The Eight Immortals

The Eight Immortals were Taoist deities. There were six men, one woman, and one hermaphrodite.

The birth of Chung-li Ch'uan was accompanied with strange phenomena in the shape of very long rays of light. The baby had a high dome-like top to his head, a massive brow, large ears, elongated eyebrows, deep-set eyes, a prominent nose, a square-shaped mouth, a large jaw, and lips and cheeks the color of cinnabar. His nipples were set far apart, and his arms were as long as those of a three-year-old child. Day and night he never uttered a sound till he was seven days old, when, springing to his feet, he exclaimed, "My feet have wandered in the purple palace of the immortal; my name is recorded in the capital of the Jade Emperor." Later in life, after a failed expedition in Tibet, he reflected that having made his escape from deadly perils, now was the time to direct his thoughts to the mysteries of immortality. And so his heart returned to the contemplation of Tao. He received from an old man not only an infallible magic process for attaining longevity, but also the degree of heat required to produce the Philosopher's Stone, and the Green Dragon method of swordfighting. As Chung-li Ch'uan was about to depart, having taken leave of the old man, he turned round for a last look at the village, and... it had vanished! By and by he came across the Taoist adept Hua-yang, and received from him a pinch of the Great Monad, a fire charm, and some of the spiritual drug of immortality. Chung-li Ch'uan wandered about in haphazard fashion until he reached the State of Lu, and dwelt for a while in the city of Tsou. Later on he retired to the K'ung-t'ung Mountains, and took up his abode on the Red-gold Peak, where the Four Grey-heads had lived. There he found a jade casket containing the arcana of Taoism, and, having attained immortality, departed this world.


Ho Hsien-ku was the daughter of Ho T'ai, of the town of Tseng-ch'eng, in the prefecture of Canton. At birth she had six long hairs on the crown of her head. When she was about 14 or 15 a divine personage appeared to her in a dream and instructed her to eat powdered mica, in order that her body might become etherealized and immune from death. So she swallowed it, and also vowed to remain a virgin. Up hill and down dale she used to fly just like a bird. Every day at dawn she went out, to return at dusk, bringing back mountain fruits she had gathered for her mother. Later on by slow degrees she gave up taking ordinary food. The Empress Wu dispatched a messenger to summon her to attend at the palace, but on the way there she disappeared. In about A.D. 707 she apparently ascended on high in broad daylight, and became an immortal. In about A.D. 750 Ho Hsien-ku reappeared, standing amidst rainbow clouds over a shrine dedicated to Ma Ku. Again, in about A.D. 772 she appeared in the flesh on the Hsiao-shih Tower at Canton.


Chang Kuo lived the life of a hermit on Mount Chung-t'iao in Hng Chou, and used to wander, to and fro, between the River Fen and the Chin territory. He acquired the magic art of prolonging life. It was his custom to ride a white donkey, travelling tens of thousands of li a day. Whenever he stopped to rest, he folded his donkey up, when it was no thicker than paper, and slipped it into his pocket. Then as soon as he wished to ride again he squirted water from his mouth over it, and transformed it back into a donkey. The Emperors T'ai Tsung (A.D. 627-49) and Kao Tsung (A.D. 650-83) of the T'ang summoned him to Court, but he refused to go. The Empress Wu also sent for him to leave his mountain retreat, but he feigned death in front of the Tu-nu Shrine. The season then being blazing hot, in a very short while his body "rotted", whereupon the Empress was convinced that he was really dead. Subsequently someone saw him again on the Hng Chou mountain. He was an adept at regulating his breath, and for days together would go without food, drinking frequent potions of wine. The Emperor having bestowed upon him some wine, he declined it, saying, "Your servant is able to drink no more than two pints, but he has a disciple who can manage ten." Ming Huang was pleased and gave orders for him to be summoned. All of a sudden a small Taoist priest flew down from the roof of the palace. Aged about 15 or 16, he had a handsome face and an engaging personality. The Emperor having ordered him to be seated, Chang Kuo protested, "My disciple should remain standing while in attendance upon Your Majesty." This pleased the Emperor still more, and he presented some wine to the disciple, who managed to drink off a small tou of it. Chang Kuo then called a halt, exclaiming, "Pray give him no more, or it will exceed his limit. " Nevertheless, Ming Huang insisted upon presenting him with more, the result being that he became drunk, and the wine welled up out through the crown of his head, dislodging his cap, which fell to the ground. Instantly he was transformed into a golden wine-cup. The Emperor and the imperial concubines alike were amazed and amused to see the Taoist disappear and nothing left in his place but a golden cup. On examination it proved to be one belonging to the Chi-hsien Palace, and just capable of holding a single tou of wine.


