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"The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea"[1]

A xian (Chinese: 仙/僊; pinyin: xiān; Wade–Giles: hsien) is any manner of immortal, mythical being within the Taoist pantheon or Chinese folklore. Xian has often been translated into English as "immortal".

Traditionally, xian refers to mortal beings who have attained immortality and supernatural abilities, with a connection to the heavenly realms inaccessible to mortals. This is often achieved through spiritual self-cultivation, alchemy, or worship by others.[2] This is different from the gods in Chinese mythology and Taoism.

Xian is also used as a descriptor to refer to often benevolent figures of great historical, spiritual and cultural significance. The Quanzhen School of Daoism had a variety of definitions about what xian means during its history, including a metaphorical meaning where the term simply means a good, principled person.[3]

Xian have been venerated from ancient times to the modern day in a variety of ways across different cultures and religious sects in China.[4][5][6]

Description

Akira Akahori, the author of Drug Taking and Immortality, gives this description:

Legends of so-called immortals were widely accepted by the ancient Chinese. Although the concept of immortals was not exactly the same through the ages, some general images persisted. Immortals usually live in clean and pure places such as high mountains; they do not eat cereals; they appear only to people who perform the proper religious practices or have the right kind of destiny. Some immortals also live in grottoes underneath the sacred mountains. They can freely change their appearance: sometimes they appear in the everyday world looking like ordinary men, to test young immortal aspirants. They move very swiftly and fly though the air, sometimes using wings. (1989:73-98)

Victor H. Mair describes the xian archetype as:

They are immune to heat and cold, untouched by the elements, and can fly, mounting upward with a fluttering motion. They dwell apart from the chaotic world of man, subsist on air and dew, are not anxious like ordinary people, and have the smooth skin and innocent faces of children. The transcendents live an effortless existence that is best described as spontaneous. They recall the ancient Indian ascetics and holy men known as ṛṣi who possessed similar traits.[7]

Xian were thought of as "personal gods" who were formerly humans, and types of ascended humans who became them include "ascetics, scholars, and warriors".[8] Taoists would pray to them, and try to follow the examples the gods set while living.[8]

The Eight Immortals are an example of xian, and the role of xian also as folk heroes who can offer assistance to "worthy human followers" and whose existence fosters the relationship between the living and the dead. Sometimes, they and other xian were viewed as similar in nature to ghosts, rather than deities.[6][9] The Eight Immortals and other xian were thought to have powers linked to their tools that were ultimately of a single nature that can add to or subtract the lifespan of humans depending on the human's level of sin.[10]

Xian were also thought by some Taoists to be synonymous with the gods inside the body, and as beings that would sometimes cause mortals problems but could be fought with martial virtue and martial arts.[11] Xian could be good or evil.[12] Not all Xian are Taoist, but they are usually associated with Taoist adepts who have ascended to immortality and godhood through spiritual practice and mastery.[13]

Immortal riding a Dragon, by Ma Yuan.

Besides enlightened humans and fairy-like humanoid beings, xiān can also refer to supernatural animals, including foxes, fox spirits,[14] and Chinese dragons.[15][16] Xian dragons were thought to be the mounts of gods and goddesses[16] or manifestations of the spirit of Taoists such as Laozi that existed in a mental realm sometimes called "the Heavens".[15]

The mythological húlijīng 狐狸精 (lit. "fox spirit") "fox fairy; vixen; witch; enchantress" has an alternate name of húxiān 狐仙 (lit. "fox immortal").

Types of xian and levels of achievement

Xian as depicted on Eighty-seven Immortals (八十七神仙), popularly attributed to Tang dynasty painter Wu Daozi, currently housed in Xu Beihong Memorial Hall in Beijing.

Zhongli Chuandao ji

Xiwangmu descends from heavens with a Peach of Immortality (Jade Pond Birthday greeting, by Jin Tingbiao, Qing dynasty
Four Immortals Saluting Longevity, by Shang Xi (商喜), early Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The immortals are from left to right: Shide, Hanshan, Iron-Crutch Li, and Liu Haichan. The longevity deity riding the crane.

The Zhong Lü Chuan Dao Ji (鐘呂傳道集/钟吕传道集, "Anthology of the Transmission of the Dao from Zhong[li Quan] to Lü [Dongbin]") is a Song dynasty Taoist compendium, following the "Zhong-Lü" (鍾呂) textual tradition of internal alchemy (neidan), which lists five classes of immortals:

Baopuzi

Ming dynasty painting of Old Man of the South Pole riding a crane

The 4th century CE Baopuzi (抱朴子 "[Book of] Master Embracing Simplicity"), written by Ge Hong, gives some highly detailed descriptions of xian, listing three classes:

Tiānxiān (天仙 – "Celestial Immortals" or "Heavenly Immortals") - The highest level.

Dìxiān (地仙 - "Earthly Immortals") – The middle level.

