The Eight Immortals Of Taoism

Sculpture of the Eight Immortals
Kevin R. Morris/Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

For devout believers, a central tenet of the ancient Chinese practice of Taoism is the belief that adhering to certain beliefs and practices can lead to very long life, even immortality.

It is unknown just how many Taoists practitioners have achieved immortality. The founder of Taoism, Laozi (also known as Lao-Tsu), is of course thought to be an immortal, as is his spiritual descendent, Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu).

However, countless numbers of hermits and wandering Taoist sages, whose levels of realization were known only to themselves, may also be among the numbers of immortals. 

The religious tradition of Taoism venerates a group of eight xian (immortals) who offer a concrete symbol of this ability to transcend the limitations of ordinary human life through the beliefs and practices of Taoism. They serve as mythological archetypes of immortality achieved through practice. 

Among the Eight Immortals celebrated in Taoism, a number seem to have had actual historical existences. They are said to have been born in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) or Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), and were identified by Zhuangzi. While some of the Immortals were real people, the magical and mystical tales surrounding these practitioners make it impossible to distinguish historical from mythological reality.

The Powers of the Eight Immortals

Whether they are regarded as historical, semi-historical, or legendary characters, the Eight Immortals represent the powers that come with transcending the limits of ordinary human existence by means of practices.

Their powers include: 

  • The ability to transform into different creatures and objects
  • Extraordinary bodies that do not age and which are capable of amazing physical actions
  • Skills for controlling people, animals and objects through the control of qi
  • The gift of healing
  • The ability to predict the future

Even for Taoists who do not believe in the literal existence of the Eight Immortals and the powers they represent, these characters offer a source of inspiration, devotion, and even simple entertainment.

The Eight Immortals of Taoism can be interpreted in a psychological, archetypal manner, much the way the characters of other ancient mythologies have come to symbolize human needs and wishes at a collective, universal level.  

The Eight Immortals

1. He Xian Gu. Often considered the only woman among the Immortals, He Xian Gu is said to be the daughter of He Tai, living in Zengcheng, Guangdong. She is often depicted carrying a lotus flower, said to improves one's mental and physical health.

2. Cao Guo Jiu. Thought to be an actual historical figure, his name translates literally as "Imperial Brother-in-Law Cao. A member of the royal family in the Song Dynasty, Cao Guo Jiu is often shown dressed in official robes and holding a jade tablet or clappers/ castinets. He is regarded as the patron of actors and the theater. 

3. Taiguai Li. Often translated as "Iron Crutch Li," this Immortal is rather ill-tempered but is also a benevolent patron to the sick and needy. He is usually depicted carrying a gourd slung over his shoulder, from which he dispenses medicine to heal the sick.  

4. Lan Caihe. Likely a purely mythological figure (although some argue otherwise), Lan Caih is sometimes depicted as a male but other times as a female.

He/she often carries a bamboo flower basket and/or a pair of bamboo clappers/ castinets. He/she is a decided eccentric, serving to symbolize a carefree life devoid of the concerns and responsibilities of ordinary life.  

5. Lu Dongbin (also spelled Lu Tung Pin). This may be the best known of all the Immortals, and is sometimes consider their leader. He is an actual historical figure—a scholar and poet living during the Tang Dynasty. Lu Dongbin's symbol is a magic sword that dispels evil spirits and provides him with invisibility. He is regarded as a patron deity for highly literate people; some also see him as a champion of the medical profession. 

6. Han Xiang Zi. Translated as "Philosopher Han Xiang," is usually thought to be an historical person living during during the Tang Dynasty and related to a Confucian scholar.

 Han Xiang Zi is often depicted carrying a flute and is regarded as a patron deity of musicians.  

7. Zhang Guo Lao. He is one of the Immortals known with fair certainty to be an actual historical figure. Zhang Guo Lao lived from approximately the middle of the 7th century into the 8th century, practicing as a Taoist hermit in the mountains of east-central China. He is typically shown seated on a white mule, often facing backwards. For Taoists, he is regarded as a protector of children and as patron of wine and the good life. 

8. Zhongli Quan. Likely a purely mythological figure, Zhongli Quan is usually shown with his chest and stomach exposed, holding a fan with which he can resurrect the dead and transform stones into precious metals.  He usually is featured with a long beard reaching to his navel. A pleasant character, he is often shown drinking wine.