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Chinese Mythology 101: The Eight Immortals of Pat Sin Leng

By Alisa Chau 25 August 2021

Header image courtesy of @joinmepic (via Shutterstock)

Amidst 3,125 hectares of natural terrain encompassed by the Pat Sin Leng Country Park in the New Territories, there lies an alluring mountain with eight distinct mounds, each shrouding a unique tale. Its spectacular celestial scenes show Plover Cove and stretch all the way up to the border of the mainland, revealing the fringes of Shenzhen. As you clamber along the underrated and incredibly picturesque Pat Sin Leng hiking trail, take a moment to gaze out over the legendary “Ridge of the Eight Immortals” (八仙嶺; baat3 sin1 leng5) and soak in the mystical air of these legendary deities.

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Trekking up and down the jagged peaks may lead to laboured breathing and lightheadedness, but the ensuing sense of otherworldliness suggests that the intoxicating atmosphere may not just be a result of the altitude. Each one of the eight crests along the mountain’s cap-rock formations has been assigned a name of an individual “sin” (仙), lifted from an ensemble of highly revered fantastical figures in Chinese folklore, known as the “Eight Immortals.”

Who were the Eight Immortals?

According to Chinese beliefs, the class of beings known as “sin” are those who have been granted immortality and subsequently elevated to the status of a deity. As symbols, they signify the Taoist preoccupation of prolonging life, compounded with its pursuit which hinges upon the axis origin where nature and the self intersect.

The Eight Immortals have been accepted as personified stand-ins of Taoist values, each acting as a symbolic patron for a designated concept or archetypal group. As prolific fixtures in popular myth and folk tales, they won the hearts of the common folk through their distinct personalities and dedication to society’s downtrodden and destitute.

Throughout their appearance in art, literature, legends, martial arts, artefacts, architecture, and even pop culture, the Eight Immortals are seen as harbingers of auspiciousness and great joy. Replicas of their likenesses and important elements alluding to these colourful characters appear in all corners of Chinese iconography. From stone carvings on temple rooftops to vibrant illustrations of decorative couplets, their presence remains rife.

Although they are portrayed and worshipped as a group for most part, each member has an individual series of tales, in addition to archetypal characteristics that could at the same time represent certain principles of Taoism. In essence, these immortals are responsible for relaying codes of morality to the common people, teaching the average person how to cultivate themselves to align with the universally divine “qi” (氣) energy.

Notable contrasts amongst the immortals could be interpreted to reinforce societal roles, yet simultaneously examining the machinations in the contexts surrounding them. Coming from various diverging backgrounds and each representing particular archetypal groupings, all of them somehow manage to reach the same aspiration of immortality in their own manner, expressing the liberating realisation that just about anyone can achieve the way of Tao. It is as if to say regardless of physicality or class status, and despite the ruling structures of Chinese society at the time, everybody deserved to have a guiding light shone on their path towards enlightenment.

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By Catharina Cheung 24 November 2020

The Eight Immortals of Pat Sin Leng

Stories behind the collective exploits show the Eight Immortals having adventures together and enjoying a carefree wayfaring lifestyle, their tales acting as both entertainment and tools of moral instruction. Although most of the time, the characters are depicted as a part of and alongside the whole group, each of them has its own background, area of patronage, and significance. In conjunction with the ridges of Pat Sin Leng that have been named after their secular monikers, here are the stories of the ever-iconic Eight Immortals.

Photo: Scott Dunbar (via New World Encyclopedia)
1

Lan Caihe (藍采和)

Choi Wo Fung (采和峰; choi2 wo4 fung1)—the peak named after the patron saint of florists and gardeners Lan Caihe—is first in line as the shortest one. There is some mystery surrounding the real-life figure the sin was moulded after, as records that verified their existence remain murky. Additionally, Lan is referred to using the gender-neutral pronoun of “their” for the reason that there has been no consistent portrayal of their gender nor age throughout the years. In fact, their expressed gender has generally been accepted as ambiguous.

