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The Eight Daoist (Taoist) Immortals - Ba xian

Eight Daoist Immortals

The Eight Immortals is a group of legendary, semi-historical beings in both religious Daoism and popular religion. From a famille rose serving dish, Qing dynasty, Qianlong (1736-95) decorated in the 'Rockefeller pattern'.

The Eight Immortals is a group of legendary, semi-historical beings in both religious Daoism and popular religion, said to have obtained immortality through the elixir of life produced by alchemy or by the eating of magic fruits and according to other sources; through studying the secrets of nature which to some extent could be the same thing.

The Immortals, seven male and one female, might have originated already in the Han dynasty, though they were not represented in art until the Yuan dynasty when they seems to first have been depicted on Longquan (Celadon) ware.

The figures are usually recognizable by their attributes. They are from left to right:

  1. He Xiangu. A pure maiden who floats on clouds and eats only mother-of-pearl and moonbeams. Carrying the lotus, a symbol of compassion and longevity, she travels with the feng huang (the phoenix) which originates from the sun and is an omen of prosperity.
  2. Lan Caihe. It is uncertain whether Lan Caihe is a man or a woman; often he/she wears women’s clothing but speaks with a man’s voice. A strolling singer and flutist, patron of the indigent. All the money Lan Caihe receives while performing on the earth are given to the poor. Lan Caihe's attribute is a flower basket.
  3. Lu Dongbin, patron of barbers is also worshipped by the sick. His attribute is a sword and a fly-whisk. The sword is known as Chan yao kuai, the Devil-slaying sabre, and was presented to him by the Fire Dragon. The fly-brush is called yun chou, the cloud sweeper. It empowers him to fly at will and to walk on the clouds as he traverses the earth, slaying dragons and ridding the world of evil. He is also worshipped by scholars who credit him with writing the Kong kuo ge, a table or code of merits and demerits, which serve as a guide for morality. For this, he is known as the god of the Inkmakers, Lu zu.
  4. Li Tieguai, Iron Crutch. The Chinese "Tie" stands for iron, and "Guai" stands for crutch. He was a vital and handsome man when his soul once left his body to seek wisdom with the Gods. In the meantime his caretaker mistakenly cremated his body. Having no body to return to, his soul thus entered the lame, crippled body of a beggar who had just died. Thus he is often portrayed as an old man with a scraggly beard, and messy hair held by a golden band. It is in this form that he performs his good deeds. A dispenser of medicine and assistance, Li Tieguai's attributes is an iron staff or crutch, and a gourd in which he stores his cures. In paintings, a bat, fu, a homonym of "happiness" in Chinese, can flutter nearby.
  5. Zhongli Quan. A military. He is characterized by his bearded face and his attribute is a fan. He makes his appearance whenever there is a message from the heavens to be conveyed to the mortal world. He is sometimes portrayed beside a tiger, a force of good and the defender against terrestrial chaos. Tigers represents strength, military prowess and is one of the four animals symbolizing Power and Energy. Tigers also represent wealth and power; in addition, legends tell of tigers carrying heroes to the heavens.
  6. Han Xiang. Nephew of the great scholar and statesman Han Yu. Han Xiang surpassed his learned uncle's accomplishments and was able to predict the future. Often seen carrying a basket of peaches to promote longevity. His attribute is a flute.
  7. Zhang Guo or Zhang Guolao, an elderly magician famous for his mule, which can travel great distances without rest. After a journey, this immortal simply folds up the mule and places it in his pocket. He is the patron of happy marriages and numerous offspring, two goals which need the help of magic. His attribute is a fish-shaped musical instrument.
  8. Cao Guojiu. Patron of the theatrical profession. Brother of the Empress Cao always depicted wearing an imperial court dress. Another brother's crimes led him to seek a holy life; it was because of his diligent pursuit and dedication to this that the other seven immortals selected him to join them. His attribute is a pair of tablets resembling castanets.

Stories of the Eight Immortals were popularized in folklore, drama, novels, and wood block prints besides occurring on all kinds of ceramic and decorative objects. The eight figures represent the spectrum of Chinese society: young and old, rich and poor, civil and military, men and women. The most famous legend recounts the immortals' adventures and conquests while exploring the sea to behold its wonders. In order to demonstrate the range of their powers, they floated down to the surface of the sea on lotus leaves for their journeys. They are identified with the onset of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and it is a possibility that the sea wave borders of early Chinese porcelain is to some extent referring to this fundamental story.

See also: Hundred Antiques and the Eight Daoist Emblems