Eight Daoist immortals – ink painting by a contemporary Chinese artist
Historically, the Eight Immortals could refer to 8 different sets of Daoists. It was until the Ming Dynasty, the general consensus has been reached based on Wu Yuantai’s “Journey to the East, the Source of the Eight Immortals Legend (八仙出处东游记)”.
Since then, the following eight historical figures are commonly known as Eight Immortals and each is associated with a particular nature in Five Agents and Eight Trigrams.
Iron-Crutch Li (铁拐李)
According to Daoist classics, Crutch Li was initially an impressive-looking guy and spent decades meditating in a mountain cave. One day he decided to tour around the world, so he left his body in the cave in a vegetative state cared for by his disciple.
A few days later, the disciple was called home by his family to attend some urgent matters. When Crutch Li returned to the cave, he found his body was no longer usable. He had no choice but slipped into the body of a beggar newly starved to death and it was with this unsightly appearance he entered the immortal realm and remains so eternally.
In popular culture, Crutch Li forever holds a metal crutch in his hand and carries a huge bottle gourd on his back. The crutch serves both as his magic wand and personal vehicle, while the gourd is a medicine box filled with plasters that are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, a disease common in beggars as the result of sleeping rough.
He’s the leading figure in the Eight Immortals pack representing yin-metal in Five Agents and ☱ (兌) in Eight Trigrams.
Han Zhongli （汉钟离）
Han Zhongli was a military general of the East Han Dynasty according to historical documents. Since the guy had a short temper, he is forever seen waving a banana leaf fan that helps him to put out the fire of anger, one of the major obstacles on the path to upgrading the tangible existence.
Thus he stands for yang-fire in Five Agents and ☲ (离) in Eight Trigrams.
Zhang Guolao (张果老)
It is said that when Wu Zetian invited Zhang Guolao to her palace in Luoyang, the Daoist had already been 100-year-old. He didn’t want to meet the woman emperor so he faked his own death.
A few decades later, he was once again invited to Chang’an palace by musician Emperor Tang Minghuang, this time he accepted the invitation and went to coach the royal couple in Daoist cultivation skills and stage performing arts.
After a few years, he got bored of the palace so pretended to be gravely ill and returned to the deep mountain where he was spotted from time to time sitting on a donkey backwards sauntering around.
People believed he used this strange riding mode to show the world the way to go forward is to defy convention and habits, like trees growing by defying gravity.
Thus he stands for yang-wood in Five Agents and ☳ (震) in Eight Trigrams.
Lu Dongbin (吕洞宾)
Lu Dongbin was born in 796 in Xi’an during the Tang Dynasty. Like nearly all classical Chinese scholars, his highest aspiration was to pass the state-level scholarly exam, that took place once every four years, to secure an honourable job in government. But he failed the exam repeatedly.
One day on his way to attend yet another round of the exam, he met a Daoist. By then he was 46.
The Daoist invited him for lunch. While waiting for his meal, Lu Dongbin fell asleep.
In the dream he passed the exam, became a government official, got married and had many children; decades later, he was declared guilty by the throne, lost his position and wealth, watched all his family members die and was left alone struggling for survival. In such a state of misery, he woke up and realised it was just a dream while the meal was yet to be served.
The dream sent him questioning the meaning of earthly success. Thus he decided to become a Daoist and eventually ascended to an immortal’s world from Mt Zhongnan.
Since Lu Dongbin was a consummated swordsman, he stands for yang-mental, the purest and strongest yang qi in Five Agents, and ☰ (乾) in Eight Trigrams.
He is in fact one of the three most popular mythical figures in China along with Bodhisattva Guanyin and General Guanyu with numerous temples attributed to him.
Below are two lines from a classical poem ascribing to the enlightened worldview of Lu Dongbin:
There is a world hidden in every grain;
There is a universe boiling in each kettle.
White Cloud Daoist Temple, in the city of Jingmen, Hubei Province, where Lu Dongbin once resided during his cultivation.
Fairy He – He Xiangu (何仙姑)
Fairy He loved bushwalking. During her mountain hike, she met an immortal couple and eventually became their disciple, from them she learned how to see in the darkness and view the past and future. Soon her reputation as a Fairy He the Prophet was spread.
At the time, China was ruled by woman emperor Wu Zetian. While the female monarch consulted with the lady Daoist on how to achieve longevity, Fairy He used the opportunity to admonish the woman emperor to place those with virtue and talent in important positions, even if they were her political rivals and harsh critics, and sack those who only knew how to please her but cared nothing about the nation and the people.
Wu Zetian took Fairy He’s advice and the woman emperor’s time was viewed as an era of peace and prosperity by later historians.
Fairy He stands for gentle and generous yin-earth in Five Agents and ☷ (坤) in Eight Trigrams.
Below is a verse allegedly penned by Fairy He:
Lan Caihe (蓝采和)
During his youth, Lan Caihe often happily performed for people on the street of capital Chang’an, and he never lost his youthful-looking and happy heart when aged.
In Chinese mythology, Lan Caihe is described as a tender, humble, affectionate and charming actor, and his trademark image in popular culture is of carrying in his arm a flower basket.
Lan Caihe stands for gentle yin-wood in Five Agents and ☴ (巽) in Eight Trigrams.
This is a song tributing to the immortal Lan Caihe, the eternal entertainer who brings joy, reflection and contemplation to the people in the world.
Lyrics, music and sung by Dao Lang, one of China’s best songwriters and singers.
Lan Caihe, once
Sang to wine cup
Drank till his drop.
When woke up
Found girls’ faces with wrinkles
The land turned river with ripples.
