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.
According to legend, Li was a handsome young man before he achieved immortality. He was also known for his serious study of the Dao and was so devout and earnest that he impressed Shouxing, the deified Laozi, who returned to Earth and offered to be Li’s teacher.
It was under Laozi’s guidance that Li mastered the art of astral projection. Invited by Laozi to travel to Heaven, Li instructed one of his own pupils, Li Qing, to care for his physical body. Li Qing was told to cremate Li’s body if his spirit had not returned in seven days as this should be taken as a sign that Li Tieguai had achieved immortality and would no longer need his flesh and blood form.
Unfortunately, Li Qing mother fell ill while Li Tieguai’s spirit was in the Heavenly Realm. As the days passed and his Master still did not return, Li Qing felt more and more miserable, worried that he would not get to see his mother alive again. On the sixth day of his Master’s absence, Li Qing received word that his mother was at death’s door. The poor man convinced himself that Li Tieguai had achieved immortality and would no longer need his body, whereupon he carried out the cremation and then left for his home in a nearby village. Of course, no sooner had Li Qing left his Master’s house that Li Tieguai’s spirit materialised. To his consternation, he found that his body was no longer there for him to repossess.
Fearing that his spirit would disintegrated without a vessel, Li Tieguai searched for a suitable body to enter and came upon the fresh corpse of a beggar who had died of starvation. The beggar was both hideous and comical in appearance, and Li was initially disgusted by his appearance. However, as he was contemplating going in search of a more attractive body in which to spend the rest of his days, Laozi appeared to Li and advised him to ponder the importance of one’s material form. With that, Li realised that how he looked like was of no consequence, whereupon Laozi declared him ready to join the ranks of the immortals.
Before he returned to Heaven, Laozi gave Li Tieguai two gifts: an unbreakable walking staff and a gourd filled with a magical potion that could cure the sick.
Li’s first act as an immortal was to visit Li Qing’s home and cure his mother.
This immortal is usually pictured with his staff and gourd. He is the patron of doctors and pharmacists, as well as beggars and cripples.