Supposedly existing as a wandering musician in the Tang dynasty, Lan gained a reputation in their local community as an infamous homeless entertainer who filled the streets with sounds of unconventional songs showcasing lyrics that pondered the pleasures of life as well as philosophical ideas. Many of their “foot-stomping songs” (踏歌; daap6 go1), a ballad sung in a half-crazy manner alongside pulsating beats made by stomping their feet, also integrated messages encouraging people to seek the way of the Tao.

It is precisely this unencumbered attitude that carves out space for Taoist energies to enter into Lan’s life. By being so untethered to a worldly status or material things, as well as being a sort of mouthpiece intent on spreading the word of the Tao, Lan was able to be led down the holy path, rather than force his way there in a contrived manner.

There are varied accounts on how they became immortal but the story generally followed one fateful evening at a pub where the drunken Lan had either; overdrank to the brink of aberration, or heard sounds of pipe music from the heavens, before being carried up to heaven by way of cloud or holy white crane.

Photo: Chris Jensen (via New World Encyclopedia)
2

Royal Uncle Cao (曹國舅)

As the patron of acting and theatre, the origin story of the imperial figure behind the Tsao Kau Fung (曹舅峰; chou4 kau5 fung1) peak is surprisingly void of performances. Based on a historical figure believed to be a descendant of an early Song dynasty general, the title of “Royal Uncle” references Cao’s connection to the court and his noble origins.

Born into aristocracy and steered towards life in court, Cao could not have been more out of place. His reserved nature and apolitical attitude led him to feel trapped by the conditions of royalty, yet his younger brother of the same flesh and blood was a complete antithesis, revelling in the power their family held over the common folk. It was said that though Cao tried to change his brother for the better and assuaged his guilt by sharing his fortunes with the needy, none of it was effective.

Eventually, Cao decided to flee into hermithood, some stories indicating it as a result of a false accusation of corruption that led to his banishment, or an adverse reaction towards his brother’s misdeeds that broke the final straw on the camel’s back. During his life as a recluse, he reverted to being in harmony with nature, which helped him to sign his name in the good books of two visiting immortals. Passing their test of internal development with flying colours, he was granted immortality. Having turned his back on the power and riches of the world, his is a tale demonstrating that true fulfilment was found from within.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons
3

Immortal Woman He (何仙姑)

As the token woman in the group, Hsien Ku Fung’s (仙姑峰; sin1 gu1 fung1) inspiration, Immortal Woman He, is more or less considered the patron saint for women seeking religious fulfilment in Taoism. Modelled after the feminine ideals of the beliefs at the time, she was considered a—if not the only—female role model whose markedly “feminine” traits were exaggerated to show what was required of women by ancient Chinese society. Be it selflessness in the guise of filial piety, or piousness as a form of proving one’s inherent goodness.

Her humble origins begins when she was an impoverished peasant girl in the Tang dynasty. At the age of around 14 to 15, whilst dreaming, He encountered an immortal. The deity instructed her to eat powdered mica, promising her special capabilities that would make her as light as air, allowing her to travel far and wide to gather sustenance and improve her chances of living on each day. Once jostled awake, she vowed to dedicate her whole life to the endeavour of becoming worthy of the powers and immortality, even going as to take a stand of celibacy to prove her determination.

Following the strange directions in her dream, she made the trip to take in the powder, and was able to reap the power to leap in massive strides to get to anywhere she wanted immediately, as well as being able to eat less to survive. For years, Immortal He used her powers only to ensure her parents lived comfortably, and after their passing, ceased to eat mortal food at all. Once learning of her powers, Empress Wu summoned He to the imperial palace to reveal her godly secrets as to take on the capabilities for herself. Taking note of this wicked intention, He did not allow the empress even the chance to strike, suddenly ascending to heaven and shocking the royal messengers.

