The Xian are the Chinese Immortals. The word “xian” roughly translates as “first” or “new.” This image fits with the notion that as Immortals we are born anew. It is also an Eastern parallel to ‘The Church of the Firstborn’ in the Bible.
The Xian have attained immortal status and as such are no longer subject to the "world of dust." They are adept in the magickal arts and possess certain magickal skills - the ability to fly, weightlessness, invisibility, longevity, mastery of the elements - earth, air, fire, and water. Naturally, these abilities co-exist with perfected virtues: compassion, humility, courage, humour, justice, perseverance, strength of purpose, etc.
China has a long Immortalist history. Today there are some ten thousand Chinese Immortals. The Ba Xian (pronounced bah-shee-en), or Eight Immortals of Taoist mythology are the most well known throughout Chinese culture. As symbols of good fortune, their faces and names are found on ornaments, artwork, architecture, and in literature throughout history.
Although the Ba Xian are individuals who achieved immortality in different dynasties, they are often depicted in each other’s company. Four are historical figures. Together, they represent the full range of human experience: youth, old age, poverty, wealth, male, female, the common people, and the nobility.
The Ba Xian are known to offer instruction to the worthy and give assistance to the needy. Originally normal humans, the Ba Xian achieved immortality through the perfection of taoist alchemical practices.
THE BA XIAN (PA HSIEN) EIGHT IMMORTALS:
1. Zhong Li-Quan
Zhong Li-Quan is depicted as corpulent, bald, with a bare belly, and a long beard. He lived during the Han Dynasty. There are several stories on how he achieved immortality.
In one account five Taoist saints initiated him into the teachings of immortality in the mountains after he fled from fighting some Tibetans. In another account he met an old Taoist master in a forest who instructed him in the Art of Physical Immortality. As Zhong was leaving, he turned to get one last glance at the master’s hut, but it had vanished.
Another story relates that during a famine, Zhong mysteriously produced silver coins and gave them to the poor. One day, when he was meditating in his hermitage, a wall collapsed. It revealed a jade box containing meditation instructions on how to become Immortal. He followed the instructions and was carried away on a silver cloud to the dwelling place of the immortals.
Several hundred years later, Zhong Li-Quan gave instructions on physical immortality to Lu Dong-bin. Zhong Li-Quan's symbol is a fan, usually made from palm leaves or feathers. It is with this fan that he is said to bring the dead back to life.
2. Lu Dong-Bin
Also known as: Lu Tung-pin, Lu Yan, Chun Yang Zi.
Lu Dongbin was born in 798 AD in northern China. His family were civil servants. Lu Dongbin served as a government official during the Tang dynasty. He is said to have failed his highest imperial examinations twice.
When he was sixty-four, Lu Dongbin met the immortal Han Zhongli, who gave him a lesson in the magic arts. Lu fell asleep and had a dream that he had been promoted to a high official post and possessed enormous wealth. For fifty years everything was wonderful until his family was banished and killed. When he awoke from this dream Lu chose to forego his official career. Instead, he followed Zhongli and became a hermit in the Zhong Lan Mountain and dedicated himself to the Way of Immortality.
Later, Lu Dongbin roamed the land as a vagrant. A Yuan emperor gave him the title of Patriarch Lu, or Lu Zu. When he was 100 years old he still looked like a young man and could travel 100 miles in a few seconds. At one time he was a native of Zhong Fu. It is said that he now lives in Mount Zhong Lan and calls himself Hui Dao Ren. He is also associated with dragons, cranes, and is fond of wine.
Lu Dongbin was given a magickal sword as a reward for overcoming ten temptations. He uses this sword to fight the evils in the world. Lu Dongbin teaches that compassion is the essential means of attaining immortality. His sword is not for killing enemies, but for conquering ignorance and aggression.
3. Zhang Guo-Lao
Also known as: Chuang kuo lao, Zhangguo Lao, Chang Kuo-lao.
Zhang Guolao lived in the Zhongtiao Mountains for many years. He claimed to have been born in prehistoric times. By the time of the reign of Empress Wu Zetian (690-705 AD) he was already several hundred years old. He enjoyed a secluded life in the mountains of China.
One day he was summoned by the Empress. He feigned his death so that he didn’t have to meet her. Afterwards, he was seen in the mountains near Hengzhou, very much alive.
He is famous for riding backwards on a white donkey which could travel thousands of miles in a single day. When Zhang Guolao rested, he would fold up the donkey just like it was made from a piece of paper and tuck it in his pocket. To revive the donkey again he would simply sprinkle the paper with water. Zhang Guo Lao’s symbol is the bamboo cane, but he is sometimes shown with two drumsticks, a phoenix feather, or a peach. Some thought he could change into a bat, another symbol of immortality.
The Emperor Xuan Zong (712-756) also wished to have a visit from Zhang Guolao. This time Zhang Guo Lao obliged the Sovereign, who gave him several honorary titles, and amused him with his magickal tricks.
An emperor once questioned a famous Taoist master about Zhang’s identity. This master said if he were to reveal Zhang's true identity he would drop dead immediately. However, he also said that if this happened the emperor could visit Zhang on his behalf and ask forgiveness for such betrayal, and Zhang could bring him back to life. The emperor agreed to do this, and the Taoist master told him that Zhang was an incarnation of the primordial chaos, then fell down dead. The emperor sought forgiveness of Zhang, who then sprinkled water over the dead measter and revived him. Not long after, Zhang became ill and withdrew to the mountains where he was thought to have died between 742 and 746 AD. However, when his pupils opened his grave they found it empty.
