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Friday, 04 January 2008

Legends about the Eight Immortals (Ba Xian) started to circulate orally long ago among the people and were recorded in the works of writers of various dynasties - Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming. But it was only with Wu Yuantai of the Ming dynasty who wrote The Emergence of the Eigbt lmmortals and Their Travels to the East that the Eight began to be clearly distinguished as the following.

 

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Tieguai Li (also called Li Tieguai, meaning Li with the Iron Crutch) was a lay Taoist by the name of Li Xuan who received his Enlightenment from the Supreme Patriarch of Taoism himself. Once his soul left his body to travel abroad but had to enter the corpse of a starved beggar when he found his own body mistakenly burnt by his disciple. He then had an earthly form with unkempt hair, a dirty face, a bare abdomen and a crippled leg. He blew water on the beggar's bamboo cane, changing it into an iron cane or crutch. Hence his popular name. He is also generally shown carrying a gourd said to contain magic medicines.

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Han Zhongli (or Zhongli Quan) was given the first divine revelations by Li Tieguai and then went into the mountains to seek the light. After his return to the world, he killed a tiger with a flying scimitar and changed copper into gold to help the poor. In the end, he ascended to the upper realms of immortality with his brother. He is usually shown with a feather fan in a comfortable reclining posture.

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Zhang Guolao was a hermit in the Zhongtiao Mountains for a long time. He is said to have already been several hundred years old in the reign of Empress Wu Zetian (690 - 705 A. D.). Summoned by the Empress, he feigned death by magic in order to avoid meeting her. Later people saw him in the mountains near Hengzhou. He used to travel on a white donkey which could cover thousands of leagues in a single day. When taking a rest, he would fold up the donkey as if it were made of paper and put it into his suitcase. Emperor Xuan Zong summoned him to the capital. He played tricks to amuse the Sovereign, who bestowed several honorary titles on him. He is usually depicted riding backward on his donkey, that is, facing the tail of the beast.

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He Xiangu was a Tang dynasty girl of Zengcheng, Guangdong province, living at a place called Yunmu Xi (Ravine of Mica). She became an immortal at the age of fourteen by taking mica powder. After that, she was so agile that her body could float from one peak to another collecting fruit for her mother. Another source says that she was a woman Taoist of Yongzhou during the Song dynasty, famous for her fortune - telling.

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Lan Caihe, according to some sources, was a hermaprodite, usually dressed in blue tatters, with one foot bare and the other in a boot, wandering through the country, begging along the thoroughfares and singing drunkenly to the cadence of castanets. One day in an inn, music of flutes and mouth - organs was heard descending from the sky. Lan was suddenly wafted off into the air and vanished.

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Lu Dingbin was a native of Shaanxi (some say, of Shanxi) province and lived during the Tang dynasty. After failing twice at the imperial examinations during the years 841 - 846A. D., he led a vagrant life for years. At the age of sixty - four, he met Han Zhongli, who taught him the secrets of alchemy. Then he became a hermit in the Zhongnan Mountains to seek the Way of Immortality. Later, he roamed the empire and was said to have killed vicious dragons at Jianghuai, played tricks with cranes at Yueyang, and performed various other magic arts to rid the world of evils. He was given an official title by a Yuan emperor and came to be generally know as Lu Zu (Patriarch Lu). Taoists considered him to be one of the five supreme deities of the North.

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Han Xiangzi is said to be a distant nephew of the great Tang writer - statesman Han Yu. Intelligent and unrestrained in nature, he managed, once in an early winter, to make rose - peonies blossom in a few days in different colours, each blossom carrying a written poem, to the great astonishment of his uncle. He tried to proselyte Han Yu to renounce the world for Taoism. When Yu fell into disfavour and was banished to Chaoyang in the far south, he met with snow on the way. Suddenly Xiangzi came from nowhere to bid him farewell. Before parting, Xinagzi told about future happenings, all of which came true.

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Cao Guojiu is said to have lived during the Song dynasty and his name was Cao You, Guojiu being a semi - official title for the brothers of the empress. He had a brother who, taking advantage of his imperial connexion, became a notorious evildoer. Ashamed of his brother and afraid of becoming implicated, he scattered his wealth among the poor and went into the mountains to seek the Way of Enlightenment. Finally, he was immortalized by Han Zhongli and Lu Dongbin. Another source says that he left his mortal remains at a Taoist temple in Xuzhou.

 

The Eight were called the "roaming immortals" in Taoist legends. Their images appear in all sorts of arts and crafts, including furniture, porcelain, paintings and embroideries, often to convey the idea of a leisurely, carefree life.

The best known tale that involves all of them together is Ba Xian Guo Hai or The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea. It describes how, when crossing a sea in their wanderings, each of them used a different object (a walking cane, a fan, a scimitar, etc.) as a vessel. Thes has given rise to an everyday saying: when people try to accomplish the same task by different methods, they are said to be emulating the example of the Eight Immortals crossing the sea.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 03 April 2010 )
 
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