Daoism and Cct

Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Who are the Eight Immortals?

Three historical and five legendary persons believed to have achieved immortality figure prominently in Chinese religious lore. Daoist sources tell of many other mortals who have achieved immortality, but these eight are especially important. Chinese religious lore contains many sets of eight (trigrams, precious objects, and cosmic directions, for example). The Immortals (xian) are in some ways analogous to Christianity’s saints and Islam’s Friends of God.

Lu Dong Bin, originally a patriarch of the Complete Realization school during the eighth century, generally leads the group. He usually dresses as a scholar and carries a fly whisk. Some images show him with his magical sword, one of the Eight Daoist Emblems. Lu is patron of barbers and is celebrated for his healing powers. Li Tie Guai, a purely legendary figure whose emblems are the gourd and crutch, appears as an old crippled beggar. He champions the weak and marginalized and is a patron of pharmacists. Zhang Guo Lao lived sometime between 650 and 750 C.E. Capable of making himself invisible, Zhang appears riding (often backward!) on a white mule which he could roll up and tuck into his sleeve. His emblem is the percussion instrument made of a bamboo tube and two sticks and he is the patron of elderly men. He Xian’gu, the lone female of the group, holds a bamboo ladle, a lotus or basket of flowers, and sometimes the peach of immortality. She is said to have lived around 700 C.E. and is noted for her asceticism and kindness. Han Xiang Zi is the patron of musicians. He carries a flute and is known for his spendthrift ways and delight in mountain solitude. Zhong Li Chuan is supposed to have been a soldier of old who failed in battle and became an alchemist. Apparently once a historical figure, the aging and portly fellow eventually ascended to Heaven on a stork and now carries a fan. Lan Cai is a strange figure among strange figures. With one foot bare and one shod, sometimes appearing as a woman, sometimes as a boy, he carries a basket of flowers and is patron of florists. Cao Guo Jiu, patron of actors, carries a pair of castanets or, alternatively, a jade court tablet that was his entry pass and from which the image of castanets may have developed. Tradition makes this eighth Immortal the brother of a Song Dynasty empress and dresses him in royal finery. The whole octet are still widely popular and sought out for their magical powers.

Daoist female immortal He Xian’gu holding her bamboo vessel and a long-stemmed lotus, ivory with polychrome and gilt decoration, Dao Guang period, 1821-1850. (The Saint Louis Art Museum.)


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