4. Cao Guo-Jiu
Also known as: Chao kuo Chiu, Cao Guojiu, Ts'ao Kuo-chiu
Cao Guojiu was born in the Sung dynasty. He was an uncle of the emperor and his father was a commander in the military. He is usually shown wearing official robes, court headdress, and carrying an imperial tablet which indicates his rank and right to palace audiences. Guojiu was a semi-official title given for brothers of the empress.
Cao Guojiu had a brother who was infamous for his bad ways. Ashamed of his brother and his wickedness, Cao Guojiu decided to give up his wealth and retreated into the mountains to study Taoism. Han Zhongli and Lu Dongbin, of the Ba Xian, welcomed him into their company after paying him a visit at his mountain hideaway.
A pair of castanets is Cao Guojiu’s symbol. He is the patron saint of the theatre.
Cao Guojiu, a man of good character, would warn his brother that while you can escape the laws of society, you cannot avoid the nets of heaven.
5. Han Xian-Zi
Also known as: Hang yang chie, Han Xiangzi, Han Hsiang-tzu.
Han Xian-zi is depicted as a gentle mountain recluse. He received immortalist teachings when just a teenager from Lu Dongbin, another of the Eight Immortals. Han Xian-zi’s symbol is the jade flute. Jade has long been associated with immortality.
Han Xian-zi’s uncle was a well known writer and statesman named Han Yu, who lived during the Tang Dynasty. He was entrusted with educating the young Han Xian-zi, an intelligent but wild child, who was contemptuous of the superficiality in the world. He was once expelled from a Buddhist temple because of his rude behaviour. When he was older, Han Xiang-zi tried unsuccessfully to teach his uncle the Way of Immortality.
One day, Han Xian-zi told his uncle that he could cause flowers to grow instantly and produce fine wine without grain. His uncle scoffed at the idea, but was amazed when Han Xian-zi caused multi-colored peony flowers to blossom from out of the ground in the middle of winter. On the leaves was written a poem in 14 golden characters, "Clouds veil the peaks of Qin-lin mountain. Where is your home? Deep lies the snow on the Lan Pass and the horses will go no further." Han Xian-zi saw a hidden meaning in these lines, but his uncle dismissed them as nonsense. The poem was a prophecy that was only later understood when the uncle was driven into exile...
After falling out of favour with the emperor, Han Xian-zi’s uncle was exiled to Chaoyang in the far south of China. Sometime after he left the city his horse became stuck in the snow on the Lan Pass. Suddenly, his nephew Han Xiang-zi appeared from out of nowhere and cleared away the snow. He told his uncle not to worry, that eventually he would be returned to his official post and allowed back with his family. The prophecy soon came true.
6. Li Tie Kuai
Also known as: Li Xuan, Li Tieguai, Li T'ieh-kuai.
Li Tie Guai was born in the Han Dynasty. He is said to have been taught by the founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu, and also by the Taoist Goddess Hsi Wang Mu. Li Tie Guai spent 40 years solely devoted to the practice of meditation to the extent that he often forgot to eat or sleep.
Once handsome, he is usually depicted as a lame beggar with messy hair and a dirty face. He has a stormy temper and an abrasive personality, but is known for his benevolence shown to the poor, sick and the needy.
It is said that his soul left his body one day to visit Lao Tzu. He asked one his disciples to keep watch over his physical body for a week. He told his student to burn his body after seven days if he had not returned by then.
After only six days the student learned that his own mother was dying, so he burned Li's body and went to his mother's bedside. When Li Tie Guai returned he discovered that the disciple had burnt his body, so he looked around and found the body of an old beggar to inhabit. He turned the beggar’s bamboo cane into an iron crutch, or magic staff, and earned the nickname Iron Crutch Li. He is known to carry a gourd (symbol of the universe). He can transmute matter with his staff and magically makes medicine in the gourd.
He is credited with raising his student's mother back to life using a magical potion. At night he makes himself so tiny that he can sleep within the gourd. He is often shown riding on a chimera, a mythical beast.
7. He Xian Gu
Also known as Ho Hsien Ku, He hsiang ku, He Xiangu.
He Xian Gu is most often depicted as a wise young woman. She was born in 700 AD and lived in Yunmu Xi (Ravine of Mica) , Zengcheng, in Guangdong province. It is said that she achieved immortality when she was just fourteen years old.
As a teenager, He Xian Gu had a dream that mother-of-pearl was part of the formula for making the Elixir of Life. It gave her agility and such lightness of body that she could travel from one mountain top to another at will. Mother-of-pearl symbolises immortality, wisdom and light.
He Xian Gu’s symbol is the lotus flower. She once received a magic lotus from Lu Dong Bin. He Xian Gu is said to have disappeared one day on her way to visit the Empress Wu Hou (690-705 AD) after being summoned by her to the imperial court. She was sighted 50 years later floating on a cloud.
8. Lan Cai He
Also known as Lan Tsai Ho, Lan tsai ho, Lan Caihe.
Lan Cai He would stagger through the streets in ragged blue clothes, a black belt, and with one shoe on and the other foot bare. He wore thick clothing and a coat in summer, and in winter he would make his bed in the snow. He would sing raucously while appearing drunk and beg in the busiest parts of the city.
One day the patrons of an inn saw him disappear to the sounds of music coming from the sky. He is also thought to have disguised himself as a woman on occasions. Little is known of Lan Cai He’s early life. Most people thought he was quite crazy, yet he could travel great distances with ease. His emblem is a bamboo basket filled with flowers.
For more stories about Chinese Immortals see A Gallery of Chinese Immortals translated by Lionel Giles.
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