Read an Excerpt
I was growing up
Hong Kong, my grandmother told me many stories about the Taoist immortals. We'd sit
cross-legged on her bed together and while she sewed, she would tell me how Iron Crutch Li
(T'ieh-kuai Li) got his name, how Fan Li and Hsi Shih helped the king of Yueh defeat the kingdom of Wu, and how Mah Ku saved the people of her town by imitating the crowing of roosters.
The immortals are very much a part of my culture. The Chinese people's belief in immortals goes back to the ancient times of prehistory and legend, centuries before Taoism became a philosophy and a spiritual tradition. Chinese children in traditional families grew up listening to stories of the immortals, and I
was no exception. Even before I had heard of Taoism and practiced its teachings, I was familiar with the exploits of the immortals.
My grandmother was not the only person who told me these tales; there were also regular storytelling sessions on the radio. I remember one program especially well: it aired in the late afternoon, and it
featured actors who not only had an endless repertoire of stories but could also impersonate the voices of women, men, and children. I looked forward to every show and rarely missed one. It was from these on-air storytellers that I
learned about Lu Tung-pin's pillow and his dream, Chen Hsi-yi's game of chess with the Sung emperor, and Fei Chang-fang's friendship with the man in the gourd.
I was a child, the stories of Taoist immortals were also dramatized in opera.
Before Hong Kong became a bustling city crowded with skyscrapers and shopping centers, Chinese opera troupes performed frequently in the streets.
On the day before a performance, a street, usually one near a marketplace, would be closed. Workers would build the stage, set up rows of benches, and erect little tents where the performers could rest between acts. Large scaffolds decorated with flowers and banners would be placed around the stage and the seating area, and written on the banners were the names of the principal singers. Whenever a troupe visited my neighborhood, our entire household—my parents, my grandmother, myself, and the servants—would go to the performances. I still have vivid memories of those shows; they were the only occasions when I was allowed to stay up late. The operas didn't begin until dark, and, on a summer night in Hong Kong, that usually meant nine.
Chinese opera, the performers were not only singers but also acrobats and martial artists. The stories of the immortals—Chang Tao-ling's battle with the lords of evil, Chu Yuan-chang's (the founder of the Ming dynasty) treacherous betrayal of his friends, Kiang Tzu-ya using his magic to defeat the evil emperor—came alive as the performers sang, whirled, sparred, and somersaulted around the stage.
there are the legends as told by the professional storytellers in Banyan Tree
Park. When I was younger, the park was located along a stretch of waterfront near a typhoon shelter. Every night the park, which consists of an area around a huge banyan tree, would be crowded with food vendors, gamblers, storytellers,
acrobats, and martial artists displaying their skills. I distinctly remember one burly man walking around with a sign that read "Eagle claw expert—will accept challenges from any style." As a teenager, I was not allowed to go to the park alone. I was told there were pickpockets, kidnappers,
and all sorts of mean people hanging out in that section of town at night. Only when my older cousins visited was I permitted to go to the park with them.
Tree Park is known as the Storytellers' Park for good reason: the finest professional storytellers in Hong Kong are found there. Every time I visited the park, I would make my way to the storytellers' stands, put a newspaper on the ground, and sit and listen to the tales of Chinese heroes and Taoist immortals. Each storyteller had his regular spot in the park, and at twilight each would walk to his designated place, carrying a thermos filled with tea and a small kerosene lamp. There each would sit on a folding chair and wait for his audience to gather. The best storytellers at Banyan Tree Park not only narrated, but also impersonated different voices, made sound effects, sang, and acted the roles of the characters in the stories. Each storyteller had his own repertoire, and the tales and the manner of telling them were all learned,
memorized, and passed from one generation to another.
You can also read about Taoist immortals in the Taoist Canon, the collection of books that form the scriptures of Taoism. Personally, I've never been thrilled by the way the immortals are portrayed in these biographies. The entries read like articles from an encyclopedia and the characters appear dull and remote.
After reading one, I always felt that I learned about the immortals rather than from them. On the other hand, in the operas, radio plays, and stories told by my grandmother and the Banyan Tree Park storytellers, the characters came alive. At the end of each story, I felt that I had not only met the immortals but had learned from them.
What are immortals? Were they mortals once, or have they been immortal since the beginning of time? The answer is a bit of both. In this book, you will find that some immortals were spirits of stars or animals (Tung-fang Shuo and Chang
Kuo Lao); some were mortals who had done good deeds and were rewarded with immortality (the sisters in the story of Ko Hsuan); some entered the immortal realm by ingesting a magical pill (the Yellow Emperor, Huai-nan Tzu, Ko Hung,
and Wei Po-yang); and still others attained immortality by cultivating body and mind (Ssu-ma Ch'engchen, Chen Hsi-yi, and Chang Po-tuan).
Taoist immortals can be divided into four classes according to their level of cultivation. At the lowest level are the human immortals. Human immortals are not very different from ordinary mortals except that they live long and healthy lives. In this book, Fan Li, Hsi Shih, and Kiang Tzu-ya are examples of human immortals.
