The Eight Immortals


As far as I know, there are more than eight Daoist immortals so I’m not sure what sets the eight, in the group known as The Eight Immortals (Bāxiān  八仙), apart from the rest. 

Each immortal has an instrument or implement onto which the immortals may transfer his/her power. These instruments are known as the Covert Eight Immortals (暗八仙).

The exact identities of the Eight Immortals are unknown, but some of them are associated with actual historical figures born during the Tang and Song dynasties. Apparently they reside on a group of five mythical islands in the Bohai Sea, namely Mount Penglai (蓬莱) Island, Fāngzhàng (方丈), Yíngzhōu (瀛州), Dàiyú (岱輿), and Yuánjiāo (員嬌).

The Eight Immortals are He Xian’gu (何仙姑), Cao Guojiu (曹國舅), Li Tieguai (李铁拐), Lan Caihe, Lü Dongbin (呂洞賓), Han Xiangzi, Zhang Guolao and Zhongli Quan (钟离权).


Here is a picture of the eight on a Chinese postage stamp. The painting depicts them crossing the sea and refers to a famous story about them travelling to a banquet hosted by the Queen Mother of the West. The eight must cross an ocean to get keep their appointment and they decide on a friendly competition, each one using their magic instrument to make the crossing.

The Eight Immortals crossing the sea, each showing their special talents (八仙过海,各显神通) is the Chinese saying that has arisen out of this story. Read metaphorically, it means that every person will tackle a problem or carry out a task using his/her own unique talents and strengths.

I shall write about each of the immortals in separate posts.





The Way


The Dao at the heart of Daoism is a Chinese word (道) that has several English interpretations. The ‘way’ is probably its most common English definition. Others include ‘path’, ‘key’, ‘method’ and even ‘doctrine’. However, it is generally agreed that ‘Dao’ cannot and should not be defined.

Here is Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘rendition’ of a saying from the Daode jing (道德經) …

The way you can go

Isn’t the real way.

The name you can say

Isn’t the real name.

Heaven and earth

begin in the unnamed:

name’s the mother

of the ten thousand things.

So the unwanting soul

sees what’s hidden,

and the ever-wanting soul

sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin,

but different in name.

whose identity is mystery.

Mystery of all mysteries!

The door to the hidden.

~ ‘Chapter 1: Taoing’, Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, A New English Version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of Carolina, Chapel Hill.(Shambhala Publications Inc., 1997)
N.B. I will be referring to the above publication in this blog as well as other translations of the Daode Jing.




The Teacher


Laozi (老子) or Laotzu was the philosopher said to be the author of the Daode jing (道德經), the fundamental text for the religion and philosophy of Daoism; the founder of philosophical Daoism and a deity in religious Daoism and Chinese traditional religions.

We don’t know if he really existed, but there are theories that say that he was teacher to Confucius. That, however, would have placed Laozi in the sixth century (BCE), whereas there exists a first century (BCE) version of the Daode jing.

One theory suggests that the Daode jing is a collection of sayings, compiled over several centuries, and that one of its authors is a teacher referred to naturally as Laozi, meaning ‘Old Master’.

Laozi’s personal name is said to be either Li Er (李耳) or Li Dan (李聃). Claimed by the Tang Dynasty emperors as the founder of their lineage, the sage was granted the title ‘Supremely Mysterious and Primordial Emperor’ or Taishang Xuanyuan Huangdi (太上玄元皇帝).

As a deity and religious personage, Laozi is known as the ‘Supreme Old Lord’ or Taishang Laojun (太上老君) and one of the Three Pure Ones.