In the Chinese pantheon, there's a proper post for each god, and a place in the registry for every immortal. Each has its duties to perform and obligations to fulfill, but there are a few merrymakers who won't stay put. They're always flitting back and forth between heaven and earth, having themselves a little fun with the humans.
Every school child knows the anguished words of Fan Zhongyan, spoken while overlooking Dongting Lake from Yueyang Pavilion: "If anyone on earth is in distress, then I must share it. Until everyone on earth is happy, I must not be content." Equally well-known are the musings of Lu Dongbin, uttered at the exact same spot: "Drunk once again at Yueyang Pavilion. The sweet syllables of poetry transport me across Dongting Lake." The stirring solemnity of the serious-minded Fan Zhongyan could not contrast more sharply with the frolicky wit of the roguish Lu Dongbin. In the words of the mainland Chinese author Yu Qiuyu, a meeting of these two would certainly have been like "a bookworm crossing paths with a soldier."
The story of the Eight Immortals crossing the sea is one that any Chinese could recount in detail. Lu Dongbin, the best known of the Eight Immortals, was a complex character who loved wine, women, poetry, and the art of sword play. He could pass anywhere without leaving a trace. He never planned ahead, and often gave the impression that he was quite out of his mind. Apt to overindulge his taste for women, he once incurred the wrath of a heavenly queen for wooing the famous Luoyang courtesan White Peony. Right next to Yueyang Pavilion is Sanzui Pavilion (Drunk-Once-Again Pavilion), known for centuries as a place where Lu Dongbin drank and teased the herons.
It has always been thought that the makeup of the Chinese version of the celestial kingdom is a reflection of China's system of government. From the Jade Emperor on down, the gradations are clearly delineated. In 20th-century parlance, we would call it a gigantic bureaucracy. Upon death, even commoners have to register first with the proper heavenly authorities before they can be transported to heaven. It has been this way ever since the celestial court was established during the Han dynasty. Immortals have their place in the registry, as do spirits. Heaven symbolizes the orderly perfection of the universe. It is generally agreed that the heavenly kingdom, as seen through Chinese eyes, focuses mainly on the structure of the universe rather than the search for individual meaning or fulfillment.
The rise of Daoism as an organized religion, however, was accompanied by the idea that people can discipline themselves to turn into immortals. Since that time, immortals have been regarded as quite distinct from gods. Later, a certain amount of confusion crept in, with some mixing of the characteristics of both gods and immortals in a single "god-immortal" that became hard to classify as one or the other. What is clear, however, is that the playful side of such a deity is generally seen as reflective of the immortal half.
One ancient account tells the tale of a 2000-year-old man named Bai Shi who does not seek to ascend to heaven, but remains instead content with not dying. Asked why he will not take the potion that would allow him to ascend to heaven, Bai responds: "Would I be happier in heaven than where I am?" He preferred earth to heaven, with its complex hierarchies and obligations for service to higher-ups. Heaven is a tougher place than earth!
Strictly speaking, Daoist doctrine distinguishes between heavenly immortals and earthly immortals. An immortal in heaven can ride on clouds throughout the celestial realm. To ascend to heaven is the highest ideal, but a heavenly immortal can never go back to earth and be among humans. Earthly immortals, on the other hand, can come and go among humans as they please. While free of the physical infirmities and societal pressures that humans must face, they need not brave the isolation of a celestial existence. Li Feng-mao, a researcher at the Academia Sinica's Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy, points out that the writings of Daoist philosopher Ge Hong put considerable stress on earthly immortals, as in the following quotes: "Earthly immortals are immortals who do not wish to ascend to heaven." "The most highly cherished hope of those seeking immortality is to become an earthly immortal."
Carefree jet setters
The average Chinese, however, does not make these distinctions between celestial and earthly immortals. As far as the man on the street is concerned, all the gods and immortals go zipping around on the clouds, and all immortals can go anywhere they like, regardless of rank. As long as they don't commit any particularly grave mistake that gets them confined to heaven, they can visit the earth whenever they please.
Immortals spend their time flying from mountaintop to mountaintop, and having fun with the humans below. Imagine how nice life would be if, like China's immortals, you could spend your time on places like Mount Ali and the peaks of Yangmingshan. You're free of earthly entanglements, but if you're in the mood, in the blink of an eye you can be at the foot of the mountain, cruising the night market in Shihlin.
These rakish immortals reflect the Chinese zest for life. The ideal of the Chinese people is to make earth into a paradise and to live like immortals in the here-and-now.
According to Pu Mu-chou, a researcher at Academia Sinica's Institute of History and Philology, the earthly immortal was invented at some point during the Qin or Han dynasty as a position in the pantheon for China's all-powerful emperors, who enjoyed life tremendously and were reluctant to leave it.