Shījiě xiān (尸解仙 - "Escaped-by-means-of-a-stimulated-corpse-simulacrum Immortal", literally "Corpse Untie Immortal") - The lowest level.This is considered the lowest form of immortality since a person must first "fake" their own death by substituting a bewitched object like a bamboo pole, talisman or a shoe for their corpse or slipping a type of Death certificate into the coffin of a newly departed relative, thus having their name and "allotted life span" deleted from the ledgers kept by the Sīmìng (司命 - "Director of allotted life spans", literally "Controller of Fate"). Mortals who choose this route have to protect themselves from heavenly retribution by inacting the Ling bao tai xuan yin sheng zhi fu (靈寳太玄隂生之符 - "Numinous Treasure Talisman of the Grand Mystery for Living in Hiding"). [17]

However, this is not a true form of immortality. For each misdeed a person commits, the Director of allotted life spans subtracts days and sometimes years from their allotted life span. This method allows a person to live out the entirety of their allotted lifespan and avoid the agents of death. But the body still has to be transformed into an immortal one, hence the phrase Xiānsǐ hòutuō (先死後脱 - "The 'death' is apparent, [but] the sloughing off of the body's mortality remains to be done.")

There are three levels of Shījiě immortals:

Dìxià zhǔ (地下主 - "Agents Beneath the Earth") – Are in charge of keeping the peace within the Chinese underworld. They are eligible for promotion to earthbound immortality after 280 years of faithful service.

Dìshàng zhǔzhě (地上主者 - "Agents Above the Earth") - Are given magic talismans which prolong their lives (but not indefinitely) and allow them to heal the sick and exorcize demons and evil spirits from the earth. This level was not eligible for promotion to earthbound immortality.

Zhìdì jūn (制地君 - "Lords Who Control the Earth") - A heavenly decree ordered them to "disperse all subordinate junior demons, whether high or low [in rank], that have cause afflictions and injury owing to blows or offenses against the Motion of the Year, the Original Destiny, Great Year, the Kings of the Soil or the establishing or breaking influences of the chronograms of the tome. Annihilate them all." This level was also not eligible for promotion to immortality.

These titles were usually given to humans who had either not proven themselves worthy of or were not fated to become immortals. One such famous agent was Fei Changfang, who was eventually murdered by evil spirits because he lost his book of magic talismans. However, some immortals are written to have used this method in order to escape execution.[17]

Translations

The Thatched Hut of Dreaming of an Immortal, by Tang Yin.
Painting of two xian, Iron-crutch Li of the Eight Immortals on the left releasing a bat and Liu Haichan on the right holding one of the Peaches of Immortality and accompanied by the three-legged toad, Jin Chan. By Soga Shōhaku (曾我蕭白), circa 1760.

The Chinese word xian is translatable into English as:

Etymology

Flying xian motifs, shown on the technical treastise Yingzao Fashi.

The etymology of xiān remains uncertain. The circa 200 CE Shiming, a Chinese dictionary that provided word-pun "etymologies", defines xiān () as "to get old and not die," and explains it as someone who qiān ( "moves into") the mountains."

Its writing is a combination of 人 (pinyin: rén; lit. 'human') and 山 (pinyin: shān; lit. 'mountain'). Its historical form is : a combination of 人 (pinyin: rén; lit. 'human') and 遷/䙴 (pinyin: qiān; lit. 'moving into').

Xian is often used as Chinese compound, such as the Bāxiān (八仙 "the Eight Immortals"). Other common words include xiānrén (仙人, sennin in Japanese, "immortal person; transcendent", see Xianren Cave), xiānrénzhăng (仙人掌 "immortal's palm; cactus"), xiānnǚ (仙女 "immortal woman; female celestial; angel"), and shénxiān (神仙 "gods and immortals; divine immortal").

Edward H. Schafer[30] defined xian as "transcendent, sylph (a being who, through alchemical, gymnastic and other disciplines, has achieved a refined and perhaps immortal body, able to fly like a bird beyond the trammels of the base material world into the realms of aether, and nourish himself on air and dew.)" Schafer noted xian was cognate to xian "soar up", qian "remove", and xianxian 僊僊 "a flapping dance movement"; and compared Chinese yuren 羽人 "feathered man; xian" with English peri "a fairy or supernatural being in Persian mythology" (Persian pari from par "feather; wing").

Two linguistic hypotheses for the etymology of xian involve Arabic and Sino-Tibetan languages. Wu and Davis suggested the source was jinn, or jinni "genie" (from Arabic جني jinnī).[31] "The marvelous powers of the Hsien are so like those of the jinni of the Arabian Nights that one wonders whether the Arabic word, jinn, may not be derived from the Chinese Hsien." Axel Schuessler's etymological dictionary[32] suggests a Sino-Tibetan connection between xiān (Old Chinese *san or *sen) "'An immortal' ... men and women who attain supernatural abilities; after death they become immortals and deities who can fly through the air" and Classical Tibetan gšen < g-syen "shaman, one who has supernatural abilities, incl[uding] travel through the air".

The character and its variants

Stroke order for xian
Pavilions in the Mountains of Immortals, by Qiu Ying

The word xiān is written with three characters , , or , which combine the logographic "radical" rén ( or "person; human") with two "phonetic" elements (see Chinese character classification). The oldest recorded xiān character has a xiān ("rise up; ascend") phonetic supposedly because immortals could "ascend into the heavens". (Compare qiān "move; transfer; change" combining this phonetic and the motion radical.) The usual modern xiān character , and its rare variant , have a shān ( "mountain") phonetic. For a character analysis, Schipper interprets "'the human being of the mountain,' or alternatively, 'human mountain'.[33] The two explanations are appropriate to these beings: they haunt the holy mountains, while also embodying nature."

