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The Eight Daoist Immortals and The Eight Trigrams: Part 2

The Eight Daoist Immortals are engaging archetypal characters who embody the Eight Trigrams of the Yi Jing, and different aspects of human consciousness and personality. Their stories and their character traits illustrate much about Daoism and our own nature. This is the second of a series of four articles on the Eight Daoist Immortals. Read Part One HERE.

The Daoist Eight Immortals and the Eight Trigrams: Part 2

  1. Zhong Li Quan

Zhong Li Quan is one of the most ancient of the Eight Immortals and the formal leader of the group. Zhong Li Quan actually lived. He was a general in the Han Dynasty (207 BC – 220 AD), hence he is also popularly known as Han Zhong Li. He is usually depicted with a beard and his chest and belly bare and holding a fan. His fan has the magical ability of reviving the dead. His magical fan can also control the forces of the seven seas and changes in the weather. He is sometimes depicted mounted on a Qi Lin (a type of chimera). He is said to have invented the pill of immortality. Sometimes he holds a peach, symbolizing immortality. He is a symbol of longevity.

Zhang was a general who fought against the nomadic tribes in the Western borders of China. In a particular battle his army was badly defeated and forced to retreat. He took refuge in a monastery. Later in a local restaurant he met a Daoist master who enlightened him, showing him the emptiness of struggle and war. He was disillusioned and decided to cast off his life of constraint and obligation. He took off his clothes, leaving his chest and let his hair down, a visible symbol of releasing this constraint. Hence he is usually depicted with a bare chest and loose hair, fanning himself with a giant fan.

There are numerous tales of Zhang becoming an immortal. In one, while meditating, a jade container arrived in his hut with instructions for making the pill of immortality. Upon making the pill he rose to heaven on a cloud or a crane. [1]

  1. Lu Dong Bin

Lu Dong Bin is one of the most famous of the Immortals. Lu Dong Bin’s mother is said to have become pregnant from a passing Crane. Lu was a child prodigy, who had read all the classics by age six. However he took the imperial exams twice and failed. After his second failure he was drinking in a local inn. The Immortal Zhong Li Quan was also in the inn and he came over and drank with Lu Dong Bin. Lu drank too much, perhaps due to his disappointment in failing the exams. He fell asleep and dreamed on the third try that he passed the exams. In his dream, he achieved a powerful position and a had a large family. But he also angered the Emperor, who had his whole family executed. When he awoke he realized that the future revealed in his dream was no this path and that he would follow the path of Daoism. He became a disciple of Zhong Li Quan and eventually became an immortal.

Lu Dong bin is associated with longevity, healing, and powerful spells. Early Song Dynasty literary sources portray him as a poet, calligrapher, healer, alchemist, soothsayer, exorcist and swordsman. In the 12th century he became the object of a cult. [2] He carries a sword, the zhanyaoguai (devil slayer), which he uses to combat evil spirits, but also symbolizes cutting through the ego, illusions and desires. Lu carries a fly whisk, symbolizing his ability to fly. He symbolizes scholastic knowledge. He is sometimes depicted riding a Tiger.

  1. Li Tie Guai

Li Tie Guai was poor when he was young. His parents were farmers and he learned to be a hard worker. There was at this time a drought in China and Li’s father committed suicide. His mother cried so much that she went blind. Li took many jobs to support her, but became desperate and tried stealing. He stole a gourd, but was caught. A voice reprimanded him, reminding him that now the people he stole from might become poor. Li agreed to return the gourd and did. The voice told Li that because he had repented he was worthy to learn Daoism and introduced him to Lao Zi. Many stories about Li Tie Guai depict him as having been taught by Lao Zi. Lao Zi purportedly taught Li alchemy. In one story Lao Zi give Li a pill that enables him to walk faster than a swallow and to fly through the air. In another legend Lao Zi gave Li the gift of immortality and a bottle of medicine that would never empty and could restore any illness.

Perhaps the most famous story about Li Tie Guai explains why he is portrayed a as cripple. One day while meditating, Li told his disciple that he was going to leave his body for seven days. He asked the disciple to watch over his body for seven days. If he did not return on the seventh day that meant he had fully dematerialized and become immortal and would not return. In this case the disciple should burn his body. The disciple watched the body, but on the sixth day he received news that his mother was very ill and he was needed so he decided Li probably would not return and burned the body. Upon returning, Li was forced to enter the only body available, the corpse of a crippled, homeless beggar who had died of starvation.