The Achilles' heel-passion
According to Daoist doctrine, anyone who masters the necessary Daoist arts can live for thousands of years, and average believers go even further, holding that anything can change its appearance. The white snake, for example, is thought to be capable of training itself to appear as a human. Each person must master these Daoist arts on his or her own, taking into account one's idiosyncrasies. The emphasis is on the individual. According to Ko Ching-ming, professor of Chinese at National Taiwan University, "The focus of the search for immortality is not on the unchanging nature of the universe, but the ability of the individual to remain unchanged."
Immortals are self-made, and are not the models of virtue that gods are. Gods, on the other hand, are proclaimed as such by the people on account of their virtues. Matsu, for example, rescues people who are in distress at sea. Guan Gong is a paragon of righteousness and loyalty. "In other words," says Professor Ko, "gods are unfortunate working stiffs, while immortals are carefree jet setters."
To overcome the body's limitations, there is something even more important than the elixir of life and mastery of the Daoist arts-one must maintain a primitive simplicity. The famous Han dynasty writer Ban Gu was among those who advocated this idea.
Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) states that if one's view of the world is clouded by preconceptions and expectations, then it is impossible to live beyond the physical limitations faced by ordinary human beings, for one is not living in harmony with the "Dao" of the universe. Religious Daoism incorporates the ideas of both Laozi (Lao-tzu) and Zhuangzi. From Laozi it borrows the concepts of non-action, clear understanding, and acting in harmony with nature. From Zhuangzi come the concepts of total freedom and life-for-the-fun-of-it. Combining these concepts, religious Daoism holds that in order to become an immortal, one must be free of joy and anger, eliminate desire, live in quietude and non-action, maintain primitive simplicity, and act in harmony with the natural laws of the universe.
According to Chang Cheng, chairman of the Taoism Association of the Republic of China, anyone who would master the Daoist arts today must, as has ever been the case, be simple in spirit and eliminate desire in order to avoid unnecessary pain and maintain emotional and physical health. There is a saying that the person without desires will live to a ripe old age, but not everyone likes that idea. A poem written in the Tang dynasty argues that one might well envy lovers, but not an immortal. There is also an old saying that, "even an immortal will grow old if he becomes ensnared in passion."
The everyday passions that consume ordinary humans must be avoided if one is to become an immortal, who necessarily looks at life as a game.
The stage curtain at the National Concert Hall is decorated with an image of a phoenix surrounded by legions of female immortals in flight. The desire of one poet to live as the immortals do, strumming the zither, drinking fine wine, and floating on clouds in a world where death never comes, is vividly expressed in these lines: "Dallying with the mortals, sallying forth amidst the gods, I dance as I please-all is right with me!"
Kung Peng-cheng, president of Fokuang University, writes that singing and dancing are not just for the diversion of people toiling away in the workaday world. More importantly, they are deeply meaningful in and of themselves. "Singing and dancing are good ways to rise above the trials and tribulations of life. They enable people to communicate directly with the gods, or even enter into their realm."
Laughing through life
There is an edge to all the carousing that immortals indulge in. They don't take life seriously, because they've turned their backs on it, and they're apt to ridicule us ordinary humans for the way we hunger for money, devise schemes and plans, and fall passionately in love. They do it to remind us that fame and fortune aren't necessarily worth the effort. From there stems the Chinese tradition of the immortal as jokester.
Average believers in religious Daoism frequently go to the temple and use various divining implements to ask the gods and immortals about the future. As often as not, the results of the divining are not what the temple visitor is hoping for. The immortals like to laugh in our faces. When people are determined to achieve something in particular, they appear to the gods like a bunch of children fighting over a cake. In the struggle, the cake is torn to pieces and falls to the ground. Although every single piece can be picked up again, a little piece of dirty cake is not what any of them had wanted. The lottery is all the rage these days in Taiwan, and people often go to temples to ask for the winning numbers. The immortals must laugh themselves silly at these poor souls!
A well-known song mentioned in Dream of the Red Chamber says: "Sure, we know the immortals are right, but fame and fortune are hard to give up." What the immortals are trying to tell us is not to get hung up thinking that unnecessary things are absolutely necessary.
To the extent that we Chinese are able to see through the vanity of earthly desires, we express this awareness through the idea of immortals, who remind us that non-activity and complete freedom are what we should value in life.
That is the meaning of the tales of Lu Dongbin, who might cross the waters to Penglai in the morning, go to sleep that same night at a place impossibly far away, and cause an uproar at Yueyang Pavilion with his loud guffaws. Li Tieguai, another of the Eight Immortals, assumed the guise of a pathetically ugly and unfortunate street character. In China, there are even cases where buddhas have turned into immortals. Maitreya, a Buddhist deity known to the Chinese as the Laughing Buddha, is a pensive and somber figure in Japan. In China, this buddha dismisses everything with a laugh. The immortal Ji Gong always pretended to have lost his mind. Whenever he came across humans, he would impart a bit of enlightenment before going on his way, laughing out loud to himself.
