The Chinese legends of the 8 immortals


In the Taoist religions there are many legendary personalities, among them there is a set of figures we know particularly well: the 8 immortals. They are people who in different ways discovered the secret of eternal life. These immortals enjoy mountainous and isolated places. Each of them represents a condition of life of the society: the old man, the military man, the rich man, the woman, the high ranking man, the cripple, the scholar and the simple man. Here are the Chinese legends of the 8 immortals.

Each of them had the opportunity to live various adventures alone or accompanied by other immortals, the most famous one being that of the “Eight immortals crossing the sea” (ba-xian guo-hai). As stated in the title, these eight chose to explore the wonders of the sea. In the course of their adventures, they had to confront the Dragon King, whom they defeated together.

The legends of the 8 immortals

The 8 immortals are :

Zhongli Quan or Han Zhongli

The master of the 8 immortals lived in times of the Zhou (1122-249 B.C.). He was born in Shan-xi. From his status of marshal of the empire and his advanced age, he decided to live in reclusion in the Zhon-nan mountains.
He then met the 5 heroes who allowed him to dedicate himself to the doctrine of immortality, which later granted him the title of “Only independent under the sky”.
Then and for many more years, he was busy transmuting copper into silver with the help of a drug which he gave to the most destitute.

One day while meditating, the wall of his house collapsed. From there fell a jade box containing secret information on how to become immortal. He worked on it until the day multi-coloured clouds and music filled his rooms. A celestial crane then took him to the land of eternal life.

The legends of the 8 immortals
Zhongli Quan with his fan

Zhang Guo the Elder

He is a semi-legendary Taoist of the Tang dynasty. Apparently so old that he served under the emperor Yao as an alchemist and diviner specializing in long life practices and breathing techniques. The legends say that he is a medicinal lacoolist whose secrets he knows.
He received his divinity and his place with “the eight” on the 23rd day of the 11th lunar month.

We portray him riding sometimes upside down on a white donkey. He is capable of folding like a sheet of paper and reviving by throwing water on him, and of walking 500,000 steps a day.
Sometimes he is seen holding a cylindrical drum called a yugu in his hand, used for divination while warding off evil influences.

The legends of the 8 immortals
Zhang Guo and his donkey

Cao Guojiu

The most recent member of the 8 immortals. Taking advantage of his brother’s social situation, he proceeded to a multitudinous crime and then decided to withdraw from the world for the practices of Dao, which offered him the possibility of obtaining a magic élixir through the ticket of Lü Dongbin and Zhongli Quan. He is often portrayed wearing two jade tablets, the same ones as those of the officials who came to meet the emperor. They can also be castanets, which give him the role of patron of actors.

The legends of the 8 immortals
Cao Guojiu with his jade tablets

Han Xiangi the Pure

Nephew of the great lecturer and statesman Han Yu of the Tang period. He was a disciple of Dong-bin, who showed a natural ability for literature and magical powers; he could float on the branches of natural sin, granting himself immortality.

Following his awakening, he chose a vagabond life, playing his flute and attracting wild animals and birds with the beauty of his music, not caring about the money offered to him by by-passers He threw everything to the ground and then became the patron saint of musicians.

Han Xiangi with his flute

He Xian-gu immortal maiden He

Daughter of a shopkeeper in Hu-nan at the time of Empress Wu of the Tang. According to the legend, she was born with only six hairs on her head. She hardly had any more for the rest of her life, despite the representations of her likeness.

She chose to leave her city at a young age to live in the Pearly Mountains. There she met a spirit in her dreams, who gave her the secret of immortality. She chose a life of errancy in the mountains, bringing back fruits to her mother, who had followed her, feeding on mother-of-pearl and moonbeams. One day a demon tried to kill her, but Lü Dong-bin came to save her armed with his enchanted sword.
The empress Wu, having heard about her, ordered her to come to the palace. But He Xian-Gu disappeared during her journey, only to reappear several decades later floating on coloured clouds near the temple of Ma Gu the Taoist magician.

He Xian-Gu takes the traits a beautiful woman with a lotus. She has a fly swatter or a cup of wine in her hand.

He Xian-Gu with her fly swapper

Lü Dongbin

He was born in 755 in Shan-Xi in a family of great latters. He met the fire dragon during a trip to Lu-Shan. The fire dragon gave him an enchanted sword that gave him the ability to hide in the air at will. Visiting the temple of time called Chang’an i, he met him who allowed him to learn the mysteries of alchemy. Han Zhong-li received the secret of the elixir of life and supernatural power and weapons. He used them to defeat the evil demons and dragons scattered throughout the empire for 400 years.

Lü Dongbin became the patron saint of barbers and the sick, and in 1115 the Northern Song emperor gave him the title of “Hero of Wonderful Wisdom”.

He generally appears with his emblem on his back. The sober one given by the fire dragon and a fly chaser, Taoist symbol representing the ability to walk on the clouds.
From his past as a great lecturer, he later became the patron saint of ink manufacturers.

Lü Dongbin with his magical sword

Li Tieguai

Also called Kong Mu, he is in each of his performances equipped with his iron cane and a gourd filled with magic elixir.
He became immortal thanks to the Queen Mother of the West named Xi-wang-mu, who lived in a golden palace and served Li Tieguai at a banquet magical peaches, granting immortality to anyone who would eat them.

Li Tie-Guai used his magic to go to the celestial court and converse with Lao-zi. In order to get there, he left his carnal envelope, then taking the appearance of death.
One day, after hanging around the golden palace for too long, he discovered at his return that his pupil Lang-ling, thinking that his master was really dead, decided to cremate his body. Returning from the celestial court without a body, he decided to take the body of a beggar who had died nearby.
Once he reincarnated his soul, he quickly realised the horror of the body, which had twisted legs, enormous orbital cavities, beards and bushy hair.

In compensation for his handicap, Lao-zi gave him a golden gift and an iron cane.
It is said that Tie-guai, by consuming his beverages, resurrected his mother and became the patron saint of apothecaries.

Li Tieguai with his cane and his flask of elixir

Lan Caihe

They are the balladeer of the 8 immortals . They are represented as being a hermaphrodite. At evening as a woman in a blue dress, with a shoeless foot and holding a chopstick. Originally Yan Su of the Tang dynasty wandering around doing burlesque songs and living a vagabond life.

Their breath gave off a brilliant vapour like a pot of boiling water. They were once found drunk in a tavern in An-hui, and disappeared without warning on a cloud. They were later seen singing in the streets of some cities verses about the inconsistency of life and illusory pleasures.

The more often they appear carrying a basket of flowers and later became the patron saint of florists.

Lan Caihe and her basket of flowers

At first glance he seems drunk, but in fact he is sober.
Under the appearance of this drunkenness the real state is clearly discernable.

In fusion, the eight immortal become one, their strength and their weakness, their firmness and flexibility complement each other.

He inhales, and on exhale leans back and falls with his back to the ground, holding a jar in his arms. Under the influence of alcohol, Han Zhonli perfoms the dance of drunkness with his fan. The drunken immortal Guolao straddles his mule mounted upside down. With a heavy head and light step, he seems drunk as if he walking on the mud.
The third immortal Xianzi plays his iron flute. Not sure of his right or left, not knowing the difference between up ad down, here is the drunken lame man, said Li the immortal the iron crutch. He who loves to play the castanets, the melancholic spirit, Cao Guoliu as the morning performs his drunken dance.

Fragment of the Chinese poem of the 8 immortals in wine.

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  1. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say superb blog!


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