The Classic of Poetry (220/3) contains the oldest occurrence of the character , reduplicated as xiānxiān (僊僊 "dance lightly; hop about; jump around"), and rhymed with qiān (). "But when they have drunk too much, Their deportment becomes light and frivolous—They leave their seats, and [] go elsewhere, They keep [僊僊] dancing and capering." (tr. James Legge)[34] Needham and Wang suggest xian was cognate with wu "shamanic" dancing.[35] Paper writes, "the function of the term xian in a line describing dancing may be to denote the height of the leaps. Since, "to live for a long time" has no etymological relation to xian, it may be a later accretion."[36]

The 121 CE Shuowen Jiezi, the first important dictionary of Chinese characters, does not enter except in the definition for 偓佺 (Wòquán "name of an ancient immortal"). It defines as "live long and move away" and as "appearance of a person on a mountaintop".

History and textual references

Han Dynasty stone-relief of Xiwangmu, surrounded by winged or feathered Immortals, Yuren (羽人)
Han dynasty relief of feathered Immortals playing Liubo.

How Chinese texts describe xian "immortals; transcendents" can vary following the historical changes in how Daoists viewed immortality.[37]

Early text such as Zhuangzi, Chuci, and Liezi texts allegorically used xian immortals and magic islands to describe spiritual immortality, sometimes using the word yuren 羽人 or "feathered person" (later another word for "Daoist"[Notes 1] ), and were described with motifs of feathers and flying, such as yǔhuà (羽化, with "feather; wing").[38][39]

Later texts like the Shenxian zhuan and Baopuzi took immortality literally and described esoteric Chinese alchemical techniques for physical longevity, with techniques such as neidan ("internal alchemy") and waidan ("external alchemy"). Neidan techniques included taixi ("embryonic respiration") breath control, meditation, visualization, sexual training, and daoyin exercises (which later evolved into qigong and tai chi), while waidan techniques for immortality included alchemical recipes, magic plants, rare minerals, herbal medicines, drugs, and dietetic techniques like inedia.

Besides the following major Chinese texts, many others use both graphic variants of xian. Xian () occurs in the Chunqiu Fanlu, Fengsu Tongyi, Qian fu lun, Fayan, and Shenjian; xian occurs in the Caizhong langji, Fengsu Tongyi, Guanzi, and Shenjian.

They are usually found in Taoist texts, although some Buddhist sources mention them. Chinese folk religion and writings on it also use them, such as in Northeast China with the fox gods or "huxian" common in the region.

The Three Sovereigns had similarities to xian because of some of their supernatural abilities and could have been considered such.[citation needed] Upon his death, the Yellow Emperor was "said to have become" a xian.[22]

During the Six Dynasties, xian were a common subject of zhiguai stories.[40] They often had "magical" Tao powers including the abilities to "walk...through walls or stand...in light without casting a shadow."[40]

Zhuangzi

Two circa 3rd century BCE "Outer Chapters" of the Zhuangzi ("[Book of] Master Zhuang") use the archaic character xian (). Chapter 11 has a parable about "Cloud Chief" (雲 將)  and "Big Concealment" (鴻濛) that uses the Shijing compound xianxian ("dance; jump"):

Big Concealment said, "If you confuse the constant strands of Heaven and violate the true form of things, then Dark Heaven will reach no fulfillment. Instead, the beasts will scatter from their herds, the birds will cry all night, disaster will come to the grass and trees, misfortune will reach even to the insects. Ah, this is the fault of men who 'govern'!"
"Then what should I do?" said Cloud Chief.
"Ah," said Big Concealment, "you are too far gone! [僊僊] Up, up, stir yourself and be off!"
Cloud Chief said, "Heavenly Master, it has been hard indeed for me to meet with you—I beg one word of instruction!"
"Well, then—mind‑nourishment!" said Big Concealment. "You have only to rest in inaction and things will transform themselves. Smash your form and body, spit out hearing and eyesight, forget you are a thing among other things, and you may join in great unity with the deep and boundless. Undo the mind, slough off spirit, be blank and soulless, and the ten thousand things one by one will return to the root—return to the root and not know why. Dark and undifferentiated chaos—to the end of life none will depart from it. But if you try to know it, you have already departed from it. Do not ask what its name is, do not try to observe its form. Things will live naturally end of themselves."
Cloud Chief said, "The Heavenly Master has favored me with this Virtue, instructed me in this Silence. All my life I have been looking for it, and now at last I have it!" He bowed his head twice, stood up, took his leave, and went away. (11)[41]

Chapter 12 uses xian when mythical Emperor Yao describes a shengren (聖 人 "sagely person").

The true sage is a quail at rest, a little fledgling at its meal, a bird in flight who leaves no trail behind. When the world has the Way, he joins in the chorus with all other things. When the world is without the Way, he nurses his Virtue and retires in leisure. And after a thousand years, should he weary of the world, he will leave it and [] ascend to [] the immortals, riding on those white clouds all the way up to the village of God. (12)[42]

Without using the word xian, several Zhuangzi passages employ xian imagery, like flying in the clouds, to describe individuals with superhuman powers. For example, Chapter 1, within the circa 3rd century BCE "Inner Chapters", has two portrayals. First is this description of Liezi (below).