The ability to see through the vanity of life and look upon it with a sense of humor finds expression in the image of the immortal, as does the joy of going through life without niggling over trifles. There is also room for mischief and mayhem. It was a Daoist master who taught the monkey king, Sun Wukong, "the 72 martial arts skills" without imparting any of the associated philosophical discipline. Armed with these skills, the monkey king would later throw the celestial realm into chaos as he openly challenged the rigid strictures of Buddhism.
Turning values on their head
People who flout authority, turn up their nose at wealth, and thumb their noses at conventional appearances are the type who end up becoming immortals.
Zhang Guolao had been a fruit seller before becoming one of the eight immortals. Although his job and income were anything but dependable, he was generous with his money, quick to help anyone in need. His eccentric ways were what enabled him to become an immortal. Afterwards, he still never had any money. He just sat on his donkey facing backwards, roaming wherever the donkey would take him, at whatever pace the donkey chose. A book published in mainland China notes that Zhang Guolao's habit of riding backwards on a donkey provides a striking illustration of the spirit it takes to become an immortal. Anyone who would become an immortal must turn his back on worldly ambition and look with disdain upon authority. Riding backwards and not even bothering to scan the road ahead, Zhang Guolao's whole lifestyle represented a noble but sad protest against mainstream society. In so doing, he concentrated his life forces and vaulted into the ranks of the immortals.
Then there is the legend of the wife of Lao Laizi. The king of Chu was seeking to retain Lao Laizi as a government official, but his wife was opposed on the grounds that taking a salary would force her husband to bow and scrape to the king. The two traveled together to the region south of the Yangtze River, where they withdrew from society, lived off the land, and trained themselves in the Daoist arts. In the end, Lao Laizi's wife came to be regarded by the people of China as a female immortal.
Out of the mainstream
Immortals are a symbol of wisdom and joyfulness. They exist outside the regular bureaucratic system of which the gods in heaven are a part. Immortals don't go by the book. When someone has exhausted all avenues of appeal in the heavenly bureaucracy, the god which steps in fortuitously to save the day is one with an immortal facet to its character. These are the gods to which people turn for help. They make trouble for authority.
Unlike the god Chenghuang, who must stay put at Chenghuang Temple, where his actions are held in check by a multi-tiered celestial bureaucracy, Lu Dongbin is often discovered wandering far away from the shrine in southeast Taipei that is devoted to his worship. He is known for roaming the mountains and seacoasts, helping people in distress.
There is also a story of two immortals who frequently shirk their celestial duties to roam among humans, sometimes sitting down to a game of chess, sometimes saving a life. A boy who was fated to die young begged the two immortals to save his life, backing up his request with gifts of food and drink. Accepting the "bribe," the immortals doctored the book of fate, changing the number of years allotted to the boy from "19" to "99."
After becoming an immortal, Matsu was later made a goddess. Every day she roamed the seas, saving people in distress. She flouted the rules of heaven, continually roaming about among mortals and helping impecunious scholars and peasants to find themselves marriage partners. Then there is the touching story of the female immortal who fell in love with Dong Yongshang and married him in spite of his totally destitute condition. The queen of heaven refused to allow a marriage with a mortal, though, and forced the two to live on opposite sides of the Milky Way, able to meet but once per year. Although they were later allowed to return to life on earth, the terms of their reunion were harsh. These two soul mates fell in love in seven successive reincarnations, but were prevented each time from living together to old age. This story is a good illustration of the Chinese tendency to worry about when one's current run of good fortune will come to an end.
Marrying the mortals
Mainland Chinese scholar Zhan Shichuang notes in his book on Daoism and women that the story related in the previous paragraph is just one of many tales about love between immortals and regular humans. He interprets this phenomenon to be a reflection of the difficulties that poor men in ancient China had finding the brides they wanted so badly. In their desperation, they fantasized about a miraculous union with an immortal.
The concept of the female immortal has many different roots. This concept offers a primitive life force and reproductive capability, but it is also related to the exploration of the human body that the Daoists carried out in connection with their quest for longevity. There are even those who interpret it as a way of sublimating the sex drive.
The most novel interpretation of the tales of love between immortals and regular human beings appears in a book published in Taiwan, in which the author argues that the denizens of heaven are sapped of their sex drive by perpetually fair weather, beautiful clothing, delectable food, and centuries of living at a metabolic rate of zero. Except for the one instance of pandemonium caused by the monkey king, the celestial kingdom is actually, the author argues, a very monotonous place. A female immortal has to mix it up with the mortals if she is to find love.
