The general appearances of ancient Chinese deities lead us to think of them as sober imperial bureaucrats. Mostly, they look like middle aged men dressed in official-looking robes, spending their time reading formal petitions and responding by giving stern orders to their underlings – rather like the more artistic version of our modern politicians. Although several of the most popular deities are female, gender immediately raises problems for the bureaucratic image of some important deities as governing elites tend to favor a religious practice that reflected themselves (male, old, humourless etc). Women, as well as men who are viewed to be rebels or misfits, tends to be excluded from the sites and definitions of power. An example of this is the worship of Tu’er Shen, the god of homosexuality, that was mostly suppressed if not abandoned completely – particularly when Zhu Gui, a grain tax circuit official of Fujian in 1765, attempted to standardize the morality of the people by prohibiting “licentious cults”. So there is not a lot of diversity within the divine pantheon in Chinese mythology.
But the immortals are a different story. The Xiangzhou region of Guangxi, China, has only a few temples to bureaucratic-looking deities. They worship three Taoist hermits who bore little similarities or relationship to the “official” hierarchy of gods. The art of the Jin tombs of the 12th and 13th centuries depicts a group of eight Taoist immortals in wall murals and sculptures – the most of which is a mural in the Yongle Gong (“Eternal Joy Temple”) at Ruicheng. Pa hsien (“the eight Immortals”), are often depicted either together as a group or alone to give more homage to that specific figure. All these indicate that the immortals were also very influential, perhaps as influential as the deities themselves. Additionally, the immortals have very little to do with bureaucracy and are considered to be a very diverse lot.
The concept of immortals in China could be dated in a period prior to the birth of religious Taoism. Xian (“Immortals”) are beings who ascended to Immortality through Taoist cultivation practices. They have magical powers, can fly freely through the air, and have a close connection to the Tao and the natural world. Some tales about Immortals, such as tales about the Xi wangmu (Queen Mother of the West), Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) or Penglai Zhangren (the Elder of Penglai), were very popular in the stories of the Warring States period (c. 481 BCE – 403 BCE) and led to the transformation from mythical stories to the early tales of immortals.
It is important then to make the distinction between “immortals” as we know them in the west and the ancient Chinese concept of the same word. In the Taoist legends of the immortals, a man or a woman can be transformed into an immortal through cultivation whereas elements of a deity in the ancient Greek mythical stories were predetermined – one is either born as an immortal or not. A Taoist immortal, therefore, started their life as an ordinary mortal who worked hard to achieve immortality as opposed to being born from a divine parent. In Taoism, individuals, as seen in the case of pa hsien, achieve immortality through individual cultivation and virtues. While there are deities and other immortals who can help them achieve this, the main bulk of the responsibility rests on the individual themselves. An immortal represents freedom from all restrictions of governments and considered to be the embodiment of the human pursuit for freedom and equality. Pa hsien specifically reflects the egalitarianism that anyone regardless of background, age, gender identity can attain immortality.
Pa hsien are eight regular folks who have attained immortality. They are defeated general Han Chung-li, failed scholar Lu Tung-pin, the man who walks with an iron crutch – Li Tieh-kuai, imperial borther-in-law Ts’ao Kuo-chiu, the woman who was said to have been born with six hairs on her head – Ho Hsien-ku, runaway musician Han Hsiang-tzu, the eccentric elder Chang Kuo-lao and Lan Tsai-ho who favors dressing as a woman or in gender-ambiguous clothing. Each of them has a special symbol which represents the characteristic of the immortal and is usually used to identify each one of them. Han Chung-li is symbolized by the twin knots on his hair. Lu Tung-pin wears a Taoist cap and carries a double-blade sword. Li T’ieh-kuai, with one leg crippled, uses an iron crutch and carries a big bag of medicines on his back. Ts’ao Kuo-chiu wears an official robe and holds a scepter – a symbol of government official in his time. Ho Hsien-ku holds a bamboo ladle held in her hand. Chang Kuo-lao is depicted as an old man riding a donkey. Lan Ts’ai-ho the sexually ambiguous immortal is always barefoot, and his symbol is his musical boards. Han Hsiang-tzu is depicted as a handsome young man who holds a flower basket. From their depictions alone, the Eight Immortals represents a cross section of the human society; the scholar (Lu Tung-pin), royalty and social elites (Ts’ao Kuo-chiu and Han Chung-li), the elderly (Chang Kuo-lao), the rebels (Han Hsiang-tzu), the disabled (Li Tieh-kuai), women (Ho Hsien-ku) and sexual minority (Lan Tsai-ho).
The legend of the Eight Immortals as a group is a relatively recent one at the time of the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE). But some, if not all, of the group to have been individually celebrated as Immortals in the previous Taoist legends.
The main feature that the eight figures have in common is the fact that they were all ordinary people of different dynasties in Chinese history. Ts’ao Kuo-chiu may be considered an exception as he was said to be the brother-in-law of the emperor and thus may be considered a nobility. Because the eight figures were common folks, most of them would never have had a chance to enjoy fame or wealth in their lives. By including people such as an elderly man, a disabled person, a woman and a transgender, the playwrights would have aimed to represent those people who were, in their opinion, usually looked down upon and despised by the society. The fact that these figures were included in the group proves the playwrights’ intention to show that even common folks can and did achieve immortality.
Why was there a need for the show of eight ordinary folks achieving immortality? The playwrights were simply reacting to the social changes in the Yuan dynasty as it was the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China. Throughout the Yuan era, most of the playwrights, being part of the common folks, never had the chance to enjoy any form or privilege. In fact, most of them suffered the humiliation and oppression of the Mongol conquerors who had no use of them as, although some managed to master the Chinese language, most of them preferred to communicate in their native language. Therefore, by choosing these “ordinary” people the playwrights would have been trying to find hope through their art form.