Lieh Tzu could ride the wind and go soaring around with cool and breezy skill, but after fifteen days he came back to earth. As far as the search for good fortune went, he didn't fret and worry. He escaped the trouble of walking, but he still had to depend on something to get around. If he had only mounted on the truth of Heaven and Earth, ridden the changes of the six breaths, and thus wandered through the boundless, then what would he have had to depend on? Therefore, I say, the Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame. (1)[43]

Second is this description of a shenren (神人; "divine person").

He said that there is a Holy Man living on faraway [姑射] Ku-she Mountain, with skin like ice or snow, and gentle and shy like a young girl. He doesn't eat the five grains, but sucks the wind, drinks the dew, climbs up on the clouds and mist, rides a flying dragon, and wanders beyond the Four Seas. By concentrating his spirit, he can protect creatures from sickness and plague and make the harvest plentiful. (1)[44]

The authors of the Zhuangzi had a lyrical view of life and death, seeing them as complementary aspects of natural changes. This is antithetical to the physical immortality (changshengbulao 長生不老 "live forever and never age") sought by later Daoist alchemists. Consider this famous passage about accepting death.

Chuang Tzu's wife died. When Hui Tzu went to convey his condolences, he found Chuang Tzu sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. "You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old," said Hui Tzu. "It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing—this is going too far, isn't it?" Chuang Tzu said, "You're wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn't grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there's been another change and she's dead. It's just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter."
"Now she's going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don't understand anything about fate. So I stopped. (18)[45]

Alan Fox explains this anecdote about Zhuangzi's wife.

Many conclusions can be reached on the basis of this story, but it seems that death is regarded as a natural part of the ebb and flow of transformations which constitute the movement of Dao. To grieve over death, or to fear one's own death, for that matter, is to arbitrarily evaluate what is inevitable. Of course, this reading is somewhat ironic given the fact that much of the subsequent Daoist tradition comes to seek longevity and immortality, and bases some of their basic models on the Zhuangzi.[46]

Chuci

Winged guardian spirit on the side of lacquer coffin in the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, Eastern Zhou dynasty
Yuren(羽人) found on the bronze-drum from Shizhai mountain [zh]
Two pages from "Li sao" from a 1645 illustrated copy of the Chuci

The 3rd–2nd century BCE Chuci ("Lyrics of Chu") anthology of poems uses xian once and xian twice, reflecting the disparate origins of the text. These three contexts mention the legendary Daoist xian immortals Chi Song (赤松 "Red Pine",[47] and Wang Qiao (王僑, or Zi Qiao 子僑). In later Daoist hagiography, Chi Song was Lord of Rain under Shennong, the legendary inventor of agriculture; and Wang Qiao was a son of King Ling of Zhou (r. 571–545 BCE), who flew away on a giant white bird, became an immortal and was never again seen.

Yuan You

The "Yuan You" ("Far-off Journey") poem describes a spiritual journey into the realms of gods and immortals, frequently referring to Daoist myths and techniques.

My spirit darted forth and did not return to me,
And my body, left tenantless, grew withered and lifeless.
Then I looked into myself to strengthen my resolution,
And sought to learn from where the primal spirit issues.
In emptiness and silence I found serenity;
In tranquil inaction I gained true satisfaction.
I heard how once Red Pine had washed the world's dust off:
I would model myself on the pattern he had left me.
I honoured the wondrous powers of the [真人] Pure Ones,
And those of past ages who had become [] Immortals.
They departed in the flux of change and vanished from men's sight,
Leaving a famous name that endures after them.[48]

Xi shi

The "Xi shi" ("Sorrow for Troth Betrayed") resembles the "Yuan You", and both reflect Daoist ideas from the Han period. "Though unoriginal in theme," says Hawkes, "its description of air travel, written in a pre-aeroplane age, is exhilarating and rather impressive."[49]

We gazed down of the Middle Land [China] with its myriad people
As we rested on the whirlwind, drifting about at random.
In this way we came at last to the moor of Shao-yuan:
There, with the other blessed ones, were Red Pine and Wang Qiao.
The two Masters held zithers tuned in perfect concord:
I sang the Qing Shang air to their playing.
In tranquil calm and quiet enjoyment,
Gently I floated, inhaling all the essences.
But then I thought that this immortal life of [] the blessed,
Was not worth the sacrifice of my home-returning.[50]

Ai shi ming

The "Ai shi ming" ("Alas That My Lot Was Not Cast") describes a celestial journey similar to the previous two.

Far and forlorn, with no hope of return:
Sadly I gaze in the distance, over the empty plain.
Below, I fish in the valley streamlet;
Above, I seek out [] holy hermits.
I enter into friendship with Red Pine;
I join Wang Qiao as his companion. We send the Xiao Yang in front to guide us;
The White Tiger runs back and forth in attendance.
Floating on the cloud and mist, we enter the dim height of heaven;
Riding on the white deer we sport and take our pleasure.[51]

Li Sao

The "Li Sao" ("On Encountering Trouble"), the most famous Chuci poem, is usually interpreted as describing ecstatic flights and trance techniques of Chinese shamans. The above three poems are variations describing Daoist xian.