In the world, but free of its vanities
In the opinion of Li Feng-mao, to be able to frolic in perfect freedom as the immortals do, unfettered by conventional restraints, is almost universally considered an ideal life. Furthermore, the habits of the immortals reflect the desire that Chinese have felt ever since the Han dynasty to live in harmony with nature, focus only on one's self, and wander freely among the mountains.
Ever since the Book of Changes (Yi Jing) was written, hermits have always gravitated toward the mountains as a place of retreat. When they find themselves incapable of tolerating the noise, the bustle, and the strife of personal relationships, it is to the mountains and the outback that they head. It isn't just seekers of immortality who seek escape in the mountains, either. Skeptics, too, go there to get away from society.
Xi Kang, one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, was deeply disillusioned when his friend Shan Juyuan urged him to accept a post as a government official. Complaining that "this man doesn't even know me," Xi fired off a letter terminating the friendship. A lover of mountains, streams, birds, and fish, Xi explained in his letter that he was working on a potion that would enable him to become an immortal. If he accepted the government post, all he had achieved up to that point might be jeopardized. "How could I possibly give up something I love for something I hate?"
The famed army general Zhang Liang helped found the Han dynasty, but turned right around and cast off his prestigious posts like a pair of old shoes, choosing instead to wander off with an immortal. Of all the high-ranking officials who had helped the new emperor establish his dynasty, only Zhang Liang came away with his entire family alive and well. The idea of throwing away prestige in favor of the quest for Daoist enlightenment has become a cultural metaphor for the Chinese people. It illustrates the ideal of lack of illusion about the vanity of life.
Kung Peng-cheng sees a basic similarity between hermits, seekers of immortality, and wandering martial artists. "In Chinese philosophy, those who clearly understand the vanity of life nevertheless remain in our world."
Du Fu, one of China's greatest poets, wrote of his peer and contemporary, Li Bai: "When he quaffs a quart, a hundred poems flow. Wherever he drinks, there he sleeps. He might well refuse an invitation to go boating with the emperor, for he himself is a drunken immortal." Who could read this description and fail to be moved? Li Bai, who spent his time roaming through mountains and following his impulses, lived the life of an immortal.
Another way of living
In Confucianism, the pantheon does not feature the celestial hierarchy seen in Daoism. Confucianism represents the workaday side of the Chinese people, while "Daoism represents our playful side." The famed philosopher and lexicologist Lin Yutang once commented that Daoism has always been a romantic religion which caters to fantasy. If Lu Dongbin and Fan Zhongyan could somehow meet across the centuries that divided their life spans, Lu Dongbin would no doubt be tempted to urge his counterpart, steeped in orthodox Confucian morality: "Lighten up a bit, life isn't such a big deal!"
What's that you're saying, dear reader? Do I hear you asking whether you, too, have what it takes to become an immortal? There are not many politicians today who know how to get out of politics. If there are any at all, they are a very foresighted few! But take a look around you. Don't you have a friend who moved off to Hualien County to breathe the clean air and live like an immortal? Isn't there some displaced immortal around the office who never seems to get perturbed and often shows up in socks that don't match? And what about that old couple next door with the sparkle in their eyes who always walk around hand-in-hand? There could be something "immortal" going on there, yes? So how about it? Let's take it easy after dinner, light up a smoke, and be just a bit immortal ourselves.
Lu Dongbin was a Tang-dynasty historical figure who trained himself in the Daoist arts in hopes of becoming an immortal. He has long since passed into popular lore as an immortal with a strong preference for the company of women. He is well-known for his flirtations with a famous courtesan, and for his frequent drunken revelry at the Yueyang Pavilion.
Before he became an immortal, the Great Sage Equal to Heaven (i.e. Sun Wukong, the monkey king) was an unrestrained troublemaker who used the 72 martial arts skills that he learned from a Daoist master to cause pandemonium in heaven, where he rebelled against the Jade Emperor and Buddhist authority. Pictured here is veteran Peking Opera star Sun Yuan-pin, who excelled in the role of Sun Wukong.
Maitreya, a Buddhist deity known to the Chinese as the Laughing Buddha, is a pensive and somber figure in Japan. It is popularly believed that the Laughing Buddha became an immortal.
For the Chinese, heaven is a rigidly structured hierarchy in which all gods and immortals must act in strict observance of their status. (photo by Pu Hua-chih)
In spite of the strict regulations of the celestial bureaucracy, female immortals frequently descend to earth to find love. The goddess Matsu, on the other hand, spends her time rescuing persons in distress at sea. These two examples are perhaps a clear illustration of the different natures of gods and immortals.