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Photo: Wikipedia Commons
4

Han Xiang (韓湘子)

Often shown carrying a Chinese flute instrument known as a dizi (笛子; dek6 ji2), Han Xiang was the patron deity of flute artists that the Sheung Tsz Fung (湘子峰; seung1 ji2 fung1) peak was named after. Though it is unverified, his real-life counterpart was believed to be the nephew of a Confucian political scholar in the Tang dynasty named Han Yu (韓愈).

Despite being raised by his uncle under a household that laid before him a roadmap straight towards life as part of the literati, Han Xiang had a one-track mind that was fixed on the Tao doctrine. Running away to further his practice, he later meets established immortals Lu Dongbin (呂洞賓) and Zhongli Quan (漢鍾離) who take him under their wing to eventually help him achieve his immortality. In essence, his defiance against his family’s expectations was a reflection of the Taoist emphasis on seeking individual spiritual attainment over chasing after scholastic pursuits as a means of appeasing one’s social contexts.

Aside from representing his talents, Han’s flute also starred as an icon in one of the most well-known love stories in Chinese culture that has been retold and adapted to countless operas and television shows. The story goes that one day when Han was playing his flute on the shores of the East Sea, a silver eel appeared and began swaying to his melodic sounds.

Not long after, the eel revealed itself to be the Dragon Girl (龍女; lung4 neui5), a daughter of the nautical Dragon King (龍王; lung4 wong4), and the two fell in love. However, the king forbade them from being together by locking the Dragon Girl away, and all Han had to remember her by was a piece of golden bamboo she had gifted him, which he crafted into the flute that soon after became his token of choice.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons
5

Iron-crutch Li (鐵拐李)

As with every ragtag team of special characters, one is likely to take on the role of the class clown. Known as the comic of the immortals, yet also as the patron of medics and healing, Iron-Crutch Li was an intriguing immortal who served as the frame of reference behind the Pat Sin Leng peak named Kuai Li Fung (拐李峰; gwaai2 lei5 fung1). He was said to have an unpredictable and irritable temper, and tends to be depicted holding onto a gourd (葫蘆; wu4 lou4) flask that was repurposed from a Calabash melon that has been dried out, whilst leaning against an iron cane for support. Some legends purported that it was the flask that held his spirit and supplied him with his source of power.

Believed to live around 6 BC, and studying the way of Tao under Laozi’s guidance, Li spent his life devoting himself to religion through a lifestyle of meditation, abstaining from vices, and being in total harmony with the ways of the world. Each accomplishment he excelled at was rewarded with a magical pill that gradually added to his list of powers. Though Li is presented as a raggedy ascetic, he began his story as a handsome man. Yet a fateful incident brought upon by his sending away his spirit outside of his body, had caused him to lose his original physical shell, and Li had to make do with the body of a physically disabled beggar.

It is this physical form precisely that makes him a direct visual symbol of the marginalized demographic that he fought so hard for. As a Taoist hero, his divergence from surface-level beauty and goodness represented the religion’s contempt for vanity. His gradual progression towards his veneration was an aspect that reflected the acclaim for those who cultivate their Taoist doctrine through hard work.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons
6

Zhongli Han (漢鍾離)

One of the most ancient of the immortals and the namesake behind Chung Li Fung (鍾離峰; jung1 lei4 fung1), Zhongli Han was remembered as an individual of many talents. Blessed since birth with a a jovial, portly face that was described as inclined to the holy, he was only seven days old when he began to recite a bunch of cryptic ethereal admonitions. Though destined for a life of spirituality, he started out following in the footsteps of his father to become an official in the Han dynasty court.

Though he did rise through to reach the rank of general initially, Zhong had a brush with a strange old hermit who thrusted him into a new level of otherworldliness. During war, Zhong became stranded and escaped to a house where he was met with a man who helped him to recuperate and convinced him to stay by way of teaching him the art of alchemy. Training intensely in magical skills and Tao philosophies for three days straight, Zhong broke through and realized he was best using his power to serve the people rather than for violence and conquests.