Some other Chuci poems refer to immortals with synonyms of xian. For instance, "Shou zhi" (守志 "Maintaining Resolution), uses zhenren (真人 "true person", tr. "Pure Ones" above in "Yuan You"), which Wang Yi's commentary glosses as zhen xianren (真仙人 "true immortal person").

I visited Fu Yue, bestriding a dragon,
Joined in marriage with the Weaving Maiden,
Lifted up Heaven's Net to capture evil,
Drew the Bow of Heaven to shoot at wickedness,
Followed the [真人] Immortals fluttering through the sky,
Ate of the Primal Essence to prolong my life.[52]

Han dynasty xian texts

Han dynasty pictorial brick of Chang'e
Mural showing heavenly beings riding on chariot driven by dragons, of a tomb of the Xin Dynasty in Jingbian County, Shaanxi.

In at least the latter two centuries of the Han dynasty, the idea of becoming a xian received more popularity than in previous eras of Chinese religion.[53]

In ancient Chinese dynasties such as the Han, various gods were thought to be xian instead in some retellings of their mythology. Hou Yi was one example of this.[54]

Liezi

The Liezi ("[Book of] Master Lie"), which Louis Komjathy says[55] "was probably compiled in the 3rd century CE (while containing earlier textual layers)", uses xian four times, always in the compound xiansheng (仙聖 "immortal sage").

Nearly half of Chapter 2 ("The Yellow Emperor") comes from the Zhuangzi, including this recounting of the above fable about Mount Gushe (姑射, or Guye, or Miao Gushe 藐姑射).

The Ku-ye mountains stand on a chain of islands where the Yellow River enters the sea. Upon the mountains there lives a Divine Man, who inhales the wind and drinks the dew, and does not eat the five grains. His mind is like a bottomless spring, his body is like a virgin's. He knows neither intimacy nor love, yet [仙聖] immortals and sages serve him as ministers. He inspires no awe, he is never angry, yet the eager and diligent act as his messengers. He is without kindness and bounty, but others have enough by themselves; he does not store and save, but he himself never lacks. The Yin and Yang are always in tune, the sun and moon always shine, the four seasons are always regular, wind and rain are always temperate, breeding is always timely, the harvest is always rich, and there are no plagues to ravage the land, no early deaths to afflict men, animals have no diseases, and ghosts have no uncanny echoes.[56]

Chapter 5 uses xiansheng three times in a conversation set between legendary rulers Tang () of the Shang dynasty and Ji () of the Xia dynasty.

T'ang asked again: 'Are there large things and small, long and short, similar and different?'
—'To the East of the Gulf of Chih-li, who knows how many thousands and millions of miles, there is a deep ravine, a valley truly without bottom; and its bottomless underneath is named "The Entry to the Void". The waters of the eight corners and the nine regions, the stream of the Milky Way, all pour into it, but it neither shrinks nor grows. Within it there are five mountains, called Tai-yü, Yüan-chiao, Fang-hu, Ying-chou and P'eng-Iai. These mountains are thirty thousand miles high, and as many miles round; the tablelands on their summits extend for nine thousand miles. It is seventy thousand miles from one mountain to the next, but they are considered close neighbours. The towers and terraces upon them are all gold and jade, the beasts and birds are all unsullied white; trees of pearl and garnet always grow densely, flowering and bearing fruit which is always luscious, and those who eat of it never grow old and die. The men who dwell there are all of the race of [仙聖] immortal sages, who fly, too many to be counted, to and from one mountain to another in a day and a night. Yet the bases of the five mountains used to rest on nothing; they were always rising and falling, going and returning, with the ebb and flow of the tide, and never for a moment stood firm. The [仙聖] immortals found this troublesome, and complained about it to God. God was afraid that they would drift to the far West and he would lose the home of his sages. So he commanded Yü-ch'iang to make fifteen [] giant turtles carry the five mountains on their lifted heads, taking turns in three watches, each sixty thousand years long; and for the first time the mountains stood firm and did not move.
'But there was a giant from the kingdom of the Dragon Earl, who came to the place of the five mountains in no more than a few strides. In one throw he hooked six of the turtles in a bunch, hurried back to his country carrying them together on his back, and scorched their bones to tell fortunes by the cracks. Thereupon two of the mountains, Tai-yü and Yüan-chiao, drifted to the far North and sank in the great sea; the [仙聖] immortals who were carried away numbered many millions. God was very angry, and reduced by degrees the size of the Dragon Earl's kingdom and the height of his subjects. At the time of Fu-hsi and Shen-nung, the people of this country were still several hundred feet high.'[57]

Penglai Mountain became the most famous of these five mythical peaks where the elixir of life supposedly grew, and is known as Horai in Japanese legends. The first emperor Qin Shi Huang sent his court alchemist Xu Fu on expeditions to find these plants of immortality, but he never returned (although by some accounts, he discovered Japan).

Holmes Welch analyzed the beginnings of Daoism, sometime around the 4th–3rd centuries BCE, from four separate streams: philosophical Daoism (Laozi, Zhuangzi, Liezi), a "hygiene school" that cultivated longevity through breathing exercises and yoga, Chinese alchemy and Five Elements philosophy, and those who sought Penglai and elixirs of "immortality".[58] This is what he concludes about xian.

