Mythology: 八仙过海 – The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea

I’ve got a good, but challenging, read for HSK 6 readers today: this is the classic story “The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea”, one of the most widely-known myths in Chinese culture. The Eight Immortals appear in endless traditional artworks – in paintings, as figurines, on pottery – and the story has spawned several idioms and sayings. This myth is also casually alluded to in some modern novels and pop culture, so it’s an important work to know.

There are a zillion variations on this story, the characters in it are thousands of years old, and so there is no real “original”. The details change from version to version, but the basics remain the same: the Eight Immortals (八仙) decide to show off a little, and each use their special powers (神通) to cross the ocean, the domain of the Dragon King. Their antics start a battle, which, like any dispute among powerful spirits, gets out of hand, and a few gods and goddesses have to step in to break up the fight.

Some language stuff

There are several idioms and lesser-known phrases in this piece, but the biggest linguistic lift here is the profusion of proper names: this story is like a who’s who of Buddhist, Taoist and folk mythology – many of the big deities pop in for a sentence or two. Plus, each of the Eight Immortals have a magic artifact (宝物), all of which are listed. So, if you ever wanted a rapid-fire introduction to Chinese gods and goddesses, you’ve come to the right place. The Eight Immortals are:

吕洞宾 lǚ dòng bīn – Lv Dongbin, with his magic double-edged sword (雌雄宝剑).

铁拐李 tiě guǎi lǐ – Iron Staff Li, with his metal staff (铁拐), and his magic bottle gourd (酒葫芦).

汉钟离 hàn zhōng lí – Han Zhongli, also known as Zhong Liquan, with his palm-leaf fan (芭蕉扇).

张果老 zhāng guǒ lǎo – Zhang Guolao with his mule (毛驴)

韩湘子 hán xiāng zi – Han Xiangzi with his flute (萧)

何仙姑 hé xiān gū – He Xiangu with her lotus flowers / flower basket (花篮)

蓝采和 lán cǎi hé – Lan Caihe with his magic clappers (拍板)

曹国舅 cáo guó jiù – Cao Guojiu with his jade tablets (玉版)

Other gods and mystical creatures that make a quick appearance include:

玉皇大帝 yù huáng dà dì – The Jade Emperor, supreme ruler in heaven, kind of equivalent to Zeus in Greek mythology.

西王母 xī wáng mǔ – The Queen Mother of the West, wife of the Jade Emperor, and keeper of the Peaches of Immortality.

东海龙王 dōng hái lóng wáng – The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea.

太上老君 tài shàng lǎo jūn – Exalted Lord Lao, a Taoist diety associated with Laozi, an actual historical figure who was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer.

如来佛 rú lái fó – One of the names of the Buddha.

观世音 guān shì yīn – More commonly known as Guanyin or Kwanyin, goddess of mercy.

More important things to note:

泰山 tài shān – Mount Tai, both a mythical and actual mountain, one of China’s five great mountains, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

虾兵蟹将 xiā bīng xiè jiàng – “Shrimp soldiers and crab generals”. As you probably know, dragons in Chinese mythology are water gods, no fire gods. So their soldiers are made up of sea creatures. In this story, the Dragon King’s armies were defeated, so in modern Chinese, the term “shrimp soldiers and crab generals” has come to mean “ineffective troops”.

 shèn – My dictionary translates 蜃 as “clam”, but in this case, it actually means “mirage”. Don’t ask me how those words evolved out of the same character, I have no idea.

腾云驾雾 téng yún jià wù – Naturally, immortal beings don’t just walk around on two feet like the rest of us. Instead, they “ride the clouds and fly on the mist”. You’ll notice that in many Chinese myths, and mythological TV shows, immortals and gods jump on a cloud and fly around – this the official description of that, uh, supernatural method of transport.







这时,曹国舅突然用手指向右边,并高声喊道: “大家看啊!那里有座海市蜃楼!”


韩湘子说:“我们真是眼福不浅!蜃气是海里蛟龙嘘出来的气体 ,百年难得一见啊!”