After returning to civilization, he had returned to go and thank the man in the house, yet was met with only an empty field where the place once stood. Catalysing his journey into spirituality, Zhong left and ventured off to contribute to ending hunger. As he progressed in alchemy, he crafted a recipe in order to ascend to the heavens, and stepped into his life as an immortal.

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Photo: Wikipedia Commons
7

Elder Zhang Guo (張果老)

Perhaps the most eccentric as a result of all the areas of patronage he had under his belt, Zhang Guo was known all at once as a protector of young families, harbinger of male heirs, a winemaker, the individual tied to Kao Lao Fung (果老峰) peak, and as the representative of the elderly amongst the immortals. Easily recognizable, he is shown riding backwards on a white donkey, sometimes with a fish drum (魚鼓; yu4 gu2) in tow.

The real-life counterpart to Zhang is thought to have lived as an impoverished peasant during the Tang dynasty. Many of the tales surrounding this character revolved around Zhang’s life after being elevated into immortality, though his deity origin story is still widely known. As a mortal, he made his living by selling his family’s farmed produce, which he brought to the market every day on donkey back. Yet on the way back home one afternoon, Zhang was enticed by the aroma of a stew that came wafting from a monastery, and made his way to a boiling pot of deliciousness. He could not resist his urges and slurped up the entire cauldron, only to find out that the soupy concoction was in reality a potion that was left to simmer by a local alchemist. Still, Zhang was deified thanks to the mystical mixture.

The adventures that followed saw Zhang being tracked down by the emperor who begged him to reveal the secrets to immortality. In retaliation, the immortal fell to his death, shocking everyone in sight. It was only upon the royal’s repentance that he could be revived, revealing that his departure was false. Some critics interprets this bizarre switch-up as an implicit commentary on the Confucian emphasis on enacting a stately hierarchy, as Zhang would rather ‘die’ than use his powers to engage with figures in politics and bureaucracy.

8

Lu Dongbin (呂洞賓)

It is only fitting that the highest hill of Pat Sin Leng, Chung Li Fung (純陽峰; seun4 yeung4 fung1), is dedicated to the most renowned and de facto group leader of the immortals—Lu Dongbin. Destined for spirituality, his birth appeared alongside a strange heavenly scent and celestial music. A white crane descended from the clouds and greeted the newborn who was described to have bones of metal and muscles as strong as wood. As a member of the court, Lu’s father had dismissed the foreshadowing signs, and instead made him study hard to strive towards the imperial exam instead.

It was this life plan that ironically led Lu to his destiny. Having experienced difficulties in trying for the goal his father had set, Lu took a detour at an inn on his way home one day. There he met a jolly old man who offered him dinner, but before he could feast, Lu fell asleep and dreamt of a vivid premonition. In his slumber he saw his life flash by rapidly, where his future success as an imperial servant worked to attract jealousy and sabotage from those around him, culminating in betrayals and death. Once awakened, the mysterious old man revealed himself to be Zhongli Han, and offered to mentor him and test his virtuousness to see if he was worthy of immortality.

As expected, Lu passed all the tests with flying colours, and had worked his way to become one of the most altruistic figures amongst the common folk. His interactions often entailed him masking his true identity as an immortal by putting on a front, one time pretending to be a blind oil salesman to test the honesty of people he encountered and monitor to see if they would take from him. The outright rejection of state morality in favour of valuing service to the people, and authentic honesty was an idea that permeated through his life and stories.

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Alisa Chau

Junior editor

Always down for an adventure, Alisa’s general approach to life (and anything, really) is to “just go with the flow.” She believes that the most unforgettable moments are the most spontaneous ones. One thing she will always be certain of, however, is her love for the band My Chemical Romance and potato-based food.

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