Lu Tung-pin lived under the T'ang dynasty and was a native of the town of Yung-l, in the prefecture of P'u-chou. At the moment when his mother gave him birth an unearthly perfume pervaded the house, strains of celestial music were wafted from the sky, and a white crane from heaven flew down between the curtains of her bed and was seen no more. Even when a newly-born infant his frame was strong as metal, and his muscles hard as wood. The crown of his head formed a high dome resembling a crane's,; his back was arched like that of a tortoise, his eyes were as brilliant as those of a phoenix, and his eyebrows extended on either side to meet the hair round the temples. While still a child he was very quick at learning, being able to memorize thousands of lines a day. His language was fluent and couched in classical terms. In height 8 ft. 2 in., he resembled Chang Tzu-fang, another immortal. At the age of 20 he had not yet taken unto himself a wife. The Patriarch Ma saw him at the beginning of his career, when he was still in swaddling-clothes, and exclaimed: "His bodily frame is that of no ordinary mortal. Eccentric in character, he will hold aloof from worldly affairs; whatever hovel he happens upon he will make it his home; whenever he sees a goblet of wine he will partake of it. Mark well my words." By and by Lu Tung-pin wandered to the Lu Range, and there met by chance the Taoist adept Huo-lung, who instructed him in acquiring supernatural invisibility by the magic sword method. In between 841 and 846 AD he went up twice for the third or doctor's degree, but failed. Once having wandered into a tavern at Ch'ang-an, he watched a Taoist priest, dressed in a black cap and white gown, scribbling without apparent effort the following stanza upon the wall:

"Whenever I would rest I grasp a cup of wine, Oblivious of all else in this great capital. So vast are heaven and earth that I remain unknown, An old man wandering by himself among mankind."

Impressed and attracted by his strange appearance and extreme old age, as well as by the grace and spontaneity of his poem, Tung-pin made him a bow and inquired his name. The old Taoist replied: "I am the master Yun-fang (aka Chung-li Ch'uan, another Immortal), and my home is upon the Crane Ridge, of the Chung-nan Mountains. Can you accompany me in my wanderings?" Without actually agreeing to this proposal, Tung-pin put up at the same inn with Yun-fang. Now, while the latter was with his own hands attending to the cooking of a meal, Tung-pin, reclining on a pillow, soon became oblivious of his surroundings and fell into a deep sleep. He dreamt he went up to the capital as a candidate at the triennial examination and passed at the top of the list. Starting his career as a junior secretary to one of the Boards, he rapidly gained promotion to the Censorate and the Han-lin College, and eventually reached the position of Privy Councillor, having occupied in the course of his unbroken success all the most sought-after and important official posts. Twice he was married, and both wives belonged to families of wealth and position. Children were born to him, and he witnessed his sons take wives, and his daughters leave the paternal roof for their husband's homes. And all these multitudinous events had happened before he reached the age of 40. Next he found himself Prime Minister for the space of ten years, wielding immense power, and it corrupted him. Then suddenly, without warning, he was accused of a grave crime. His home and all his possessions were confiscated, and his wife and children separated. He himself, a solitary outcast, wandering towards his place of banishment beyond the mountains, found his horse brought to a standstill in a snow-storm, and no longer able to continue the journey. At this juncture Tung-pin, with a heavy sigh, awoke, and guess what? The meal was still being prepared. With a laugh Yun-fang sang these words:

"The yellow millet simmers yet uncooked while you have journeyed to the Realm of Dreams",

whereat Tung-pin was much astonished. "Sir," asked he, "pray, what can you know about my dream?" The other replied: "In that dream or yours just now you climbed not only up but also down every rung in the ladder of worldly glory; you both plumbed the uttermost depths of misery and scaled the dizziest heights of splendour. Fifty years were past and gone in the twinkling of an eye. What you gained was not worth rejoicing over, what you lost was not worth grieving about. Some day there will be a Great Awakening, and then we shall know the truth." From a pedlar of copper ware Lu Tung-pin once brought some pots, which when he had taken home he found all to be made of gold; yet such was his unworldliness that he went in search of the pedlar in order to return them to him.

