The Eight Immortals (Ba Xian)
One of the most popular Chinese decoration subjects are the Eight Immortals of the Dao religion. The Immortals (either separately or as a group) are legendary figures in Chinese mythology, equivalent of saints in western religion. The term ‘Eight Immortals’ is used to signify or represent happiness, and the number 8 is considered lucky by association, therefore objects or persons in that number are graced accordingly.
Most of them are said to originate from the Tang or Song Dynasty and are considered to be sacred by followers of Taoism. They are also popular with the secular population: images of the Eight Immortals are ubiquitous throughout China – they appear on common daily products such as porcelain, teapots, teacups, fans, scrolls, embroidery etc.
Since the Immortals also represent luck and prosperity, they were particularly common on various pieces of ancient art. The subjects frequently adorned celadon vases, paintings, murals, prints and sculptures. They are also popular subjects of poetry, fables and romances with numerous literature written about them.
Their appeal is the fact that they represent a large variety of people – young, old, male, female, civilian, military, rich, poor, afflicted, cultured, noble. They are also representative of early, middle and late historical periods. The Ba Xian are depicted either as a group or as separately, to pay homage to the individual immortal. They are known to offer instruction to worthy individuals and assistance to the needy. They have achieved immortality during different dynasties through perfection of Taoist and alchemical practices.
Upon their emergence, the Immortals soon became eminent figures of Taoist religion, with their importance heightening even more during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Particular rulers such as Jiajing and Longqing Emperors were greatly involved in Taoist philosophies which greatly influenced the imagery and art direction of their respective reigns.
Zhongli Quan is considered to be the official leader of the Ba Xian and is one of the most ancient immortals. He was once an army general during the Han Dynasty. According to legend, bright beams of light filled the labour room during his birth.
There are several stories on how he achieved his status as one of the immortals. One of them is that five Taoist saints taught him the ways of immortality in the mountains, after he fled battle with Tibetans. Another story says that he met an old Taoist master in the forest, who taught him the secret to immortality. Another account mentions that one day, when he was meditating in his hermitage, a wall collapsed and revealed a jade box which contained the instructions to achieving immortality. He followed these instructions and was carried away on a silver cloud to the dwelling place of the immortals.
Zhongli Quan is often depicted as a bald, corpulent man with a bare belly and a long beard. He holds a fan which has the power to resurrect the dead.
The only female Immortal, He Xian-Gu lived as a hermit in the mountains during the Tang dynasty. When she was fourteen, she was visited by a spirit who told her the secret to immortality. She was told to grind a stone known as “the mother of clouds” into a powder and consume it. She would then become light as a feather and achieve immortality. In another myth, she had lost her way in the mountains while gathering tea leaves. There she met a scholar who gave her a peach to eat, after which she never felt hungry again.
He Xian-Gu is often depicted as a young woman holding the peach of immortality or a magical lotus flower (symbol of the open heart). She is often shown playing a reed organ or holding a ladle, representing wisdom, meditation and purity.
Lu Dongbin is one of the most recognized and revered of the Ba Xian. He is considered to be one of the first masters of the Neidan or internal alchemy. Lu is also a historical figure mentioned in the scholarly text – the History of Song.
Lu Dongbin was born in Northern China in 798 AD into a family of civil servants. When he grew up he became a government official. When he was sixty-four, Lu met the immortal Han Zhongli who taught him lessons in alchemy and the magic arts. He became a follower of Han Zhongli and dedicated himself to the ways of immortality.
He gained his Immortality after passing a series of 10 temptations set by Zhongli to test Lu’s purity and dignity. Upon passing the trials, he was given a magic sword for fighting the evils of the world. The sword was not to be used for killing but rather for fighting ignorance and aggression. Later on, Lu Dongbin roamed the land as a vagrant teaching the ways of compassion and peace.
Among his many powers, is the ability to travel very fast and the fact that he looked like a young man, although he was a 100 years old. In art he is depicted as a scholar, carrying the sword on his back and a fly brush in his hand. The sword is said to grant him powers of invisibility, as well as warding off evil spirits.
Zhang Guo Lao
Zhang Guo Lao or “Elder Zhang Guo” is one of the Eight Immortals. He was a real historical figure who was born around 7th Century AD. Zhang Guo was a Taoist Fangshi (Occultist-Alchemist) who lived as a hermit in the Zhongtiao Mountains in the Heng Prefecture during the Tang Dynasty. By the time of Empress Wu Zetian’s reign, he was a 100 years old.
