The Eight Immortals have been part of Chinese oral history long befor they were recorded in the works of writers of various dynasties – Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming.
But it was Wu Yuantai (吳元泰 wú yuán taì) of the Ming dynasty who wrote ‘The Emergence of the Eight lmmortals and their Travels to the East’, since than the Eight began to be clearly distinguished.
In Chinese mythology the Eight Immortals are believed to know the secrets of nature. They represent separately male, female, the old, the young, the rich, the noble, the poor, and the humble Chinese.
Each Immortal’s power can be transferred to a tool of power, kind of a talisman associated with a certain meaning, that can give life or destroy evil.
Together, these eight tools are called “Hidden Eight Immortals” or “Covert Eight Immortals”.
The Eight were called the “Roaming Immortals” in Taoist legends.
Not only are they revered by Taoists, but by all Chinese society. They are the base for various literature, folk tales and are pictured in art. Symbols are representing the characteristic attributes of each Immortal and they were depicted on a wide variety of porcelain, bronze, ivory, and embroidered objects.
From the time of the Ming dynasty, there is another work by an unknown writer, called The “Eight Immortals Cross the Sea” (八仙過海; bā xiān guò hǎi). The legend is about the Immortals on a journey to attend the “Conference of the Magical Peach” (蟠桃會 pán taó huì) and on this journey they encounter an ocean. Instead of going across by theirclouds, the immortals way of transportation, their leader Lü Dongbin suggested, that they all together should use their magical powers to get across. Stemming from this, the Chinese proverb “The Eight Immortals cross the Sea, each reveals its divine power” indicates the situation that everybody should show off their powers to achieve a common goal.
The Eight Immortals are:
He Xian Gu (何仙姑; pinyin: Hé Xiān Gū)
The Immortal Woman
He Xian Gu’s immortality is due to a consistent diet of powdered mother-of-pearl and moonbeams. While swallowing it, she vowed to remain a virgin.
According to a different version, He Xian Gu, daughter of a 7th-century shopkeeper, ate a magic peach and became immortal. Since than she is flying about.
She is attributed by the lotus/lotus pond, which can cultivate people through meditation.
Occasionally she is attributed with a peach, the divine fruit of Gods, associated with immortality or a music instrument or a ladle to dispense wisdom, meditation and purity.
Cao Gou Jiu (曹國舅; pinyin: Cáo Guó Jiù)
The Royal Uncle Cao
Cao Gou Jiu is reputed to have been the brother of a 10th century Song Empress, the uncle to the Emperor of the Song Dynasty and the son of a military commander. His attribute, the castanets, are thought to be derived from the pass that gave him free access to the palace, a benefit of his rank.
He is also attributed with a jade tablet, which can purify the air.
According to another version, Cao Guo Jiu’s younger brother Cao Jingzhi was a bully, but no one dared to prosecute him because of his powerful connections, not even after he killed a person. Royal Uncle Cao was so overwhelmed by sadness and shame on his brother that he resigned his office and left home.
He is represented by wearing formal court dress, always the finest dress among all Eight Immortals, and carrying castanets.
Cao Gou Jiu is the patron deity of actors.
Li Tie Guai (李鐵拐; pinyin: Lĭ Tiĕ Guăi)
The Iron-Crutch Li
Because of his great skill at magic, Li Tie Guai, was able to free his soul from his body and aid and meet others in the celestial realm. Li Tie Guai, a good looking man used his skill frequently. Once, while his spirit was gone from his body, a disciple decided that Li Tie Guai was dead and burned his body as was traditional. When Li Tie Guai’s soul returned from its travels, he was forced to enter the body of a beggar.
He is represented as a lame beggar carrying a double gourd. The gourd, symbolising longevity and the ability to ward off evil, has a cloud emanating from it. The cloud represents the soul, depicted as a formless shape.
The gourd represents also helping the needy and relieve the distressed.
Sometimes Li Tie Guai is pictured riding the qilin.
Li Tie Guai is the emblem of the sick.
Lan Cai (蓝采和; pinyin: Lán Cǎihé)
The Immortal Hermaphrodite
Lan Cai is said to have wandered the streets as a beggar while singing a song about the brevity of mortal life. Her/his attribute is a basket of flowers associated with longevity, which she/he carries to remind viewers of the transience of life and with which she/he can communicate with gods.
She/he is variously portrayed as a youth, an aged man, or a girl; in modern pictures generally as a young boy.
She/he is represented by wearing a tattered blue gown and only one shoe.
Lan Cai is the patron deity of florists.
Lü Dongbin (呂洞賓; pinyin: Lǚ Dòngbīn)
The Chief leader
Lü Dongbin was an 8th-century scholar, who learned the secrets of Taoism from Zhuang Lin Quan. Dressed as a scholar, he is honoured as such. His attribute, the sword, which can subdue the evil, allowed him to travel the earth slaying dragons and fighting evil.
He is represented with a sword on his back and a fly brush in his hand.
Lü Dongbin is also the patron deity of barbers.
Han Xiang Zi (韓湘子; pinyin: Hán Xiāng Zi)
The Philosopher Han Xiang
Han Xiang Zi is said to have been the nephew of Han Yü, a famous scholar of the 9th century. Among his special skills was the ability to make flowers bloom instantaneously and smooth wild animals. His attribute is the flute, which can cause growth.
He is represented as a Happy Man.
Han Xiang Zi is the patron saint of musicians.
Zhang Guo Lao (張果老; pinyin: Zhāng Guǒ Lǎo)
The Elder Zhang Guo
Zhang Guo Lao is reputed to have been a recluse of the 7th or 8th century. He travelled with a white mule that could go incredible distances and then be folded up and placed in a wallet. Zhang Guo Lao had only to sprinkle water to the mule to reconstitute it for further use.
Zhang Guo Lao’s attribute is a drum made of a bamboo tube with two rods with which to strike it. The drum can cure life.
He is represented as an old man riding the mule, at times riding backwards.
Zhang Guo Lao is the emblem of old men.
Zhongli Quan (鐘离權; Pinyin: Zhōnglí Quán)
Zhongli Quan was reputed to have lived during the Zhou dynasty (1122-256 BC). Among his many powers were transmutation and the knowledge of the elixir of life. His attribute is a fan, which can bring the dead back to life.
He is represented as a Fat Man with his bare belly showing.
Zhongli Quan represents the military man.