It’s the same, forever
Whether past, present or future,
The experience of your whole life
May just be a fancy in your short dream.
Fames are easy to fade
Memories will wane,
Around desolated hill ranges
Only tombstones remain.
Han Xiangzi (韩湘子)
Allegedly Han Xiangzi was the nephew of Han Yu, a Tang Dynasty high official, writer and neo-Confucius who viewed social success as the highest accomplishment of life, which is quite a departure from the original Confucian’s teaching.
It is said that Han Xiangzi once attended his uncle’s high-profile birthday party as a hermit Daoist and showed the guests how to edit the external environment, which was his way to explain to the guests there is something more advanced than mundane achievements.
Han Xiangzi is best known for his drought relief deeds for farmers. As legend has it, whenever he played a certain tune on his bamboo flute, the sky would start to rain.
Thus he stands for water in Five Agents and ☵ (坎) in Eight Trigrams.
Ah, so the eight programs are representatives of the eight immortals?? Or is it the five arrangements.
All Things Chinese
In a way, yes.
At the beginning (and by the essence) there is nothing (zero).
Then a thought appears – a crack in the consciousness (1).
The crack forms a taichi core containing yin-yang two forces (2).
The dual forces split and interact/balance each other in motion, by so doing a virtual structure is created in a space with four directions (4)
There are 5 agents to shape the yin-yang force with certain characteristics (5)
The basic unit in the time dimension is 7 which forms a circle (7)
Four directions can be subdivided into 8 spheres, known as Eight Trigrams (8)
In the spheres, all things grow with countless sub-directions (∞).
While all things in the universe are equally considered in Hinduism (∞), Taoism mainly focuses on the yin-yang due aspects (the structural building blocks of all things in the universe) (2), and Buddhism concentrates on jumping out of the elusive existence (0).
Therefore Daoism can help you know about the game of life called the universe better than any other school while Buddhism can help you know the real you and the true reality beyond the game.
Taoism then is kinda like a stage (the universe), and Buddhism is like the actor performing on the stage. The Tao being an ever-changing yet constant source while following Buddhism is a way to visit and find your manifestation to learn.
So would Confucianism then be the way to behave socially? Hence allow the universe to shape what is and will be, while you relate and balance yourself in a harmonious way to that energy so it is nurturing and for you and the good of all.
All Things Chinese
Confucianism teaches how to play each of your given stage roles well – be a good family member, a good neighbour, a good friend, a good worker and a good citizen.
Taoism helps you to see the whole drama and entire cast on the stage, not just the role that you play.
Buddhism assists you to leave the stage and be your real self.
Cao Guojiu (曹国舅)
Cao Guojiu is said to be the brother-in-law of a Song Dynasty emperor. Despite living a privileged life, he was troubled to observe how people’s souls could be easily corrupted by power and wealth which would require countless lifetimes to redeem, hence he left the life of luxury and self-exiled to the wilderness to seek a way (Dao) to rise to the occasion.
“Where is Dao?” when Han Zhongli and Lu Dongbin met Cao Guojiu, they asked.
“Where is the Heaven?” they pursued.
“In my heart.”
The two smiled broadly. “You know who you are.” And they revealed to him “The Secret Way to Return to True Reality (还真秘术)” and eventually introduced him to the immortal world.
Cao Guojiu stands for Yang-Earth in Five Agents and ☶ (艮) in Eight Trigrams.
Eight Immortals’ Temples
This is the Eight Immortals Temple, the biggest Daoist temple in Xi’an, the home to Terracotta Warriors.
The complex was built during the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and becomes one of the main cultivation venues for the Dragon Gate lineage of the Pure Truth sector in the Daoist discipline ever since.
So totally cool. I can feel the Zen.
All Things Chinese
Zen is the shortcut to Zero bypassing all digits.
Bell and drum structures in Eight Immortals Temple.
Eight Immortals Cross the Sea
Eight Immortals Crossing the sea without a vessel is one of the most enduring legends in Chinese mythology.
According to the legend, one day the team of eight were invited to attend a meeting on Penglai Island in the East China Sea. The meeting was mainly recreational with no serious issues discussed and no joint statement released. In fact, the central agenda was of viewing how peony blossoms sway in the mid-spring breeze.
On their way home after the boring meeting, the pack felt they would like to do something rather outrageous for a change, so they decided to return to the mainland without a boat.
Iron-Crutch Li threw his crutch onto the sea which immediately became a canoe, then Han Xiangzi did the same with his vertical bamboo flute. Han Zhongli followed suit and turned his banana leaf fan into a surfboard. Zhang Guolao unfolded his paper donkey, while Lu Dongbin stood on a pair of his yin-yang swords. Fairy He sat comfortably on her cozy lotus flower, as for Lan Caihe and Cao Guojiu, they utilized their bamboo clapper and jade tablet as their personal vessel respectively.
The story first appeared in a Ming Dynasty opera Eight Immortals Cross the Sea:
We cross the sea in our own mode
We made the show to let people know
You can be the master of your world
When the Dao is with you
However, the powerful sea dragon lords felt their authority had been challenged therefore sent massive organic fleets to cruise the East, South, West and North China Seas in an attempt to block their way.
Fierce marine battles erupted and, in the last, the ocean bullies’ power was neutralised. The Immortals reached the mainland all in one piece and the China Seas once again returned to peace.
The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea
The image above is made with rice in different colours that a peasant family in Shanghai’s Jinshan grew in their own farmland.
Life is a dream and a game – the Eight Immortals Playing Mahjong
This embroidery work was produced by Shen Yunzhi (沈云芝 1874 – 1921), who created the Photorealist Embroidery style.
Edited on 31 July 2023