How many people in the US and elsewhere in the world have ever sat down at a Chinese restaurant and saw a simplified version of the Chinese zodiac on their placemat or menu? Continue reading “The Why of the Blog”
Hey, it’s almost Halloween! What better time to talk about the ghosts, demons, and ghouls of Chinese origin. There is a multitude of spirits in Chinese myth and folklore, with plenty of influences from Taoism and Buddhism and roots in ancestor worship. So, without further ado, let’s talk spooky stuff.
The Eight Immortals are just what it says on the tin; eight people who gained immortality (as well as spiritual enlightenment) through the practice of Taoist magic. They are popular figures in Chinese folklore and often appear in the native fiction of both the Peoples Republic and the Chinese diaspora. Anyone remember the animated series Jackie Chan Adventures?
So, what are the individual immortals like?
He Xian’gu, the Girl
- Lived during Tang dynasty
- Around age 14, had a dream where heavenly personage told her to eat powdered mica for decreased chances of dying. (Do not try this at home)
- Did as instructed by heavenly personage, stayed a virgin, and gradually decreased food intake (Still not good idea IRL)
- Was once summoned to the court of Wu Zetian, disappeared along the way
- Ascended to heaven in broad daylight upon becoming immortal
- Special Immortal Power: Improving both physical and mental health with a lotus flower
Cao Guojiu, the Imperial Brother-in-Law
- Older sister was empress to Emperor Renzong of Song
- Younger brother abused the family’s position to be a jerk while he tried to fix him and use the family fortune to make up for little bro’s mistakes
- Finally gave up on both fixing brother and official career to become hermit after little bro goes too far
- Met Zhongli Quan and Lü Dongbin, who taught him how to become immortal
- Regarded as a patron of ACTING!
Li Tieguai, the Man with the Iron Crutch
- Studied with Laozi, founder of Taoism
- Used to be quite handsome, until his apprentice refused to wait the full seven days of an astral projection session and had him cremated so he could see his dying mother one last time. Nearest available body for Li to return to was that of a dead and very ugly beggar.
- Kind of a crotchety fellow, but also clownish
- Gives medicine to the poor and needy (unlike certain US presidents) from a gourd
- Fights for the 99%
- Has an awesome iron crutch that won’t rust
Lan Caihe, the Genderqueer
- Yes, really. Traditional depictions of this individual are very androgynous and their biological sex is never mentioned.
- Was said to be totally plastered when leaving the human world on a celestial swan or crane
- One legend states that Sun Wukong gave them help in becoming immortal
Lü Dongbin, the Scholar
- Was an actual person (Gasp!)
- Said to be quite the ladies man, even after achieving immortality
- Loves to get sloshed
- Once deformed a riverbank because he was angry
- Had a dream where he achieved great prosperity, only to have it taken away from him. It’s called the Yellow Millet Dream because he fell asleep while waiting for yellow millet to cook
Han Xiangzi, the Flutist
- Raised by his uncle, a notable Tang dynasty statesman
- After becoming immortal, he tried to convert his uncle, aunt, and wife to Taoism. Eventually succeeded
- Had a fling with a dragon girl
Zhang Guolao, the Really Old Guy
- Was an actual person (Gasp!)
- Claimed to be several centuries old by the time Wu Zetian came into power
- Enjoyed necromancy and craft brewing in his free time. (What)
- Was asked by Wu Zetian to stop on by, he died upon reaching the gates of a temple. He got better
- Images of him are used in old folks rooms to give them long life and a comfortable death
Zhongli Quan, the Guy Who Really Needs To Put A Shirt On
- Cried a full seven days after being born
- Fought the Tibetans back when they were more violent
- Could turn rocks into silver or gold with a wave of his fan
- Has quite the beer belly when depicted in art
So yeah. Eight very different people who became immortal and now hang out with each other all the time.
Just whatever you do, do not practice Taoist alchemy in real life. Not a good idea.
Next time: The care and feeding of ghosts. Hopefully I’ll get this one out before Halloween.
In the western cultures of the world, dragons are flying, fire lizards with wings that are, more often than not, something to be feared or an obstacle to be overcome when on a quest (see The Hobbit or any number of D&D campaigns throughout the decades) in our popular culture. In China, we have the exact opposite when it comes to cultural depictions. About the only traits they have in common are the flying and the reptilian look. No wings for the Chinese dragon, and an elemental association with water rather than fire for this mythical beast. Rain and weather in particular. And where the dragons in western myth are apt to be slain by the hero, in China and it’s sphere of cultural influence (Korea, Japan, etc.), the hero is more apt to seek the dragon out for help in his quest.
But you probably already knew some of that. But what you probably don’t know is just how utterly saturated the Chinese culture is with dragons in one form or another. Here’s a very much truncated list:
- The dragon as the symbol of the Emperor, as only he could wear a five-clawed dragon robe Everyone else had to settle for four or fewer claws.
- The dragon as the symbol of the Han Chinese ethnic identity. They have called themselves “descendants of the dragon.”
- The ancient Chinese called fossilized dinosaur bones “dragon bones” and this cultural legacy continues in the modern Chinese word for dinosaur that literally translates as “terror dragon.” Even today they use “dragon bones” in traditional medicine.
- Dragons are associated with the number nine.
- Dragon boats and dragon dances are popular during the New Year Festival
- Numerous Chinese idioms and proverbs, including the one that gives the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon its name.
And that’s not even going into the various traditional depictions of dragons there are. There are even more depictions in popular culture, some of which have seeped over here in the west.
- The White Dragon Horse in the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West, though from what I understand, he’s about as exciting as Perry the Platypus is when he’s not fighting Doofenshmirtz.
- The occasional western political cartoon about relations with China.
- More than a few anime feature Chinese dragons, most notably the Dragon Ball series with Shenlong
Again, this doesn’t go into half of all the dragon-lore China has. And we’ve been borrowing the feature of auspiciousness from the Chinese dragon for a while now. Luck dragons from The Neverending Story, anyone?
Next time: Immortality Possible! These Eight People Have The Secret!
You are probably wondering why I didn’t start with the Chinese creation story right away on this blog. There is a good reason for this: there isn’t just one Chinese creation story, and the ones we have are sparse.
Alright, let’s ease everybody into this whole thing with a quick look at how the Chinese zodiac came to be… Continue reading “Never trust a Rat; or how the Chinese Zodiac came to be.”