Zhang Guo Lao was a strong believer in magic of necromancy and had a love for wine and wine making. He was famous for riding a white donkey which could travel thousands of miles per day. Also, the donkey could be folded just like a piece of paper and tucked into his pocket. He would revive the donkey by sprinkling water on the folded paper.
In artwork, Zhang Guo Lao is depicted as an old man carrying a bamboo drum with two rods or mallets for striking the instrument. He is often depicted riding his white donkey, usually facing backwards.
Cao Guo Jiu
Cao Guojiu or “Royal Uncle Cao” is the uncle of the Emperor of the Song Dynasty and one of the Eight Immortals. His brother was an infamous bully who abused his connections (their father was a powerful military general) and was allowed to get away with various crimes including murder. Cao warned his brother that although he could escape the laws of humanity, he could not escape the laws of heaven.
Cao Guojiu, ashamed and saddened by his brothers behaviour, gave up all of his wealth and retreated into the mountains to live as a hermit and study the ways of Taoism. He was accepted by Han Zhongli and Lu Dongbin into the Ba Xian after they visited his mountain shelter. He became the patron saint of the actors and the theatre.
As the most well-dressed of the group, Cao is depicted wearing royal court dress and carrying a jade tablet, which has the power to purify the air. He is also often shown holding castanets, which signifies his rank as he is able to directly access palace audiences.
Han Xiang Zi
Han Xiang Zi was born during the Tang Dynasty as a nephew of a famous writer and statesman named Han Yu. Han Xiang was taught the ways of Taoism by an immortal named Lu Dongbin, when he was just a teenager. His uncle was entrusted with educating young Han Xiang in the ways of Confucianism but he was adamant on pursuing Taoism and the ways of the immortals. He even attempted to persuade Han Yu to convert to Taoism by demonstrating his magic powers – he endlessly poured cup after cup of wine from a single gourd. In another demonstration he caused flowers to bloom spontaneously.
Han Xiang Zi is depicted as a young man, carrying a flute. The flute has magic powers which cause growth, give life, soothe animals and cause flowers to bloom. Because of his flute, he is considered to be the patron saint of flautists.
Lan Cai He
Lan Caihe is the most bizarre and least known of the Eight Immortals. He is depicted as a sexually ambiguous beggar of unknown age. Although often shown as either a young boy or young girl carrying a flower basket, he is also sometimes depicted as an old man wearing ragged blue robes.
The stories surrounding the character are as bizarre as his appearance. Lan Caihe often carries wooden castanets which he would clap together or bang against the ground while singing along to the beat. The amazed onlookers would follow these performances and give him lots of money for the entertainment they receive. He would put the money on a long piece of string which dragged on the ground, he didn’t care if any of the coins fell off and other beggars would then collect them.
Lan Caihe is often shown wearing only one shoe, with the other foot being bare. During winter months, he slept naked in the snow and in the summer he wore many layers of thick clothing despite the heat.
Li Tai Guai
Of the Eight Immortals, Li Tai Guai (or “Iron Crutch Li”) is the most ancient character. He was born during the Han Dynasty. He was taught by Lao Tzu, who was the founder of Taoism, and Hsi Wang Mu, a Taoist Goddess. Legend has it that Li was so devoted to practising meditation that he often forgot to eat and sleep. He is known to have a short temper and abrasive personality but he also shows benevolence and compassion for the poor, sick and needy.
Li Tai Guai is often depicted as a lame beggar with messy hair and a dirty face. He also carries an iron crutch and a double gourd. According to legend, Li was once a handsome man but one day, his spirit left his body to visit Lao Tzu. He instructed one of his disciples to look after his body in his absence for the duration of a week. He told him to burn the body if Li didn’t return in seven days.
After looking after the body for only six days, the student learnt that his own mother was dying and burnt the body to attend her. When Li returned he found that his physical body was burnt, so he found a body of an old beggar to inhabit. He turned the beggar’s bamboo staff into an iron crutch or staff, hence his name “Iron Crutch Li”. He always carries around a double gourd. Apart from being the symbol of longevity, the gourd has the ability to ward off evil spirits and helping the sick and needy. Li can be credited with reviving the student’s mother back to life using a magic potion made inside his gourd.
In art, Li Tai Guai is often depicted riding a Quilin (mythical animal) with a misty cloud emanating from his double gourd to represent his wandering spirit.