The Eight Immortals are a group of legendary xian (“immortals”) in Chinese mythology. Each immortal’s power can be transferred to a vessel that can bestow life or destroy evil.
Together, these eight vessels are called the “Covert Eight Immortals“. Most of them are said to have been born in the Tang or Shang Dynasty.
They are revered by the Taoists and are also a popular element in secular Chinese culture. They are said to live on a group of five islands in the Bohai Sea, which includes Mount Penglai.
The Immortals are:
- He Xiangu
- Cao Guojiu
- Li Tieguai
- Lan Caihe
- Lü Dongbin
- Han Xiangzi
- Zhang Guolao
- Zhongli Quan
In literature before the 1970s, they were sometimes translated as the Eight Genies. First described in the Yuan Dynasty, they were probably named after the Eight Immortal Scholars of the Han.
The tradition of depicting humans who have become immortals is an ancient practice in Chinese art, and when religious Taoism gained popularity, it quickly picked up this tradition with its own immortals.
While cults dedicated to various Taoist immortals date back to the Han dynasty, the popular and well-known Eight Immortals first appeared in the Jin dynasty. The art of the Jin tombs of the 12th and 13th centuries depicts a group of eight Taoist immortals in wall murals and sculptures.
They officially became known as the Eight Immortals in the writings and works of art of the Taoist group known as the Complete Realization (Quanshen). The most famous artistic depiction of the Eight Immortals from this period is a mural of them in the Eternal Joy Temple (Yongle Gong) at Ruicheng.
They are considered to be signs of prosperity and longevity, so they are popular themes in ancient and medieval art. They were frequent adornments on celadon vases. They were also common in sculptures owned by the nobility. Their most common appearance, however, was in paintings.
Many silk paintings, wall murals, and woodblock prints remain of the Eight Immortals. They were often depicted either together in one group, or alone to give more homage to that specific immortal.
An interesting feature of early Eight Immortal artwork is that they are often accompanied by jade handmaidens, commonly depicted servants of the higher-ranked deities, or other images showing great spiritual power. This shows that early on, they quickly became eminent figures of the Taoist religion and had great importance.
We can see this importance is only heightened in the Ming and Qing dynasties. During these dynasties, the Eight Immortals were very frequently associated with other prominent spiritual deities in the artwork.
There are numerous paintings with them and the Three Stars (the gods of longevity, prosperity, and good fortune) together. Also, other deities of importance, such as the Queen Mother of the West, are commonly seen in the company of the Eight Immortals.
The artwork of them is not limited to paintings or other visual arts. They are quite prominent in written works too. Authors and playwrights wrote numerous stories and play on the Eight Immortals.
One famous story that has been rewritten many times and turned into several plays (the most famous written by Mu Zhiyuan in the Yuan Dynasty) is The Yellow-Millet Dream, which is the story of how Lǚ Dòngbīn met Zhongli Quan and began his path to immortality.
The Immortals are the subject of many artistic creations, such as paintings and sculptures. Examples of writings about them include:
- The Yueyang Tower by Ma Zhiyuan
- The Bamboo-leaved Boat by Fan Zi’an
- The Willow in the South of the City by Gu Zijing
- The most significant is The Eight Immortals Depart and Travel to the East by Wu Yuantai in the Ming Dynasty.
- There is another work, also made during the Ming (c. 14th-15th centuries), by an anonymous writer, called The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea. It is about the Immortals on their way to attend the Conference of the Magical Peach when they encounter an ocean. Instead of relying on their clouds to get them across, Lü Dongbin suggested that they each should exercise their unique powers to get across. Derived from this, the Chinese proverb “The Eight Immortals cross the sea, each reveals its divine powers” indicates the situation that everybody shows off their skills and expertise to achieve a common goal.
In qigong and martial art
Furthermore, they have been linked to the initial development of qigong exercises such as the Eight Piece Brocade. There are some Chinese martial arts styles named after them, which use fighting techniques that are attributed to the characteristics of each immortal.
Some drunken boxing styles make extensive use of the Eight Immortals archetypes for conditioning, qigong/meditation, and combat training. One subsection of BaYingQuan drunken fist training includes methodologies for each of the eight immortals.