“可能是东海龙王作怪,他不欢迎我们在他的海上大显神通,把蓝采和抓到龙宫去了,走, 我们一起到龙宫要人去!”





Show English translation »
One day, the Eight Immortals were returning from offering birthday greetings to the Queen Mother of the West. [They were] riding upon clouds and mist above the Eastern Sea, and saw the surging ocean waves, white breakers leaping skywards with extreme majesty. And so, the Eight Immortals decided to go down to the ocean surface and play.
Lv Dongbin said: “Everyone take your magic artifact and throw it on the ocean surface, use it to cross the ocean, we’ll compare whose power is greater, how about that?”

Iron Staff Li was the first to welcome this suggestion, with high-spirited interest he said: “Alright! Everyone watch me, first!” so he took his staff and tossed it into the ocean, and the staff floated on the water like a little boat, and Iron Staff Li somersaulted onto it.

Next Han Zhongli cast his palm-leaf fan into the ocean, and jumped down to stand upon it.

Next, the other Eight immortals all demonstrated their own powers, Zhang Guolao rode his donkey upside down, Lv Dongbin stepped onto his double-edged magic sword, Han Xiangzi sat on his flute, He Xiangu rode her flower basket, Lan Caihe stood on his clappers, Cao Guojiu stepped onto his jade tablet, and they all began to float upon the water.

The Eight Immortals calmly rode along with the surging waves, and as this was similar to riding the clouds and mists, but with a special new thrill and feeling, everyone enjoyed themselves immensely.

Then, Cao Guojiu suddenly pointed off towards the right, and loudly yelled: “Look everyone! There is a mirage of a sea-city!”

Everyone turned their heads to look, and saw a mystic mountain gradually rising out of the sea, and upon the mountain were trees, and buildings. In a short while [the mountain] had risen halfway into the heavens, and slowly became a floating cloud, an in the blink of an eye, the cloud was blown away by the wind.

Han Xiangzi said: “We’re truly lucky to gaze upon [such a sight]! Mirages are the breath of flood dragons in the ocean, it’s rare to see such a thing even once in a 100 years!”

Suddenly, Lan Caihe disappeared from among them. Everyone looked around near and far, searching here and calling there, but found no trace of Lan Caihe, and Zhang Guolao guessed aloud:

“It’s probably the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea making mischief, he doesn’t approve of us displaying our power on his ocean, and so he snatched Lan Caihe and took him off to the Dragon Palace, come on, let’s go to the Dragon Palace together!”

Everyone arrived at the Dragon Palace, and tactfully begged the Dragon King to let him go. The Dragon King would not listen to reason, and was not only unwilling to agree, he even sent his sons to lead his shrimp soldiers and crab generals to chase down and slaughter the Eight Immortals. The Eight Immortals had no choice but to use their own magic weapons to defeat the shrimp soldiers and crab generals, and after a fierce battle, two of the Dragon King’s sons were killed [by their hand].

When the Dragon King heard this, that two of his sons had been killed by the Eight Immortals, his sadness and fury knew no end, and he requested that the dragon kings of the Southern Sea, the Western Sea, and the Northern sea come to his aid. The dragon kings did not go easy on them, and the Eight Immortals were infuriated. Iron Staff Li used his magic bottle gourd to suck the sea water dry, and the other immortals went and brought back Mount Tai and threw it into the Eastern Sea, immediately turning the sea into a tall mountain.

The two sides fought until chaos reigned upon the earth, until no light shone from the sun and moon, thus disturbing the Exalted Lord Lao, the Buddha, and [the goddess] Guanyin, who all hurried forth to mediate. The result of the mediation was that Lan Caihe had to give up two slabs of his jade tablet to the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, as recompense for his two murdered sons, and Guanyin was responsible for moving Mount Tai back to its original location.

Because of this dispute, the Eight Immortals were relegated to a lower rank by the Jade Emperor. And from that day onwards, the Eight Immortals didn’t dare go out and stir up trouble.

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