During the period of probation as to his fitness to become an Immortal, Tung-pin underwent a number of ordeals or tests. Of these the eighth in order of time occurred when he bought some magic drugs from a crazy professor of Tao, who used to wander about selling them in the streets, muttering to himself that whoever partook of his wares would instantly die, but would attain Tao in some future existence. The Taoist warned him: "The only thing for you to do now is to make speedy preparation for your death." Yet Tung-pin swallowed the stuff without more ado, and no harm befell him. The ninth ordeal to which Tung-pin was subjected happened one spring-time when all the country round was flooded, and he in company with the rest of the inhabitants were seeking safety in boats. Just as they reached the middle of the waters a violent storm burst upon them, and the waves rose high, lashed into fury by the wind. All were in a panic except Tung-pin, who remained in his seat calm and unconcerned. On the tenth occasion Tung-pin was sitting alone in his house, when without warning there appeared to him an innumerable host of demons in weird and terrifying shapes, all seemingly determined to beat him to death. Yet he was not in the least dismayed. Then a sharp word of command came from the sky, and the whole crowd of devils vanished. The voice was followed by some one who, descending from above, clapped his hands and laughed with delight. This turned out to be Yun-fang. "I have subjected you to ten ordeals," said he, "all of which have left you unscathed. There can be no doubt you will succeed in attaining Tao. I will now disclose to you the mysteries of alchemy, in order that the knowledge may enable you to benefit mankind. When for 3,000 years you shall have carried out this meritorious work for the sake of others and thus completed your period of probation, and shall have spent in addition eight centuries in researches on your own behalf, then, and not till then, will come your salvation. " Tung-pin asked: "Pray, when will my conversion take place?" "Only after 3,000 years shall have passed," the other replied, "will you be restored to the state of your original physical purity." At which Tung-pin coloured up with vexation and exclaimed: "Alas! with the prospect of having to wait 3,000 years, how can I maintain my zeal all those ages?" "Your courage, " Yun-fang rejoined with a smile, "will carry you not only over 3,000 years but 3,800." Next he took Tung-pin to the Crane Ridge, and imparted to him there the profoundest truths and mysteries of Taoism, including the secret of supernatural power. Also, he presented him with a small quantity of the Philosopher's Stone. While these two were thus engaged there arrived upon the scene two Immortals, each reverently bearing in both hands a golden tablet, the emblem of his office. They announced to Yn-fang an edict of the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, nominating him guardian of the Golden Gate of the Ninth Heaven; and they added that the world of mortals was but one vast dream (i.e. illusory and impermanent). Impressed by this incident, spiritual enlightenment came to Tung-pin. So, falling on his knees before Yun-fang, he entreated him for the magic secret of transcending the limitations of this earthly sphere. To try him still further Yun-fang answered: "Your character is not yet fully established. Before you can bring salvation to mankind, many generations shall come and pass away." And having uttered these words he straightway vanished.


Han Hsiang was the nephew of Han Wen Kung. His disposition was wild and irresponsible. He used to wander about in company with The Master Shun-yang. It was through a fall from a peach-tree that his mortal body died, and he was freed from the bonds of earthly existence (that is to say, became an immortal).

When he paid his uncle a visit, and the latter urged him to apply himself to study, Han Hsiang replied, "You and I have different ideas of study. " And in order to make his meaning clear he composed the following lines:

"In a cave mid mists and torrents by green-clad peaks I live;

I sip the dew at midnight that stars the earth like gems,

I make my food the rosy clouds that flush the coming dawn.

I play the Green Jade Melody upon a seven-stringed lute,

And melt in fiery alembics fine-powdered pearls and white;

Within my Precious Cauldron the Golden Tiger dwells;

I grow the Magic Fungus to feed the Snow-white Crows,

With Nature's creative powers my bottle-gourd is stored,

I slay the evil demons with my magic three-foot blade;

Wine fills the empty goblet when I speak the wizard word,

And flowers spring up and bloom in the twinkling of an eye;

Show me the man who doth these things in the way that I have told,

And I will gladly talk with him of the hsien who ne'er grow old."

Having read the poem Wn Kung exclaimed, "What! can you usurp the creative powers of Nature?" and then handed him an empty goblet, which Han Hsiang successfully caused to become full of excellent wine. Next, a small heap of earth having been scraped together, in a very short time there shot out from it a cluster of blue flowers, from the midst of which was extruded this couplet written in charactersof gold:

"Lost on the far Ch'in Mountains, I cannot find my way;

Snowdrifts cover the Lan Pass and my horse can do no more."

