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The Eight Immortals Travel across the Sea

Updated: Mar 11, 2018

Chinese mythology can be complicated and hard to understand; there are so many strange names and places for our western eyes and ears. Likewise, many Chinese find it very difficult to understand our western classics. Take Shakespeare, for example - he is always using allusions to the Greek and Roman gods of the ancient world. Once, I was asked to teach famous American speeches throughout history to a group of Chinese adults. I was surprised how many Biblical references there were throughout the speeches (especially the ones in early American history); references which went completely over my students' heads. It took us a long time just to get through one speech, because I had to stop to explain these references frequently.

One group of complicated figures in Chinese mythology are the Eight Immortals. Born during the Tang or Song dynasties, these Eight Immortals became central figures in the Taoism tradition. Moreover, their stories captivated the entire Chinese civilization. There is a plethora of folktales, books, paintings, and songs about the Eight Immortals. Even today, it is not strange to see movies or television shows about the them. While many of the stories are quite different, there is one similarity: each one of the Eight Immortals had a unique magical object, which could bestow life or take it away. Among the Eight Immortals, there are six men, one woman (He Xian Gu), and an additional figure which is often portrayed as a young child without strong male or female features (Lan Cai He.)

One of the most important tales associated with the Eight Immortals is called "The Eight Immortals Travel across the Sea" In this tale, each immortal utilizes his/her special object to travel across the sea to a magical island called Peng Lai. Subsequently, it has been interpreted by many to mean that even though we all have different gifts, we can use our special gifts to be successful in our own, unique ways. In other words, focus on your innate abilities, and utilize them to your best advantage; your innate abilities will ensure your success. Indeed, the Eight Immortals used everything from a flute to a sword to travel across the sea. The story goes like this:

Once upon a time, the Eight Immortals traveled to the edge of the Eastern Sea, readying themselves to go to Peng Lai island. Lu Dong Bin suggested that each one of the Eight Immortals use his or her unique magical power (embodied in a special treasure) in order to cross the sea.

Tie Guai Li took out his cane and placed it upon the water. His cane suddenly grew much larger in size, so he stepped upon it and began the first part of his long journey overseas.

Han Zhong Li took the plantain leaf from his hand and placed it on the water. Similarly, the plantain leaf grew very large. Han Zhong Li reclined upon it and began to travel toward Peng Lai island.

Zhang Guo Lao was riding upon his donkey. He instructed his donkey to walk into the sea and began his journey.

Lu Dong Bin took his treasured sword and threw it into the sea. The sword began flying right above the water's surface, so Lu Dong Bin stepped on it and raced after the immortals who had already begun their travels.

He Xian Gu placed the lotus flower from her hand onto the water. The lotus flower began to grow in size until it was the size of a millstone. He Xian Gu stepped into the middle of the flower and with the next wave of the sea, she began to drift away.

Cao Guo Jia used his special jade plate and Han Xiang Zi stepped upon his magic flute. They both began to chase after He Xian Gu.

Lastly, Lan Cai He threw blue flowers upon the sea and jumped on them as they grew in size.

Finally, the journey had begun! Each one of the Eight Immortals was using his or her special gift. They leisurely began to cross the sea. There was a great deal of merry-making and a great deal of laughter.

Suddenly, the whole world began to shake. The crown prince and the son of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea arrived and the sea became very turbulent. The crown prince was angry; he had come to see what was causing such a commotion upon the water’s surface. He began to scold the Eight Immortals.

The Crown Prince was so angry, that he grabbed Lan Cai He and brought the child to the center of the sea.

Tie Guai Le took out his magic gourd. From the gourd, jumped out magic flames. The Eastern Sea erupted into a sea of roaring flames!

The Dragon King hurriedly traveled to the water’s surface to see for himself what was happening. He saw all of his army, made up of crabs and shrimps retreat deeper into the sea, one after another. The Dragon King then knew that something was terribly wrong.

The Dragon King lost no time in approaching the Eight Immortals with an apology for whatever had bothered them so much to unleash magic flames upon the East Sea. Tie Guai Le requested that the Dragon King return Lan Can He, as well as for a face-to-face apology from the crown prince.

The Dragon King brought the crown prince and Lan Cai He to the surface. The crown prince offered a profuse apology to the Eight Immortals. Upon hearing this, the Eight Immortals stepped upon their magic treasures and continued their journey to Peng Lai island.

While this sounds like a just another mythological tale, the people of Shandong Province attest that this is based on reality and have their own nearly-mythological tale telling a similar story. During the Song Dynasty, Shaman Island off the coast of Shandong Province was used as a prison of sorts to house political prisoners. The only problem was that the Song Dynasty was having many troubles during that time – they kept sending insubordinates to Shaman Island, which quickly became overpopulated. At the same time, The Song Dynasty no longer had the political influence to ensure a continuous food supply to the prisoners on the island. Only 300 people could live off of the island’s natural food sources; the “law of the jungle” (as a documentary about this story on CCTV put it) meant that many prisoners were killed in the night, to ensure that at least 300 of them had enough to eat. Thousands of prisoners were sent to exile on Shaman Island, but only a couple hundred survived.

The situation was so dire that a group of newly-arrived prisoners decided that they would have to take fate into their own hands. One well-respected former official and six acquaintances (who respected him for his work) decided that they were going to break out of Shaman Island together. They met together frequently in a cave on the island to discuss their plans. The day of their escape, a woman came to them and said that she wanted to join them. She had followed her fiancé to Shaman Island, just to find that he had died. She was so beautiful and her story so tragic, that they agreed to let her join them. They planned to travel to Peng Lai, which was some 10 kilometers away. They planned to swim there, but also carried some objects that would make it easier to float upon the water.

They were successful in their quest, but the legend goes, that after so many years in prison and so many hours swimming in the salt water, they looked very strange. Their skin was snow white and their lips were red. People were very afraid at their appearances. Fearing that they had attracted too much attention, they disappeared overnight, leading many of the common people to believe that they were immortals.