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The Eight Immortals – Chinese Daoism

Background and History

  • Chinese Daoism believes that immortality is one of the highest goals of life. Daoists seek immortality through a number of means, including alchemy, proper religious practice (emphasizing the need to live in harmony with the ‘way’ of the natural world), and through secret knowledge of the world and the cosmos. Daoism recognizes Eight Immortals as legendary figures who embody these principles. Although their historicity can be debated, legend tells of their lives during the Tang and Song Dynasties from approximately 600 CE to 1300 CE. The immortals are considered to be still living and are currently dwelling on islands in the Bohai Sea.
  • Of the eight immortals, only one is a woman. The other eight immortals are men. All of them achieved immortality through meditation and the performance of virtuous actions. According to traditional beliefs, the Eight Immortals possess a stone that allows them to convert things into gold. They also have the power to revive the dead and are in commune with all of humanity through their powers.
  • Two of the immortals receive more attention in tales than the others. The leader of the Eight is Zhongli Jian and is often shown as a fat man who raises the dead. Zhongli Jian was the first of the immortals and secured the secret to immortality by developing a special elixir. He wears an imperial court robe and carries castanets. The other popular immortal of the eight is the woman He Xiangu. When she was a teenager born to a wealthy family during the Tang dynasty, she experienced a vision where she was told to consume powdered mica. By consuming the powdered mica and retaining her virginity, she became immortal. Since she is the only female in the group of Eight she is especially popular for women. A large temple in Singapore is devoted to her personage.

Role in Modern Society

  • Daoism has become an outlier in modern China because it is intimately associated with traditional, rural beliefs. Since the rise of Communism, not only has all religion been in decline in China but Daoism especially has experienced a downward turn. Nevertheless, Daoism remains the symbol of ancient China and Chinese history through its legends and beliefs. The Eight Immortals have ascended to a kind of popular cultural object that is often used to represent Chinese history. Art, film, and traditional crafts like pottery all enjoy depicting the Eight Immortals and their various stories.

Worshippers

  • The Eight Immortals are not often worshiped by themselves but rather in conjunction with other divine figures. However, they do occupy several recurring spaces within the worship practices of modern Chinese. Since their role in Daoism is to represent longevity, their image is often used to inspire healthy living and adherence to virtuous principles.


The 8 Immortals

  • Chinese Daoism believes that immortality is one of the highest goals of life. Daoists seek immortality through a number of means, including alchemy, proper religious practice (emphasizing the need to live in harmony with the ‘way’ of the natural world), and through secret knowledge of the world and the cosmos. Daoism recognizes Eight Immortals as legendary figures who embody these principles. Although their historicity can be debated, legend tells of their lives during the Tang and Song Dynasties from approximately 600 CE to 1300 CE. The immortals are considered to be still living and are currently dwelling on islands in the Bohai Sea.

The 8 Immortals are:

  1. Zhongli Quan
  2. Zhang Guolao
  3. Han Xiangzi
  4. Lü Dongbin
  5. Lan Caihe
  6. Li Tieguai
  7. Cao Guojiu
  8. He Xiangu

  • Of the eight immortals, only one is a woman. The other seven immortals are men. All of them achieved immortality through meditation and the performance of virtuous actions. According to traditional beliefs, the Eight Immortals possess a stone that allows them to convert things into gold. They also have the power to revive the dead and are in commune with all of humanity through their powers.
  • Daoism has become an outlier in modern China because it is intimately associated with traditional, rural beliefs. Since the rise of Communism, not only have all religions been in decline in China but Daoism especially has experienced a downward turn.
  • Nevertheless, Daoism remains the symbol of ancient China and Chinese history through its legends and beliefs. The Eight Immortals have ascended to a kind of popular cultural objects that are often used to represent Chinese history. Art, film, and traditional crafts like pottery all enjoy depicting the Eight Immortals and their various stories.
  • The Eight Immortals are not often worshiped by themselves but rather in conjunction with other divine figures. However, they do occupy several recurring spaces within the worship practices of modern Chinese. Since their role in Daoism is to represent longevity, their image is often used to inspire healthy living and adherence to virtuous principles.