As a cripple he uses a crutch to walk. Li Tie Guai’s name literally means “Iron Crutch Li”, because he carries an iron crutch, which he sometimes uses as weapon. Li Tie Guai also carries a gourd, symbolizing the use of herbs and elixirs. He is a beggar a with a feisty temper who is willing to fight for the rights of the downtrodden. He is an irrascible and unpredictable old man, but at times can be a clown-like figure. He is sometimes depicted riding a dragon.

  1. Zhang Guo Lao

Zhang Guo Lao, literally “Old Zhang Guo” was said to have actually lived in the Tang Dynasty. He was an elderly delivery person who carried goods on his donkey. One day he passed a temple and went inside. No one was there, but there was a big pot of soup cooking. Zhang Guo Li decided to eat the soup and fed some to his donkey. The soup contained the spirit of He Shou Wu, an herb noted for its life enhancing properties. The priest who had made the soup came back and saw Zhang Guo Lao finishing the soup and chased Zhang. Zhang left on the back of his donkey, but backward and together he and the donkey ran off. As they ran they suddenly ascended to heaven and both became Immortal.

Zhang Guo Lao’s donkey can carry him thousands of miles in a few moments. Often he rides facing backwards. Upon reaching his destination, he collapses the donkey, folding it like a piece of paper and storing it in his pocket. When ready to travel again he takes it out and moistens it with water, changing it back into a donkey. His symbol is a bamboo tube containing wands or “phoenix feather”, with which he can foretell fortunes and misfortunes. He also carries a bamboo-tube drum. He helps to bring children, particularly boys, so his image is often hung over newlyweds’ beds. He is usually depicted as an old man.

  1. Han Xiang Zi

Han Xiang Zi lived during the Tang Dynasty. He was the nephew of Han Yu, who was famous because he wrote a paper criticizing the Emperor for embracing Buddhism. Han Xing Zi was a scholar and a musician who also played the bamboo flute. When his uncle was exiled for his critique, Han Xiang Zi was also exiled, losing his position as a scholar. The family went to Southern China, where one day in the local village he was invited into a house to eat. There he met a beautiful young woman who also played the flute and fell madly in love with her. However she was already spoken for. Despondent over losing her he went to a nearby lake and contemplated drowning himself. Then he heard flute music. He looked and saw a fisherman playing while wishing. Intrigued, Han spoke to him. The fisherman told him that there was a magical flute in the lake that would reveal itself if it heard the right music. Han began to play a sound tune, but one that was full of emotion, and the lake-flute revealed itself to him. He became the possessor of the flute which began to teach him the Daoist concept of changing in accordance with the changes in the world. As Han Xiang Zi traveled, he met Lu Dong Bin and became his student and later became a Daoist Immortal.

Han Xiang Zi is considered to be the patron of musicians. He usually depicted holding a jade flute. He symbolizes also the love of nature and solitude. He is the embodiment of the Daoist hermit in the mountains, He belongs to remote caves, hidden in mists, where he sips dew at midnight, feasts on the glow of clouds in the dawn and dissolves pearls with the sound of his flute. [3] Han is portrayed as a protector of flautists because his flute gives life and plays the Six Healing Sounds. He is often shown mounted on a buffalo.

  1. He Xian Gu

He Xian Gu is the only female member of the Eight Immortals. He Xian Gu was sold as a slave to an old woman who treated her cruelly. One day she was making tofu while the old woman was out and seven strangers arrived and asked her to feed them. She fed them some of the tofu and they left. When the old woman returned she was angry and threatened He Xian Gu with her stick and told her to find these seven people and make them return her tofu. When He Xian Gu found them, they came back with her and told the old woman if she wanted her food back they would have to vomit it up. They did so and left. The old woman was upset and made He Xian Gu eat the vomit and then began to beat her. He Xian Gu fled and jumped in a lake among the lotus flowers. The flowers opened to support her so she would not drown. As she held one of the stalks it came off in her hand and lifted her up to heaven, where the seven strangers (the other seven immortals) told her she was now an immortal because she had eaten the nectar of immortality (their vomit). Thus she became the eighth immortal.

