The “eight immortals,” or baxian, are one of the most popular groups of deities in Chinese folklore. Their tales and attributes are well-known in almost every Chinese household.
Since ancient times stories about the “eight immortals” have circulated, passing through many adaptations and transformations before coalescing into generally accepted versions. The number of immortals is fixed at eight probably because the Chinese favor that number due to the ancient belief that there are eight directions under heaven. Many things in the Chinese world are grouped into sets of eight, such as the “eight scenic spots” of a region or the “eight schools” of Chinese cuisine. The word baxian dates to the Three States period (220–280) and refers to eight divine beings that existed before the dawn of history. In the succeeding Jin dynasty (265–420), there appeared Shu zhong baxian (eight immortals of Shu [Sichuan province]).” In the following Tang dynasty (618–907), people coined the term jiu zhong baxian (eight immortals of the wine cup) to describe eight Tang scholars who loved wine. Three sets of eight immortals have been identified in the Daoist pantheon: shang baxian (upper eight immortals), zhong baoxian (middle eight immortals), and xia baxian (lower eight immortals). The three sets existed at different periods of Chinese history and the names in each set also differ, with only a few overlaps.
The most widely recognized and revered group of eight immortals is the zhong baxian set, comprised of Li Tieguai (also known as Tieguai Li), Han Zhongli (also known as Zhongli Quan), Zhang Guo Lao, Lan Caihe, He Xiangu, Lü Dongbin, Han Xiangzi, and Cao Guojiu.
In Daoist folklore, the eight immortals were all ordinary people before they attained the secrets of eternal life. With personalities not strikingly different from those of mere mortals, they have enjoyed wide acceptance and worship by common folk. In many places in China, people have established Baxian gong (Palace of Eight Immortals) where in which the immortals are invited to participate in their ceremonies. Each immortal has a special attribute or power and carries a magical implement. It is said that the fish drum (made of bamboo and fish skin) of Zhang Guo Lao can predict fate; the sword of Lü Dongbin can ward off evil spirits; the bamboo flute of Han Xiangzi can bestow vitality; the lotus of He Xiangu can nurture the human mind; the gourd of Li Tieguai can relieve suffering; the fan of Han Zhongli can resurrect the dead; the jade tablet of Cao Guojiu can purify the environment; and the flower basket of Lan Caihe can attract magical powers from various sources. The eight emblems are called ba bao (eight treasures) and are widely used as auspicious motifs in popular art and culture.
Li Tieguai is a legendary rather than a historic figure. Tieguai, means “iron crutch,” and “Iron-crutch Li” is the nickname given to him for his use of an iron crutch to support his crippled right leg. He has a dark complexion, two bulging eyes, and a gold band to bind his curly, unkempt hair. Purveyors of dog-skin plasters soaked with medicinal herbs consider him the originator and patron deity of their business.
Han Zhongli, whose family name is actually Zhongli and whose given name is Quan, was thus called because he is said to have been born during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). The Quanzhen (Complete Perfection) school of Daoism reveres him as one of the Bei wu zu (Five Northern Patriarchs).
Zhang Guo Lao (Elder Zhang Guo) is recorded in historical texts as a Daoist priest of the Tang period named Zhang Guo. The epithet lao (elder) was added at the end of his name to show respect for his age. He left behind many works on Daoism. The story of him on a donkey chanting moral lessons is commonly known in China. He is respected as the patron of daoqing or “solo ballad,” a type of story recital involving a mixture of sung and spoken phrases.
He Xiangu is the only female in the eight immortals pantheon. Legend puts her as either a native of Zengcheng county, Guangdong province or Yongzhou county, Hunan province. She is also said to have attained immortality as a young maiden and serves as the folk deity of prophecy and fortune-telling. Lan Caihe was a Tang dynasty wanderer in the present-day town of Huaiguan in Fengyang county, Anhui province before attaining Daoist immortality. Some details of his life can be found in historical records such as Nan Tang shu (History of Southern Tang).
Lü Dongbin is the best-known figure of the eight immortals, and tales about him far outnumber those of the other seven immortals. Along with Han Zhongli, he is also revered as one of the Five Northern Patriarchs in the Quanzhen sect of Daoism. Though generally considered a historical figure of the Tang period, Lü’s hometown remains a source of debate. Such titles as Sword Immortal, Wine Immortal, and Poetry Immortal are also associated with his name. His great aspiration was to “relieve the suffering of all under heaven before ascending to it.” Shrines dedicated to his worship, usually called “Lüzu temples,” have been built all over China.
Han Xiangzi is the honorific name of a historical man called Han Xiang who was a grand-nephew of the great Tang writer and statesman Han Yu (768–824). Upon passing the imperial civil service exam in the capital, Xiangzi was awarded a jinshi (presented scholar) degree, the highest academic accolade in pre-modern China. However, no historical records exist about Xiangzi practicing Daoism or attaining immortality. Instead, another grand-nephew of Han Yu was a Daoist practitioner. It is possible that the identities of the two younger men became co-mingled into the immortal known as Han Xiangzi.
Cao Guojiu (Guojiu, literally “imperial maternal uncle,” is said to be the brother of Empress Cao, consort of the Northern Song emperor Renzong (r. 1022–1063). It is reputed that Guojiu was introduced to the magic arts of Daoism by Han Zhongli and Lü Dongbin who saw in him divine qualities.
The popularity of the "eight immortals" in China can be attested by the widespread memorial shrines and temples dedicated to their worship, both individually or as a group.