In art

  • The tradition of showing human beings who have become eternal is an old practice in Chinese art and when Taoism became popular, it swiftly picked up this tradition. The most prominent art representation of the Eight Immortals is a mural of them in the Eternal Joy Temple at Ruicheng.
  • The Eight Immortals are believed to be symbols of longevity and prosperity. They were common in statues possessed by the nobility. Most commonly they appeared paintings.
  • The artwork of the Eight Immortals isn’t restricted to paintings. They are also prominent in written works. Playwrights and authors wrote several plays and stories on the Eight Immortals. The Yellow-Millet Dream story has been rewritten several times. This is the story revealing just how Lǚ Dòngbīn linked Zhongli Quan and started his journey to eternity.

Literature

  • The Eight Immortals are the theme of numerous artistic creations, such as sculptures and paintings.
Qigong and martial art

  • The Eight Immortals have been related to the initial growth of qigong exercises. A number of Chinese martial arts techniques have been named after them, which use fighting styles that are accredited to the qualities of each immortal.

Reverence

  • Sculptures of the Immortals are there in the Hall of Eight Immortals in the Xi'an temple. There are a number of other temples dedicated to them all over Taiwan and China.

Depictions in popular culture

  • The Eight Immortals are still a famous subject in artwork in modern China. Sculptures, pottery and paintings are still common in homes throughout China and even getting popular all over the world.
  • A number of movies have been produced in China about the Eight Immortals.
  • Singaporean television serial Legend of the Eight Immortals was based on stories of the Eight Immortals.
  • In the plot of the video game Fear Effect 2, the Eight Immortals play a crucial part.
  • The Eight Immortals reemerge to defend the Buddhist faith from wicked spirits set on putting an end to it in the Andy Seto graphic novel series Saint Legend.
  • In the X-Men comical book, the Eight Immortals act to defend China along with the Collective Man when the changed Xorn caused carnage in one tiny village.
  • In the lively show Jackie Chan Adventures, the Eight Immortals played a role. In the play, the Immortals were the ones who crushed the Eight Demon Sorcerers.
  • In The Forbidden Kingdom, Jackie Chan performs the character Lu Yan, who is assumed to be among the Eight Immortals.


Zhongli Quan

  • Zhongli Quan, is a Chinese mythical character and among the Eight Immortals in the pantheon of Taoism. He is also called Han Zhongli since he was believed to have been born in the Han dynasty. As per legend, he has a big fan which can bring back life to the dead and change stones into gold or silver.
Life

  • Zhongli was born in Yanjing. As per legend, during his birth the labour room was filled with bright beams of light. After his birth, he cried for 7 full days. From the day of his birth, he was predestined for eminence by displaying characteristics such as scarlet lips, high cheeks, square mouth, red nose, deep eyes, long eyebrows, thick ears and a broad forehead. His birthday is celebrated by Taoists on the 15th day of the 4th month of the Chinese calendar.
  • Pursuing his father's model, he joined the court and advanced to the post of army general. His army battled against Tibet. In his last battle the Tibetans defeated him, forcing him to run away into the hilly areas. He met an old man there who offered him accommodation in a spiritual sanctuary. He learned alchemy and the immortal rites there. After three days he was told to use his capabilities in order to work for his people. He used power of his magical fan and alchemy to convert stones into gold and silver coins and protected people from famine as well as poverty.
  • There are 2 stories showing the way he turned into one of the immortals. In the 1st story he descended into the shining cloud of the immortals due to constant use of his magical fan as well as the immortal powers. In the 2nd story he was meditating close to a wall of his sanctuary when it collapsed suddenly. A green vessel at the back of the wall took him to the shining cloud as an immortal.

Depiction

  • Zhongli is usually shown gripping a fan made from horse hair or feathers with his belly and chest undressed. In pictures he is often singled out from the other immortals by a beard down to his tummy button and tufts of hair on his temples. He is famous for his attractive character, and is frequently drawn or painted drinking wine.

