Eight Immortals

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The Eight Immortals crossing the sea, from Myths and Legends of China, 1922 by E. T. C. Werner. Clockwise in the boat starting from the stern: He Xiangu, Han Xiang Zi, Lan Caihe, Li Tieguai, Lü Dongbin, Zhongli Quan, Cao Guojiu and outside the boat is Zhang Guo Lao.

The Eight Immortals (八仙 Bāxiān) are a group of legendary xian ("immortals; transcendents; fairies") in Chinese mythology. Each Immortal's power can be transferred to a tool of power (法器) that can give life or destroy evil. Together, these eight tools are called "Covert Eight Immortals" (暗八仙 àn ~). Most of them are said to have been born in Tang Dynasty or Song Dynasty. Not only are they revered by the Daoists, but they are a popular element in the secular Chinese culture. They live on Penglai Mountain-Island.

The Immortals are:

For their names in Chinese characters and Wade-Giles, see the individual pages in the list above.

In literature before the 1970s, they were sometimes translated as the Eight Genie. First described in the Yuan Dynasty, they were probably named after the Eight Immortal Scholars of the Han.


In art

The tradition of depicting humans who’ve become an immortal 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(金朝). The art of the Jin tombs of the 12th and 13th centuries depict 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 sect known as the Complete Realization (Quanshen). The most famous art depiction of the Eight Immortals from this period is a mural of them in the Eternal Joy Temple (Yongle Gong) at Ruicheng.

The Eight Immortals are considered to be signs of prosperity and longevity, so they are popular themes in ancient 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 wood block 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 hand maidens, commonly depicted servants of the higher ranked deities, or other images showing great spiritual power. This shows that early on the Eight Immortals quickly became eminent figures of the Taoist religion, and had great importance. We can see this importance only is heightened in the Ming dynasty and Qing dynasties. During these dynasties, the Eight Immortals are very frequently associated with other prominent spiritual deities in artwork. They are numerous paintings with them and the Three Stars (the gods of longevity, emolument, 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 the Eight Immortals isn’t limited to paintings or other visual arts. They are quite prominent in written works too. Authors and playwrights wrote numerous stories and plays 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.[1]

In Jackie Chan's movie "Drunken Master", there were eight "drunken" Kung Fu forms that were said to be originated from the Eight Immortals.

In literature

The Immortals are the subject of many artistic creations, like paintings and sculptures. Examples of writings about them include:

  • The Yueyang Mansion (《岳陽樓》 yuè yáng lòu) by Ma Zhiyuan (馬致遠 mǎ zhì yuǎn),
  • The Bamboo-leaved Boat (《竹葉船》 zhú yè chuán) by Fan Zi'an (范子安 fàn zǐ ān), and
  • The Willow in the South of the City (《城南柳》 chén nán liǔ) by Gu Zijing (谷子敬 gǔ zǐ jìng).
  • The most significant of the writings is The Eight Immortals Depart and Travel to the East (《八仙出處東游記》 bā xiān chū chù dōng yoú jì) by Wu Yuantai (吳元泰 wú yuán taì) in Ming Dynasty.
  • There is another work in Ming, by an anonymous writer, called The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea (《八仙過海》 bā xiān guò hǎi). It is about the Immortals on their way to attend the Conference of the Magical Peach (蟠桃會 pán taó huì) and encountered an ocean. Instead of going across by their clouds, Lü Dongbin suggested that together, they should use their powers to get across. Stemming from this, the Chinese proverb "The Eight Immortals cross the sea, each reveals its divine power" (八仙過海,各顯神通 ~, gè xiǎn shén tōng) indicates the situation that everybody shows off their powers to achieve a common goal.


Established in the Song Dynasty, the Xi'an temple Eight Immortals Palace (八仙宮), formerly Eight Immortals Nunnery (八仙庵), where statues of the Immortals can be found in the Hall of Eight Immortals (八仙殿). In Mu-cha (木柵 mù zhà), Taipei County, Taiwan, there is a temple called South Palace (南宮), nicknamed Eight Immortal Temple (八仙廟 ~ miào). And in Singapore, there is a temple called Xian Gu Tian (仙姑殿) worshiping the Eight Immortals with the main deity He Xian Gu.

Modern depictions

In modern China, the Eight Immortals are still a popular theme in artwork. Paintings, pottery, and statues of the Eight Immortals are still common in households across China, and are even gaining some popularity world wide.

In other media

Several movies about the Eight Immortals have been produced in China in recent years.

The Eight Immortals play an important part in the plot of the video game Fear Effect 2.

In the X-Men comic book, the Eight Immortals appear to protect China along the Collective Man, when the mutant Xorn caused a massacre in one small village.

Further reading

  • Lai, T. C., The Eight Immortals (Swindon Book Co., 1972).

External links

Category:Background of Chinese Tattoos