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November 18, 2023

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The Eight Immortals cross the sea using divine powers

IN Chinese artistic painting, sculpture, plays and especially folklore, one may frequently encounter a whimsical group known as the Eight Immortals.

They have been deeply beloved by Chinese people since they first appeared in texts of the Tang (AD 618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties.

They are definitely not the stereotype deities in traditional Chinese culture.

First, they are not born immortals at all. Instead they rise from common people. Among them are a former military general, a relative of the imperial family, a scholar, a Taoist and a beggar.

Second, each of the Eight Immortals has a particular vessel with a special divine power. For example, Tieguai Li, a cripple, always carries an iron crutch and a bottle gourd; He Xiangu, the only female of the eight, has a magic lotus flower; and Han Zhongli, who has the power to create silver and gold, is usually seen holding a large palm-leaf fan.

Both as a group and individually, the immortals have generated numerous colorful, funny and sometimes weird stories.

One of the best-known ones is called baxian guohai, or the “Eight Immortals Cross the Sea.”

According to legend, the group was invited every year to attend the Conference of the Magical Peach, hosted by Queen Mother of the West.

One year, on their way to the party, they came to a vast sea. Instead of riding a cloud across, as they all can do, one of them suggested that they each use their special power to sail across the sea. The others all agreed, viewing it as a simple adventure.

They threw their magic objects, such as the big fan, lotus flower and bottle gourd, into the sea, instantly forming seagoing vessels to carry them to the party.

Later, this story was transfigured into the popular Chinese idiom baxian guohai, gexian shentong, or literally “the Eight Immortals cross the sea, each revealing their divine power.”

The idiom is now often quoted to mean that like the Eight Immortals crossing the sea, everyone in a group resorting to his or her special prowess or skills in a competition or task.


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