Current depiction

  • Zhongli was shown as the Wind Demon in the television show Jackie Chan Adventures.



Zhang Guolao

  • Zhang Guolao is a Chinese mythical person and among the Eight Immortals in the Taoist pantheon. His existence is believed to have started in the 7th century and finished around the middle of the 8th century.
Life  
  • Zhang Guolao resided like a hermit on Zhongtiao Mountain during the Tang dynasty. He was fond of winemaking and wine. As a hobby he used to make wine from shrubs and herbs. Other seven immortals believed that his wine had medicinal and healing properties and they drank his wine. He had the ability to remain hungry for days, surviving on just a few sips of wine.
  • Of the Eight Immortals, Zhang was the most unusual, seen in the style of Chinese martial arts. The style includes moves like bending to such an extent that your shoulders touch the floor or producing a kick during a backflip. He was quite entertaining, wilting flowers just by pointing in their direction, grabbing birds in flight from the sky, drinking water from the petals of toxic flowers as well as making himself invisible.

Depiction in art and culture

  • Zhang appears repeatedly in Chinese sculptures and paintings, either alone or with the Seven Immortals and just like the other immortals, can be seen in a number of different everyday objects and common artistic mediums. He might be shown seated or standing, but is usually depicted riding his white mule. A fish drum is his symbol. Fish drum is a tube-shaped bamboo drum having 2 iron rods which he carries with him. As he symbolises old age in the Taoist fengshui tradition, his statue or picture can be placed in the bedroom or home of an elderly individual to assist bring them a long life as well as a natural death. In Taoist nuptial chapels his picture on his mule presenting a descendant to a newly wed couple can be seen.

Legends

  • Zhang was famous for travelling between Qin territories and the Fen River during his life and was known to travel at least 500,000 metres a day on a mule or white donkey. After completion of journey, he placed his mule in a small box or his pocket after folding it. When he required using the mule once again, he poured water from his mouth on the mule and the mule got back its form.
  • Zhang was often invited by the Tang dynasty emperors Gaozong and Taizong but he always declined. Once, on the request of Wu Zetian he left his hermitage. When he arrived at the gate of the Jealous Woman’s temple, he died. But later he was seen on Zhongtiao Mountain in Hengzhou.

Modern depictions

  • Zhang was displayed to be the Eternal who sealed away Po Kong in the television show Jackie Chan Adventures.


Han Xiangzi

  • Han Xiangzi, also known as Beizhu or Qingfu is a Chinese mythical person and one of the Eight Immortals in the Taoist pantheon. Another of the Eight Immortals Lü Dongbin was his teacher for Taoist magical arts. Han Xiangzi is usually shown holding a Chinese flute, therefore he is also considered as the patron god of flutists. It is said that he created the Taoist musical item Tian Hua Yin.

Historical identity  

  • He is believed to be a grandnephew of a prominent Confucian scholar, poet and politician, Han Yu, who lived in the Tang dynasty. Once Han Yu dedicated 3 poems to his grandnephew, Han Xiangzi. In 819, during the rule of Emperor Xianzong of Tang, the emperor arranged an impressive ceremony for a supposed Buddhist artifact to be brought to the royal palace and persuaded the people to revere the artifact and make a contribution to Buddhist hermitages. Han Yu advised Emperor Xianzong him not to do so. Emperor Xianzong became angry and wanted to kill Han Yu, but ultimately forgave him, downgraded him, and sent him out of Chang'an. On the way, Han Yu passed by Lan Pass, where Han Xiang joined him. Han Yu composed the poem Languan Shi Zhisun Xiang to dedicate to Han Xiang.
  • Han Xiang worked as a da li cheng under the Tang government.
  • Han Yu had a grandnephew who resided in the Huai River region. He ordered his grandnephew to learn Confucian classics but his grandnephew was not interested to learn Confucian classics. Han Yu admonished his grandnephew for not studying Confucian classics. His grandnephew declared that he is able to change the colour of peony flowers and showed it. Han Yu was deeply impressed. After that his grandnephew went back to the Huai River region and lived there for the rest of his life.