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Frequently found adorning Chinese Artwork are the Eight Immortals of Taoist legend. They have been a subject in almost every known type of artwork in China for over 1,000 years. They have been pictured alone, all eight together, and in groups of three.

The Eight Immortals - Pa Hsien

Either singly or in groups the Eight Immortals, Pa Hsien, of the Taoist religion are one of the most popular subjects of representation in China; their portraits are to be seen everywhere—on porcelain vases, teapots, teacups, fans, scrolls, embroidery, etc. Images of them are made in porcelain, earthenware, roots, wood, metals. The term ‘Eight Immortals’ is figuratively used for happiness. The number eight has become lucky in association with this tradition, and persons or things eight in number are graced accordingly. Thus we read of reverence shown to the ‘Eight Genii Table’ (Pa Hsien Cho), the ‘Eight Genii Bridge’ (Pa Hsien Ch’iao), ‘Eight Genii Vermicelli’ (Pa Hsien Mien), the ‘Eight Genii of the Wine-cup’ (Tin Chung Pa Hsien)—wine-bibbers of the T’ang dynasty celebrated by Tu Fu, the poet. They are favourite subjects of romance, and special objects of adoration. In them we see “the embodiment of the ideas of perfect but imaginary happiness which possess the minds of the Chinese people.” Three of them (Chung-li Ch’üan, Chang Kuo, and Lü Yen) were historical personages; the others are mentioned only in fables or romances. They represent all kinds of people—old, young, male, female, civil, military, rich, poor, afflicted, cultured, noble. They are also representative of early, middle, and later historical periods.

The legend of the Eight Immortals is certainly not older than the time of the Sung dynasty (A.D. 960–1280), and is probably to be assigned to that of the Yüan dynasty (1280–1368). But some, if not all, of the group seem to have been previously celebrated as Immortals in the Taoist legends. Their biographies are usually arranged in the order of their official eminence or seniority in age. Here I follow that adopted in Hsiu hsiang Pa Hsien tung yu chi1 in which they are described in the order in which they became Immortals.

ZUANG GUOLAO ( CHANG KUO-LAO ) He is represented as an Old Man riding a donkey. (Sometimes Backwards) He is usually carrying two drumsticks. Legend has it that at the end of his journeys, he could fold up his donkey like a piece of paper and store him in his wallet. When he was ready to travel again he would sprinkle water on his wallet and the Donkey would reappear.

ZHONG-LI QUAN ( CHUNG-LI CHUAN ) This is the familiar Fat Man with his bare belly showing. He always carries a fan and sometimes a peach. He is also considered the Chief of the Immortals.

HAN XIANG-ZI ( HAN HSIANG-TSU ) This is the happy Immortal that is always seen playing a flute. It is said that Han could make flowers bloom with just his will, and soothe wild animals with his music.

HE XIAN-GU ( HO HSIEN-KU ) One of two female Immortals, He Xian-Gu carries with her a magical Lotus flower. She was brought into the group of Immortals by Lu Dong-Bin after he rescued her from a demon with his magic sword.

LAN CAI-HE ( LAN TS'AI-HO ) The second woman amongst the Immortals is always shown wearing a tattered blue gown and only one shoe. A basket of flowers is her symbol, and is usually carried with her.

LI TIE-GUAI ( LI TIEH-KUAI ) He is the most recognizable of the Eight Immortals. He is depicted as a lame beggar carrying a double gourd. Legend explains his lame state as follows. His spirit would frequently leave his body to wander the land and heavens. One day his body was found and thought to be dead. It was burned, as was traditional. When he returned from his journey to find his body gone, he entered the first body he found...that of a lame beggar.

LU DONG-BIN ( LU TUNG-PIN ) Upon his back he wears a magic sword used to slay dragons and demons. In his hand he carries a fly brush. He is said to have traveled the earth for over 400 years slaying dragons.

CAO GUO-JUI ( TS'AO KUO-CHIU ) The finest dressed of the Eight Immortals. He is always shown wearing formal court dress and carrying castinets.

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