taoist of the Tang dynasty, alchemist, diviner and specialist in long life practices, of the FuQi breathing technique in particular.
He claimed to be so old that he served under Emperor Yao, hence his nickname. He often ate medicinal alcohol, of which he knew several recipes. He was divinized and included in the Group of Eight Immortals; his divine birthday is the 23rd day of the 11th lunar month 🌓.
He is also known as the "Master who understands the mystery", a title that is said to have been granted to him by Emperor XuanZong. He is represented mounted, sometimes upside down, on a donkey often described as white, holding the symbol that represents him in the group: a cylindrical drum YuGu, which resounds in Sanskrit and serves for divination while keeping away harmful influences.
His donkey is not an ordinary animal: it can make a thousand miles a day; its master folds it up like a sheet of paper when it arrives and restores it to its original shape by spitting water on it. There are traces of its existence in historical sources and collections of anecdotes, but the facts mentioned seem almost all legendary.
As a true Taoist, he refused social functions and attachments. The emperors TaiZong, GaoZong and the empress Wu ZeTian would have sought him out to offer him a position, but he refused to follow the envoys. In fact, he fell stiffly before their eyes and later resurrected the past danger.
In the case of Wu ZeTian, whose delegation was no doubt more distrustful, even made his body rot in front of their eyes to persuade them of his death ☠. XuanZong is said to have instructed the prefect of HengZhou in 734 to invite him. After having used his usual strategy, he would have finally agreed to go to the court where he received a function.
There are many anecdotes about how he astonished the emperor and his entourage with his magic and prescience. Nevertheless, he would have refused an alliance with Princess YuZhen, the emperor's half-sister, and eventually withdrew to his mountains where he died soon after, but his disciples found his tomb empty when they opened it.
Several texts are attributed to Zhang Guo, of which only a part remains. He is said to be the creator of the sexual technique of Yin cinnabar.
He is sometimes considered the leader of the group. He is depicted as a man of a certain age with a beard and a full head, a sign of abundance and generosity, his chest and belly uncovered in the "neglected" attire of the heroes of neotaoism.
Its fan of feathers, or sometimes leaves, often decorated with an acorn made of horse hair, has the power to resurrect the dead. Holder of alchemical secrets and long life, it is according to the Taoist school QuanZhen.
The legendary character of Zhong LiQuan is perhaps inspired by a hermit-alchemist who lived under the Tang or the Five Dynasties. It is mentioned, as well as the fact that he would have had Lü DongBin as a disciple.
There are many legendary anecdotes about him, which are not always consistent with each other. They relate how he became immortal and show him putting his powers at the service of society, for example transforming copper into silver to help the victims of a famine.
According to Ming sources, his birth is surrounded by miracles and he immediately presents extraordinary characteristics. Sent by the Han emperor to fight the Qiang, he is betrayed by his superior Liang Yi and suffers a bitter defeat.
Taking refuge in a mountain ⛰️, he meets a foreign religious who leads him to a village out of the world, residence of Mr. DongHua who appears to him in the form of an old man dressed in white deerskin and initiates him to the Dao.
He then travels from mountain to mountain, meeting immortals who teach him secrets of long life. He became immortal himself on Mount KongTong in PingLiang, after discovering his own secret of immortality in a jade box locked in the wall of his cave, which would have opened during a meditation.
The 8 Immortals and the I Ching
There is a connection with Chinese numerology and the 8 immortals representing the 8 trigrams of the I Ching, the 8 directions expressing the fullness and the harmonious whole ☯.
We also find this idea of fullness in the fact that they are 8 characters from all over society: woman, old man, great nobleman, soldier, cripple, wrong-doer, beggar, scholar.
Correspondence between the 8 immortals and the 8 trigrams, the 5 movements:
- Lü DongBin represents the trigram Qian, the metal
- Tie GuaiLi represents the trigram Dui, the metal
- He XianGu represents the trigram Kun, the earth
- Cao GuoJiu represents the trigram Geng, the earth
- Zhang GuoLao represents the trigram Zhen, the wood
- Lan CaiHe represents the trigram Xun, the wood
- Han XiangZi represents the trigram Kan, water
- Zhong LiQuan represents the trigram Li, fire
There are laws of generation and control of the 5 movements, and of the relations between the 8 trigrams that allow to decode the relations between the 8 immortals.
The 8 immortals, their particularities and their histories also indicate by coded messages techniques of Daoist internal alchemy.
In the art of Feng Shui, the 8 immortals bring money, health, happiness, prosperity, etc. into the home.
Eight Immortals Temples and Culture
There are temples of the Eight Immortals in China, such as the "BaXianGong" of Xi'An. Lü DongBin and Zhong LiQuan have an important place in the "QuanZhenui" school, which considers them to be patriarchs.
The group is one of the figures who follow the main god in temple processions. The "Eight Drunken Immortals" and the "Eight Immortals Celebrate the Birthday" are two scenes performed for the gods before popular opera performances 🎎.
The second reminds us that the Eight Immortals regularly attend the "Peach Feast" or "Feast of Immortality" of the goddess XiWangMu on her birthday, making the group a symbol of prosperity and longevity.
In some regions such as Taiwan, embroidered red satin banners representing the Immortals are hung above doors or windows to bring good luck during certain events (moving in, birth, birthday of an elderly person...).
The symbol of "Longevity" surrounded by the 8 features of the immortals:
- The fan
- The lotus
- The sword
- The basket of flowers
- The flute
- The gourd
- The YuGu
- And jade plates
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