A more popular version of how He Xian Gu became an immortal is that at age 14, an immortal appeared to her and told her to eat powdered mica – the sand from the Cloud Mother River – so that her body became etherealized and immune from death. She then vowed to stay a virgin and follow the Dao. She would go into the mountains everyday and bring back mountain herbs. Later she became a mountain hermit and abstained from grains completely, was unmoved by the coldest weather in winter and the hottest weather in summer. Her reputation spread until the Empress heard of her and tried to force her to come to the palace and transmit the secret of her immortality. She slipped away at night and was later flying in the sky outside the capital. [4] Yet another version of her story involves sexual dual cultivation with Lu Dong Bin. In this version He Xian Gu achieved immortality by absorbing the semen from her partner. [5]

He Xian Gu is depicted holding a magic lotus blossom, the flower of open-heartiness and divine brilliance, that improves one’s mental and physical health and symbolizes her power and purity. She is sometimes mounted upon a deer, a symbol of longevity and ceaseless energy. She usually carries an instrument, a bamboo ladle, or fly whisk. She is often is accompanied by a Phoenix.

  1. Lan Cai He

Lan Cai He is variously portrayed as a youth, an aged man, or a girl. Lan Cai He could be a hermaphrodite, but he is often portrayed as a young effeminate boy or youth carrying a bamboo basket slung and a hoe. Lan Cai He’s mother died when she or he was young, and at age eight Lan Cai He’s father married again. Later when Lan’s father died he or she was subject to the indifference of the stepmother. In the female version of the story there were two sisters who had everything while Lan Cai He wore poor clothes and did all the housework. In the male version of the story, there were two brothers who were educated and did not work while Lan did not go to school and did manual labor. Lan Cai He’s emblem is a basket of flowers and other plants because he/she had to bring in the harvest. One day Lan Cai He went into town and in the middle of the square people were crowded around Li Tie Guai asking him to make them immortal. Li tells them all to meet him at the Heavenly Pavilion, a tall pagoda, the next day. Everyone meets at the top of the pagoda and Li Tie Guai throws a bamboo leaf off of the pagoda, saying that anyone who jumps on the leaf will become immortal. No one except Lan Cai He jumps and as he/she jumps the bamboo leaf becomes very large and holds him/her up. Li Tie Guai jumps onto it and tells Li Cai He that he will take him/her as a disciple. {6]

Lan Ca He begs along public roads. When drunk, he sings capers about. His songs are meaningless except to other immortals. When receiving money, he strings the coins on a piece of cord and drags it behind him. [7] The basket carried by Lan Cai He contains various flora associated with ideas of longevity such as peach blossoms, sprigs of pine, bamboo shoots and chrysanthemum flowers. His/Her mount is an elephant, which gives him stability, wisdom, and wise discretion. Lan Cai He’s behavior is a bit bizarre . He/She wears only shorts and thin shirts in winter and a thick jacket and long pants in summer. One shoe is on and one foot bare.

  1. Cao Guo Ji

Cao Guo Jiu lived in the Song dynasty. Cao Guo Jiu was the bother of the Empress. Cao Guo Jiu was very powerful, and he and his two brothers taxed and punished people harshly. One day he was attempting to drug a wealthy merchant and his wife so that he could steal all their possessions. The servant mistakenly served him the wrong tea and he fell unconscious. He then had a vivid drug-induced dream in which all the people he had abused appeared asking for his life. When he woke he was overwhelmed by sadness and shame. He repented and tried to use his wealth to do good works, by donating money, helping the poor, and building roads and bridges. Some accounts say that Cao Guo Jiu gave away all his wealth to the poor, and went into the mountains to seek the Dao. Lu Dong Bin noticed him and made him a disciple. Over time, he harmonized his mind, body and spirit and became immortal.

Cao Guo Jiu is often depicted in the official’s court dress with a jade tablet that can purify the environment. He sometimes holds castanets, which he plays in a soothing and relaxing rhythm to facilitate meditation and journeying throughout the universe. His other symbol is an Imperial tablet, used for official pronouncements. Cao is often shown mounted upon a horse.

The Associations of the Eight Immortals



[1] An Introduction to the Philosophy and Religion of Taoism: Pathways to Immortality by Jeaneane Fowler (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2005) p.221.

[2] The Routledge Encyclopedia of Taoism, Vol. 1: A-L, edited by Fabrizio Pregadio (London and New York: Rouledge, 2008) p.712

[3] An Introduction to the Philosophy and Religion of Taoism: Pathways to Immortality, p.220.

[4] Tales of the Taoist Immortals by Eva Wong (Boston & London: Shambhala 2001) p.18-21.

[5] An Introduction to the Philosophy and Religion of Taoism: Pathways to Immortality, p.222.

[6] From Jeffrey Yuen’s Lectures on eight Immortal Qi Gong

[7] The Eight Immortals by W. Percival Yetts, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (London, 1916)