It is my own opinion, therefore, that though the word hsien, or Immortal, is used by Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu, and though they attributed to their idealized individual the magic powers that were attributed to the hsien in later times, nonetheless the hsien ideal was something they did not believe in—either that it was possible or that it was good. The magic powers are allegories and hyperboles for the natural powers that come from identification with Tao. Spiritualized Man, P'eng-lai, and the rest are features of a genre which is meant to entertain, disturb, and exalt us, not to be taken as literal hagiography. Then and later, the philosophical Taoists were distinguished from all other schools of Taoism by their rejection of the pursuit of immortality. As we shall see, their books came to be adopted as scriptural authority by those who did practice magic and seek to become immortal. But it was their misunderstanding of philosophical Taoism that was the reason they adopted it.[59]

Shenxian zhuan

Flying immortals on Liu Song dynasty stone-relief

The Shenxian zhuan (神仙傳 Biographies of Spirit Immortals") is a hagiography of xian. Although it was traditionally attributed to Ge Hong (283–343 CE), Komjathy says,[60] "The received versions of the text contain some 100-odd hagiographies, most of which date from 6th–8th centuries at the earliest."

According to the Shenxian zhuan, there are four schools of immortality:

Qi (—"energy"): Breath control and meditation. Those who belong to this school can

"...blow on water and it will flow against its own current for several paces; blow on fire, and it will be extinguished; blow at tigers or wolves, and they will crouch down and not be able to move; blow at serpents, and they will coil up and be unable to flee. If someone is wounded by a weapon, blow on the wound, and the bleeding will stop. If you hear of someone who has suffered a poisonous insect bite, even if you are not in his presence, you can, from a distance, blow and say in incantation over your own hand (males on the left hand, females on the right), and the person will at once be healed even if more than a hundred li away. And if you yourself are struck by a sudden illness, you have merely to swallow pneumas in three series of nine, and you will immediately recover.
But the most essential thing [among such arts] is fetal breathing. Those who obtain [the technique of] fetal breathing become able to breathe without using their nose or mouth, as if in the womb, and this is the culmination of the way [of pneumatic cultivation]."[61]

Fàn (—"Diet"): Ingestion of herbal compounds and abstention from the Sān Shī Fàn (三尸饭—"Three-Corpses food")—Meats (raw fish, pork, dog, leeks, and scallions) and grains. The Shenxian zhuan uses this story to illustrate the importance of bigu "grain avoidance":

"During the reign of Emperor Cheng of the Han, hunters in the Zhongnan Mountains saw a person who wore no clothes, his body covered with black hair. Upon seeing this person, the hunters wanted to pursue and capture him, but the person leapt over gullies and valleys as if in flight, and so could not be overtaken. [But after being surrounded and captured, it was discovered this person was a 200 plus year old woman, who had once been a concubine of Qin Emperor Ziying. When he had surrendered to the 'invaders of the east', she fled into the mountains where she learned to subside on 'the resin and nuts of pines' from an old man. Afterwards, this diet 'enabled [her] to feel neither hunger nor thirst; in winter [she] was not cold, in summer [she] was not hot.']
The hunters took the woman back in. They offered her grain to eat. When she first smelled the stink of grain, she vomited, and only after several days could she tolerate it. After little more than two years of this [diet], her body hair fell out; she turned old and died. Had she not been caught by men, she would have become a transcendent."[62]

Hé and Hé ( ), the two "Immortals of Harmony and Unity", associated with happy marriage, depicted in Changchun Temple, a Taoist temple in Wuhan

Fángzhōng Zhī Shù (房中之术—"Arts of the Bedchamber"): Sexual yoga.[13] According to a discourse between the Yellow Emperor and the immortaless Sùnǚ (素女—"Plain Girl"), one of the three daughters of Hsi Wang Mu,

"The sexual behaviors between a man and woman are identical to how the universe itself came into creation. Like Heaven and Earth, the male and female share a parallel relationship in attaining an immortal existence. They both must learn how to engage and develop their natural sexual instincts and behaviors; otherwise the only result is decay and traumatic discord of their physical lives. However, if they engage in the utmost joys of sensuality and apply the principles of yin and yang to their sexual activity, their health, vigor, and joy of love will bear them the fruits of longevity and immortality.[63]

The White Tigress (Zhuang Li Quan Pure Angelic Metal Ajna Empress "Toppest") Manual, a treatise on female sexual yoga, states,

"A female can completely restore her youthfulness and attain immortality if she refrains from allowing just one or two men in her life from stealing and destroying her [sexual] essence, which will only serve in aging her at a rapid rate and bring about an early death. However, if she can acquire the sexual essence of a thousand males through absorption, she will acquire the great benefits of youthfulness and immortality."[64]

Ge Hong wrote in his book The Master Who Embraces Simplicity,

The [immortals] Dark Girl and Plain Girl compared sexual activity as the intermingling of fire [yang/male] and water [yin/female], claiming that water and fire can kill people but can also regenerate their life, depending on whether or not they know the correct methods of sexual activity according to their nature. These arts are based on the theory that the more females a man copulates with, the greater benefit he will derive from the act. Men who are ignorant of this art, copulating with only one or two females during their life, will only suffice to bring about their untimely and early death.[64]

Dān (丹—"Alchemy", literally "Cinnabar"): Elixir of Immortality.[65]

Śūraṅgama Sūtra

The supposed "footprint of a xian", a little pond in Guangzhou's Temple of the Five Immortals

The Śūraṅgama Sūtra, a Mahayana Buddhist manuscript, in a borrowing from Taoist teachings, discusses the characteristics of ten types of xian who exist between the world of devas ("gods") and that of human beings.[24] This position in Buddhist literature is usually occupied by asuras. Xian as portrayed here are of a different and contrasting type of existence in Buddhist cosmology to asuras.[further explanation needed] These xian are not considered true cultivators of samadhi ("unification of mind"), as their methods differ from the practice of dhyāna ("meditation").

