When Zhongli Quan ( 钟离权) was born, light filled the room and it was evident from his features, which included a broad forehead, thick ears and scarlet lips, that he was destined for greatness.
Known also as Han Zhongli (汉钟离) because is said he was born during the Han dynasty, Zhongli Quan became a member of court and an army general. During a battle with Tibetan forces, Zhongli’s troops were overpowered, forcing him to flee to the mountains. There he encountered an elderly man who gave him shelter and taught him the art of alchemy, Daoist philosophy and magic. Thereafter, Zhongli was told to serve his people, which he did, helping the less fortunate in various ways.
Eventually, as a result of his use of powers for good and meditation, he ascended to the shimmering cloud of the immortals.
Zhongli is depicted as a smiling, bearded fat man with a bare midriff. He carries either a peach (symbol of immortality) or a feathered fan with which he wields power over the seas and the forces of life and death).
He is the patron of military soldiers.
Zhang Guolao (張果老) was a Taoist occultist, alchemist and hermit who lived on Zhongtiao Mountain in Hengzhou during the Tang Dynasty. Fond of wine, Zhang made his own from herbs. He was also a master of qigong (氣功).
Known for his eccentricity, Zhang was apparently fond of making himself invisible, causing flowers to wilt by pointing at them and even catching birds in midflight.
He is usually depicted riding a white donkey or mule, which he sits on facing its rear. It is said that, at the end of any journey made, Zhang Guolao would fold up his donkey and place it in his pocket or a small receptacle. When he wished to ride once more, Zhangwould then spit water at it and it would then gain its size and form again.
Although shown as an elderly man (lao 老 means old), Zhang is the patron deity of young families and the bringer of male heirs.
Han Xiangzi (韓湘子) is believed to have been the great-nephew of Han Yu, a Tang Dynasty politician, poet and Confucian scholar.
It is said he studied Taoist magical arts under the guidance of Lu Dongbin, rejecting his uncle’s plans to have him enter government service. Han Yu, who raised Han Ziangzi after the death of the latter’s parents, married his nephew to the daugher of another scholar. However, Han Xiangzi left his family to join Lu Dongbin and Zhongli Quan in order to cultivate himself according to Daoist doctrine.
Han Xiangzi eventually became immortal, but his uncle was adamant that he give up Daoism. During a banquet in honour of Han Yu’s birthday, Han Xiangzi magically produced a bouquet of peonies. On the petals of the flowers appeared the following verse, in gold:
Clouds shroud Qin Peak, where is my abode?
Snow is piled on Languan (Blue Pass), and my horse will not push on
Years later, when Han Yu was banished by the Emperor Xianzong to Chaozhou, his journey to that city was impeded by heavy snowfall on Languan. Recalling Han Xiangzi’s prophecy, Han Yu wept, but his great-nephew miraculously appeared before him and swept the snow away. It was then that Han Yu converted to Daoism.
Han Xiangzi is usually depicted playing or holding a dizi (Chinese flute). He is the patron deity of flautists.
Lü Dongbin (呂洞賓) is the best known of the Eight Immortals and the only one who is venerated as an individual deity.
His real name is Lü Yan (呂巖) and he was a Tang Dynasty scholar and poet, and the disciple of Zhongli Quan (钟离权) another of the Eight Immortals.
It is said that Zhongli Quan put Lu Dongbin through ten trials before he agreed to take him on as a student.
Although a scholarly man with a kind heart and a calm disposition, Zhongli Quan is said to have a weakness for women. One of his lovers was a woman called White Peony and there are several versions of their relationship. However, in all of them, White Peony eventually achieves immortality for herself.
Lü Dongbin is usually depicted dressed as a scholar and wielding a two-handed sword or a fly-whisk, which symbolises the ability to fly.
Lu is the patron deity of doctors and literature, and is the protector against all evil spirits, which he defeats with his sword. He also ensures the success of off-spring.
Lan Caihe is the most enigmatic of the Eight Immortals. This deity is often depicted in a gender ambiguous fashion, with a sweet, androgynous face, flowing tattered blue robes, and carrying a flower basket and, sometimes, castanets. They also behave in a rather eccentric way: dressing inappropriately (woollen clothes in the summer and thin shirts in the winter); singing in the street for coins and then giving their earnings away; sleeping in odd places etc.
It is said that Lan Caihe earned their status as an immortal by caring for a beggar who turned out to be Li Tieguai. Their compassion and generosity towards one less fortunate was rewarded with immortality. Following this event, Lan Caihe was whiling away their time at a tavern when a giant stork flew through the window and settled on the table, whereupon this newly minted immortal leapt upon the bird’s back and disappeared into the sky, leaving their blue robes behind!
Lan Caihe is the patron of actors, beggars and the mentally-ill. Perhaps they should also be the patron deity of misfits and eccentrics.
It is likely that Li Tieguai (李铁拐), one of the Daoist Eight Immortals is a figure of legend not history, as there isn’t a fixed date for this deity’s lifetime.
Li Tieguai is usually depicted as an old and crippled man with bulging eyes and dirty, torn clothes. His name means ‘Iron-crutch Li’, which refers to the crutch that he needs to help him walk.
Although stories about Li portray a grumpy man with a short fuse, he is also shown to be kind to the poor and ill. Continue reading “The Eight Immortals: Li Tieguai “
His real name was Cao Yi and he is said to have lived during the Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E.). As one of the Eight Immortals (Bāxiān 八仙), Cao Yi is called Cao Guojiu (曹國舅), which means ‘Imperial Brother-in-Law Cao’. This designation that refers to his sister having been the Empress Dowager Cao.
A quiet, unassuming man who liked to keep a low profile, Cao Guoji had, unfortunately, a younger brother (Cao Jingzhi 曹景植) who took advantage of his royal connections. This younger brother was a source of shame and frustration to Cao Guoji who tried to advise him to show better judgement and more restraint. Finally, having had no effect on Cao Jingzhi’s conscience, Cao Guoji retired to a cave to become a hermit.
Cao Guoji spent several years in his cave, meditating, contemplating nature and purifying his body. Eventually, he was approached by the immortals Lu Dongbin (呂洞賓) and Zhongli Quan who wished to test Cao Guoji’s progress as an ascetic.
It is said that the two elder immortals questioned Cao Guoji and, satisfied by his answers, taught him the secrets of the Dao, including its philosophy and magical arts. After several more years of study and practice, Cao Guoji became an immortal himself.
This immortal is the patron deity of actors and the performing arts. He is often depicted dressed in official robes and holding a jade tablet or castanets.