Next come the earth immortals. These immortals live for an unusually long period of time in the mortal realm, far beyond the life span of ordinary people. In this book, Tso Chi, Fei Chang-fang, and Chang Chung are examples of earth immortals.
Above the earth immortals are the spirit immortals, who live forever in the celestial lands. Some, like the Yellow Emperor, Wei Po-yang, and Wen Shih, take their bodies with them when they enter the immortal realm. Others, like Pal Yu-ch'an,
Kuo P'u, and Chang Po-tuan, leave their bodies behind when they liberate their spirits.
At the highest level are the celestial immortals. These immortals have been deified and given the titles of celestial lord, emperor, or empress. Some, like
Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, are de facto deities because they are considered manifestations of the cosmic energy of the Tao. Others, like Lu Tung-pin and Ho
Hsien-ku, were "promoted" to deity status because of the meritorious works they had done in the mortal and immortal realms.
Taoist immortals are as diverse as any group of people. Some were healers (Fei
Chang-fang and Chang Tao-ling); some were teachers (Lu Tung-pin, Kuei-ku Tzu,
T'ai-hsuan Nil, and T'ao Hung-ching); and some were social activists and politicians (Fan Li, Hsi Shih, and Chang Liang). Some cultivated the Tao by living in seclusion (Ko Hung, Ts'ao Kuo-chiu, and Chang San-feng), and others lived in society but shunned the values of the establishment (Chuang Tzu and
Chou Tien). There were scientists (Cheng Wei's wife and Wei Po-yang); scholars
(Ssu-ma Ch'eng-chen and Chang Po-tuan); poets (Han Hsiang and Lin Ling-su);
military commanders (the Yellow Emperor, Chungli Ch'uan, and Kiang Tzu-ya);
feng-shui masters (Kuo P'u and Ch'ing Wu); aristocrats (Huai-nan Tzu and Ts'ao
Kuo-chiu); entertainers (Lan Ts'ai-ho and Tso Chi); householders (Ho Hsien-ku and T'ang Kuang-chen); and entrepreneurs (Fan Li and T'ai-yin Nu).
despite their diversity, the immortals all have these things in common: they were interested in the Tao at an early age; they shunned fame and fortune; and they lived simple and unencumbered lives. Some, following the example of Chuang
Tzu, were never attracted to public life. Others, following the teachings of the
retired from public service after their work was done.
In the Taoist tradition, the stories of immortals are meant to teach as well as to entertain. For example, the stories of Fan Li and Hsi Shih, Chang Liang, Chou
Tien, and Chang Chung warn us that power corrupts, and that even those with good intentions in the beginning (like Chu Yuanchang and Liu Pang) can easily become murderous villains. In the story of the students of Kuei-ku Tzu, we learn the importance of knowing to retire at the appropriate time. The stories also promote virtues such as generosity (Ch'ing Wu and Sun Chung), kindness (Ko
Hsuan and the sisters), integrity and courage (Mah Ku), filial piety (Ho
Hsien-ku and T'ang Kuang-chen), and dedication (Wen Shih).
Even the immortals themselves learned lessons in these tales. T'ao Hung-ching had to learn to value all sentient life (including worms and insects) before he could attain immortality; T'ieh-kuai Li was too vain and had to take on the appearance of an ugly cripple to learn humility before he could complete his training; and Lu Tung-pin had to be shocked by a nightmare before he would awaken from his illusions.
The immortals I have chosen to include in this book are the most well known and respected among the Chinese. Their names are household words, and their stories are told and retold throughout generations.
In telling these stories, I have tried to preserve the style of traditional
Chinese storytelling. The immortals are listed in the category for which they are best known—sages, magicians, diviners, and alchemists. However, as you read the stories, you will notice that many immortals do not belong to one category exclusively. For example, Chen Hsi-yi, who is best known as a sage,
was also a diviner, and T'ai-hsuan Nu, who is best known as a magician, was also an alchemist. The Eight Immortals, the most famous of the Taoist immortals, are included in a separate section and are listed in their order of seniority. As a group, the Eight Immortals represent the many facets of Taoist spirituality: teaching (Lu Tung-pin), alchemy (Chungli Ch'uan), female cultivation (Ho Hsien-ku), divination (Chang Kuo Lao), spirit travel
(T'ieh-kuai Li), the hermit tradition (Ts'ao Kuo-chiu), an unencumbered lifestyle (Lan Ts'ai-ho), and love of the arts (Han Hsiang). No other immortals have inspired the cultural arts of China or fired the imagination of the
Chinese people as much as the Eight Immortals.
Taoist immortals have been role models for the Chinese for centuries and have represented everything that we value as a culture. Now, as more non-Chinese are beginning to embrace Taoism as a spiritual tradition, the immortals have taken on an even more significant role: they have gone beyond being cultural symbols of the Chinese to become universal examples of spiritual attainment.
thank the writers of the Chinese operas, the storytellers on the radio and at
Banyan Tree Park, and, most of all, my grandmother for passing on to me one of the greatest treasures of Taoism. I hope that you will enjoy these stories of the immortals as much as I have.