In religions

Painting of the Eight Immortals.

Chinese folk religion

Ancient Chinese folk religion believed xian were deceased noblemen, such as emperors and ancestors who were nobles, as well as commoner "worthies".[12] However, Taoism changed that belief eventually by making the Taoist view of a xian as a holy human being, who could be good or evil, who went to heaven by following a path that would make the soul stay in the body permanently, along with making the body disappear from Earth, popular among folk religious practitioners.[12]

In 2005, roughly 8% of Chinese folk practitioners believed in "immortal souls".[66]

Taoism

Eastern Han dynasty mural of scholar-official and heavenly beings, from Tomb of Yingchengzi.

Taoism is polytheistic religion. The gods and immortals(神仙) believed in by Taoism can be roughly divided into two categories, namely "gods" and "xian" (immortals). "Gods" refers to deities and there are many kinds, that is,heaven gods/celestials(天神), earth spirits(地祇), wuling(物灵, animism, the spirit of all things, netherworld gods(地府神灵), gods of human body(人体之神),gods of human ghost(人鬼之神)etc. Among these "gods" such as heaven gods/celestials(天神),earth spirits(地祇), netherworld gods(阴府神灵), gods of human body(人体之神) exist innately. "Xian" (Immortal) is acquired the cultivation of the Tao,persons with vast supernatural powers, unpredictable changes and immortality.[67]

Taoists sometimes had the same beliefs as folk religious practitioners about noblemen and noble ancestors, although they invented the ideas that said otherwise.[12]

Many Taoists believed that xian (immortals) were spirits of human origin and that they could become them. It was believed that they could become immortals by refining their bodies throughout their lives by taking drugs and/or performing the correct amount of good deeds and repentant acts to make up for bad deeds throughout their lives.[68] Heaven, and therefore, status as an immortal, was also thought to be accessible through being an unenlightened soul in the afterlife that is prayed for in the collective salvation prayers of Taoist temple worshippers, who pray in the hope that souls will reach a better status in their death.[68]

A form of Taoism that worshipped xian that became popular in roughly the year 50 was called "Hsien...Taoism".[69] This type of Taoism was also associated with worshipping Chinese "household gods" and doing rituals to achieve the status of an immortal xian after death.[69]

In art and culture

The red-crowned crane was a symbol of longevity and immortality. In art and literature, immortals are often depicted riding on cranes.
Detail of a "feathered immortal" (羽人) riding a dragon on a mural from a late Western Han dynasty tomb in Xi'an
Bronze Winged Immortal figure from Eastern Han Dynasty.
Assembly of Immortals Offering Good Wishes for Long Life, Ming-Qing dynasty painting.

According to Michael Loewe, the earliest artistic and textual evidence of xian transcendents dates from the fifth or fourth centuries BCE. They were depicted as avian and serpentine hybrids who could fly through the universe, typically either combinations of a bird's body and a human face, or a human with wings sprouting on their back, i.e., a yuren (羽人, "feathered person").[70]

According to John Lagerway, the earliest artistic representations of xian date from the second century BC.[38]

In tomb reliefs from the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE), xian are often bird-human and reptile-human hybrids, depicted as "liminal but spiritually empowered figures" who accompanied a deceased person's soul to paradise, "transient figures moving through an intermediate realm" where they are often joined by deer, tigers, dragons, birds, heavenly horses (tianma 天馬), and other animals.[71] These avian, serpentine, and human hybrid xian are frequently depicted with "secondary characteristics" including androgyny, large ears, long hair, exaggerated nonhuman faces, tattoo-like markings, and nudity; many of these traits also appear in depictions of foreigners, who also lived outside the Chinese cultural and spiritual sphere.[72]

Xian were and are associated with yin and yang,[69] and some Taoist sects held that the "adept of immortality" could get in touch with the "pure energies [related to yin and yang] possessed at birth by every infant" to become a xian.[73] If a Taoist in these beliefs became a xian, he or she could live for 1,000 years in the human world if he or she chose to, and afterwards, transform his or her body into "pure yang energy and ascend...to [Tiān]".[73]

In modern and historical times, xian are also thought to draw power and be created from the Tao in its aspect as "the source of all being, in which life and death are the same."[74]

Xian are conventionally held to be beings that bring good fortune and "benevolent spirits".[75] Some Taoists beseeched xian, multiple xian, and pantheons of xian to aid them in life[76] and/or abolish their sins.[5]