To Wn Kung, who read it without understanding its meaning, Han Hsiang remarked, "Some day you will find these words come true." Not long afterwards Wn Kung was banished to a post at Ch'ao-chou, in punishment for the violent remonstrance he addressed to the Emperor about the Buddha's bone. While on the road thither a snow-storm overtook him. All at once someone approached, struggling through the storm, who turned out to be Han Hsiang. "Do you remember the couplet in the flowers?" asked he. Wn Kung then inquired what the name of the place was, and was told "the Lan Pass". This struck him dumb with astonishment; and after a while he exclaimed, "I will complete that poem for you." That night they both stayed at an inn beside the Pass, and Wn Kung satisfied himself that Han Hsiang was no charlatan. At parting Han Hsiang handed the other a calabash full of a drug, one single grain of which, he declared, would, when swallowed, counteract the malarious vapours of the place to which he was journeying. Wn Kung appeared downhearted, so to cheer him up Han Hsiang told him, "You will soon be back again, not only in good health, but also reinstated in your former office." Wn Kung asked, "Shall we two ever meet again after this?" "That I cannot foretell," replied Han Hsiang.


Ts'ao Kuo-chiu was the uncle of one of the Sung emperors. He was so deeply ashamed of the conduct of his younger brother in illegally putting people to death that he sought concealment in a mountain cavern, where he engaged in spiritual meditation and the study of Taoist principles. He wore rustic clothing and a cap of grass-cloth. Frequently he would go without food for ten days at a time. Once he happened to meet the two Immortals Chung-li and Shun-yang, who questioned him, saying: "Sir! we have heard you are going in for cultivation. What is it you are cultivating?" He replied: "I am cultivating Tao." They asked: "Where is Tao?" Kuo-chiu pointed up to heaven. "Where is heaven?" they said. Kuo-chiu pointed to his heart. The two Immortals remarked, laughing: "Your heart is one with heaven, and heaven is one with Tao. You have indeed arrived at a profound understanding." Then they imparted to him the secret of reverting to a condition in perfect harmony with nature, and induced him to join the company of Immortals.


In the form with which nature endowed him, the sage Li T'ieh-kuai was a fine man of imposing presence. While yet of tender age he heard Tao. Choosing a mountain cave for his abode, he set himself to the cultivation of mental and physical purity as taught by the Taoists. Li Lao Chun (Lao Tzu) and The Master Wan Ch'iu used often to come down from heaven to visit his rocky hermitage in order to instruct him in the subject of his studies. One day T'ieh-kuai was going to meet Lao Chn by appointment on Hua Shan, and so he gave a pupil of his the following instructions: "My body," said he, will remain here while my soul goes upon a journey. If by chance in seven days' time my soul has not returned, you may then burn the body." The pupil received an urgent message to visit his sick mother, and, impatient of delay, burnt his master's body on the sixth day. The following day in due course T'ieh-kuai returned to find his body gone, and no habitation left for his body, till he spied lying near by the corpse of one who had died of starvation. Into it the wandering soul entered, giving it new life; and that is the reason why Li T'ieh-kuai, instead of his original handsome appearance, has now the shape of a lame beggar.


Where Lan Ts'ai-ho came from is not known. His usual garb was a single ragged gown with six black wooden buttons and a waist-belt more than 3 inches wide; on one foot he wore a boot, while the other went bare. In summer he had his gown padded with cotton-wool, and in the winter he used to sleep in the snow, and from him there arose clouds of vapour like steam. Whenever he begged for alms in the public thoroughfares he carried hanging by a string a large pair of castanets more than 3 feet long. When he was drunk he used to sing and caper, so that old and young alike followed to watch him. In a half-crazy way he sang songs, which he improvised as he went along, all of which had meanings relating to hsienship, and were therefore unintelligible to ordinary mortals. On receiving money he used to string the cash upon a piece of cord, which he trailed behind him as he walked. At times the cash would get scattered and lost, leaving the cord bare; but he paid no heed. Sometimes he gave his money to the poor, sometimes he spent it with fellow-tipplers. He roamed all over China. People when they reached hoary old age noticed that his face and general appearance remained just the same as when they had seen him in their childhood. Many years had passed, and Lan Ts'ai-ho was drinking wine in a tavern at Hao-liang, when suddenly the sound of reed-organ and flute was heard, and in a trice he soared up into the sky mounted upon a crane. Having dropped down his shoe, gown, girdle, and castanets, he gradually rose till he passed out of sight.


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