The Eight Immortals: Zhongli Quan


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.

HanZhongLiZhongli 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.



The Eight Immortals: Han Xiangzi


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

Han XiangziYears 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.


The Eight Immortals: Lü Dongbin

LuDongBin 2

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 (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.

LuDongBingLü 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.

The Eight Immortals: Lan Caihe

Lan Caihe

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.

LanGaiHeIt 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.

The Eight Immortals: Li Tieguai 

li tieguai

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.

TieGwaiLiBefore 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.


The Eight Immortals: He Xian’gu

He Xiangu 3

He Xian’gu (何仙姑), which translates as The Immortal Woman He, is the only woman among the Eight Immortals (Bāxiān  八仙). She is known as a chaste woman who was devoted to her parents during their lifetime. She is usually portrayed holding a lotus flower or a peach to signify immortality.

Legend has it that He Xian’gu was the daughter of a Tang Dynasty peasant. The He family lived in the Zengcheng District in Guangzhou (Canton), Guangdong. Her birth name was He Qiong.

When He Xian’gu was about fourteen, she had a dream in which an immortal instructed her to eat the powdered mica that could be found on the banks of a distant stream. He Xian’gu was so inspired and moved by her dream that she took a vow of celibacy and travelled to the stream where she found and ate the mica. As a result, He Xian’gu became light as a feather; was able to cover large distances in a single stride; and ceased to require food and water to stay alive.

He Xiangu 4Having achieved immortality, He Xian’gu remained a filial daughter, continuing to care for her parents until their deaths.

Tales of her piety and immortality spread and the Empress Wu  (AD 690-705) summoned the young woman to court, eager to discover her secret. However, on the way to the palace, He Xian’gu floated up to Heaven on a cloud.

He Xian’gu is the patron deity of women and women seeking spiritual enlightenment.


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.