Refugee communities and their descendants, wanderers, and Taoists who were societal recluses inspired myths of "timeless" worlds where xian lived.[77] In many Taoist sects, xian were thought to "dress...in feathers" and live in the atmosphere "just off-planet" and explore various places in the universe to perform "various actions and miracles."[78] A Confucian cosmology that had immortals in it viewed them as beings of a "heavenly world", which was "above the earthly world" that was distinct "from a dark underworld".[25]

Some mythical xian were worshipped and/or seen as gods or zhenren,[79][38][80][81][19][82] and some real Taoists were thought to become xian if they died after performing certain rituals or living a certain way and gain the ability to explore "heavenly realms".[79][82] These Taoists' spirits after death would be seen as divine entities that were synonymous with xian,[79][38][80][83] and were often referred to by that name.[83]

Becoming a xian was often seen as a heroic "quest" in Taoist mythos to either become as powerful as a god or multiple gods or gain an immortal lifespan like a god.[81] Given that many Taoists believed that their gods and gods belonging to different ethnic groups and other religions were subject to the roles the Tao made for them,[84] becoming a xian is technically a process that lets a practitioner get enough holy or spiritual power to defy that role,[citation needed] and some Taoists chose to worship xian instead of gods,[81][5] it is likely that some Taoists believed that even a single xian was more powerful than entire pantheons of the various gods of China.[citation needed][further explanation needed] Before and during the early Tang dynasty, beliefs about death that included them were notable among ordinary Chinese than Buddhist counterparts, and some who were inclined towards Taoism or were part of a Taoist religious organization and also thought Buddhist deities existed believed xian, collectively, were more powerful and relevant than Buddhist gods.[19]

Some sects thought they were more worthy to venerate than gods because of their admirable qualities or their being more powerful in only few specific ways, such as comprehension of some heavenly powers and/or the spiritual location they live in, while acknowledging their lack of strength and their typical place in the celestial hierarchy being below gods.[85][5]

In the Han dynasty and Tang dynasty, the ideas of xian and becoming them were quite popular.[21][53] Chinese folk religion practitioners in the Tang dynasty[19] when Chinese religious traditions were more entrenched drew symbols of immortality and paintings with Taoist symbolism on tombs so their family members could have a chance at becoming xian,[21][53] and this happened in the Han dynasty as well[21][53] before some theological ideas that would become popular later on.

In Buddhist-inspired Taoism and Buddhist traditions that venerated Laozi and/or other Taoist icons, a minority of xian on Mount Kunlun and the wider world spoke Sanskrit[4] and/or other foreign languages,[citation needed] as it was seen as a sacred language[4] and possibly because some xian were thought of as spirits of Indian origin or ascended humans from the same area or other parts of the world.[citation needed]

A pseudo-Sanskrit language that was mixed with Chinese and was often random in its structure and mixture of the two called "the sounds of Brahmā-heaven" was also seen as another sacred language used as a liturgical language,[4] and was frequently confused with Sanskrit. It was thought of as an important godly language that a Taoist version of Brahmā spoke and that some immortals also spoke to a lesser degree which was the embodiment of the Tao, "the esoteric sounds of the heavens", and "the beginning of the universe".[4] The language also represented the harmonious relation between the gods, who Brahmā ruled over, and Indian and Buddhist philosophy thought to be transmitted by Laozi.[4]

Immortal in Splashed ink, by Liang Kai, Southern Song dynasty

In Japan, the image of the sennin was perpetuated in many legends and art such as miniature sculptures (netsuke). Below is a wooden netsuke, made in the 18th century. It represents a perplexed old man with one hand based on the curve of a snag, and the other hand is rubbing his head with concern. He is looking somewhere in the sky and tucked up the right leg. This position was commonly used for art of Sennin Tekkay, whose soul has found the second life in the body of the lame beggar. In shape the beggarly old man this legendary personality portrayed prominent carver of the early period Jobun. A similar humorous depiction of xian in China came in the form of Dongfang Shuo, a deified Han dynasty scholar who was thought to be a "clown" xian after death.[82] There were also legends about him in this state in Japan and Korea.[86]

Sennin is a common Japanese character name. For example, Ikkaku Sennin (一角仙人 "One-horned Immortal") was a Noh play by Komparu Zenpō (金春禅鳳, 1454–1520?). The Japanese legend of Gama Sennin (蝦蟇仙人 "Toad Immortal") is based upon Chinese Liu Hai, a fabled 10th-century alchemist who learned the secret of immortality from the Chan Chu ("Three-legged Money Toad").

In Korea among commoners who belonged to no specific religious tradition, the desire to become an immortal, imported from China and Korean Taoist sects, mostly manifested itself in the wish for merely longer life instead of living forever.[87] Peaks and valleys were commonly named after the xian, and Buddhist principles were also sometimes thought to be important to becoming one in Korea and art communities in Korea often approved of paintings of Taoist immortals and others depicting Buddhist symbolism.[87] Xian were sometimes viewed as gods in Korea.[28][88]

Depictions of xians, sennins and tiên in art

In popular culture

Xian are common characters in Chinese fantasy works. There is a genre called xianxia, which is part of a larger genre called cultivation fantasy or cultivation, named after the beings where characters usually seek to become xian in a fantasy world that is either militaristic or fraught with other dangers.[89]

Example works

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Daoist ascension to immortality is also called "羽化登升" or "Becoming feather and ascending"

References

Footnotes

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