What Do the Eight Immortals Represent? (Tao Mythology Pa Hsien)


The Taoist tale of the Eight Immortals may be seen depicted in Chinese artwork rather often. For more than a thousand years, they have been shown as a topic in almost every kind of artistic medium that is used in China. They have been photographed singly, in groups of three, and with all eight of them gathered together.

One of the most popular subjects of representation in China is the Eight Immortals, also known as Pa Hsien, who are part of the Taoist religion. Their portraits can be found everywhere, including on porcelain vases, teapots, teacups, fans, scrolls, embroidery, and so on. They can also be found in groups. Porcelain, earthenware, roots, wood, and metals are all used to craft representations of them. The concept of happiness is often represented metaphorically by the phrase “Eight Immortals.” As a result of its association with this custom, the number eight is now considered fortunate, and those individuals or things that number eight in total are honored accordingly. Thus, we read of reverence being shown to the “Eight Genii Table” (Pa Hsien Cho), the “Eight Genii Bridge” (Pa Hsien Ch’iao), the “Eight Genii Vermicelli” (Pa Hsien Mien), and the “Eight Genii of the Wine-cup” (Tin Chung Pa Hsien)—wine-bibbers of the T’ang dynasty who were celebrated by They are frequently featured in romantic narratives and are the focus of admirers’ undivided attention. They are “the embodiment of the concepts of perfect but imagined bliss which inhabits the imaginations of the Chinese people,” and we see these ideas embodied in them. Only three of them (Chung-li Ch’üan, Chang Kuo, and Lü Yen) are known to have existed in real life; the other two are only mentioned in legends or romantic stories. They symbolize elderly people, young people, males, females, government servants, military personnel, the wealthy, the impoverished, the suffering, the cultured, and the aristocratic. They also serve as a representative sample of the early, middle, and later periods of history.

It is quite unlikely that the tale of the Eight Immortals dates back any farther than the Sung dynasty (which lasted from 960 to 1280 A.D.), and it is more likely to have originated during the Yüan dynasty (1280–1368). However, it would seem that at least some of the individuals in the group had been honored as Immortals in the Taoist stories in the past. Typically, their biographies will be organized in the order of their formal eminence or the order in which they entered the world. In this section, I follow the format that was adopted in Hsiu hsiang Pa. Hsien tung yu chi, in which the Immortals are described in the order in which they attained that status.

ZUANG GUOLAO ( CHANG KUO-LAO ) 
He is represented as an Old Man riding a donkey. (Sometimes Backwards) He is usually carrying two drumsticks. Legend has it that at the end of his journeys, he could fold up his donkey like a piece of paper and store him in his wallet. When he was ready to travel again he would sprinkle water on his wallet and the Donkey would reappear.
ZHONG-LI QUAN ( CHUNG-LI CHUAN ) 
This is the familiar Fat Man with his bare belly showing. He always carries a fan and sometimes a peach. He is also considered the Chief of the Immortals.
HAN XIANG-ZI ( HAN HSIANG-TSU ) 
This is the happy Immortal that is always seen playing the flute. It is said that Han could make flowers bloom with just his will, and soothe wild animals with his music.
HE XIAN-GU ( HO HSIEN-KU ) 
One of two female Immortals, He Xian-Gu carries with her a magical Lotus flower. She was brought into the group of Immortals by Lu Dong-Bin after he rescued her from a demon with his magic sword.
LAN CAI-HE ( LAN TS’AI-HO ) 
The second woman amongst the Immortals is always shown wearing a tattered blue gown and only one shoe. A basket of flowers is her symbol and is usually carried with her.
LI TIE-GUAI ( LI TIEH-KUAI ) 
He is the most recognizable of the Eight Immortals. He is depicted as a lame beggar carrying a double gourd. Legend explains his lame state as follows. His spirit would frequently leave his body to wander the land and heavens. One day his body was found and thought to be dead. It was burned, as was traditional. When he returned from his journey to find his body gone, he entered the first body he found…that of a lame beggar.
LU DONG-BIN ( LU TUNG-PIN ) 
Upon his back, he wears a magic sword used to slay dragons and demons. In his hand, he carries a fly brush. He is said to have traveled the earth for over 400 years slaying dragons.
CAO GUO-JUI ( TS’AO KUO-CHIU ) 
The finest dressed of the Eight Immortals. He is always shown wearing formal court dress and carrying castinets.

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