Immortals (仙 xiān) are beings who ascended to Immortality through Daoist cultivation practices such as internal alchemy. They have magical powers, can fly freely through the air, and have a close connection to the Dao and the natural world.
In Xianxia (仙侠) novels, characters commonly attempt to cultivate to Immortality – seeking eternal life and the pinnacle of strength.
Let’s look at the origin of the term…
仙 is made up of two components: 人(man/person) and 山 (mountain)
It brings to mind “a man living on a mountain” or “a man who is like a mountain”. A distant or transcendent figure. And indeed, the term was originally used to refer to ascetics & hermits who would retreat from society and live up in the mountains. In ancient China, these strange and reclusive mountain men were ascribed mystic qualities, perhaps out of fear and awe of the unknown. The idea that mountains peaks are close to the Sky/Heavens (and are thus sacred) likely affected how these mountain men were perceived as well.
There are also the archaic variants of 仙 to consider: 仚 and 僊
仚 has the same two components: 人 (man/person) and 山 (mountain)
- Notice how 人 is on top of 山, illustrating the idea of a man on a mountain peak.
僊 has two components: 人 (man/person) and 䙴 (to move/change; to soar like a bird)
- Notice that 僊 emphasizes the transcendent nature of Immortals and their ability of flight.
Putting this all together, a 仙 is a reclusive person associated with mountains and nature. They have mystic qualities (magical powers) and can even fly like a bird! This is the quintessence of a Daoist Immortal (仙).
You can see how all of this influences Chinese cultivation novels… Martial Sects are often located on mountain peaks, and Cultivators often live in secluded mountain caves, distance themselves from worldly affairs/attachments, and seek harmony with nature.
Of course, there are several types of Daoist Immortals. Here are a few of the more common ones seen in both Chinese mythology and Xianxia novels:
- Celestial Immortals (天仙 tiānxiān) – also known as Heaven Immortals or Heavenly Immortals. These are high-tier Immortals who’ve ascended to the Heavens. They are also conferred a title and post in the Celestial Bureaucracy.
- Earth Immortals (地仙 dìxiān) – these are mid-tier Immortals who have not yet ascended to the Heavens.
- Ghost Immortals (鬼仙 guǐxiān) – these are low-tier Immortals who will forever be restricted to the Earth/Underworld. They’ve cultivated too much Yin to be able to ascend to the Heavens.
- Loose Immortals (散仙 sǎnxiān) – these are Immortals who, for whatever reason, have lost their position or have not been conferred a title/post in the Celestial Bureaucracy. In some novels, they are instead Immortals who’ve lost their physical body and now exist only in spirit form.
The Eight Immortals (八仙 bāxiān) are a particularly famous group of Daoist Immortals in Chinese mythology. It’s not unusual to see them mentioned in Chinese cultivation novels.
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The Eight Immortals are a diverse group of individuals, representing different parts of society (male & female, old & young, high-status & low-status). They each possess a magic tool (法器) which are collectively called the “Hidden Eight Immortals” (暗八仙) or the “Eight Treasures” (八宝).
Lu Dongbin (呂洞賓) – the most famous member of the Eight Immortals. A master of internal alchemy. Often called Patriarch Lu (吕祖) or addressed by the sobriquets “Sword Immortal” (剑仙) and “Master of Pure Yang” (纯阳祖师). Commonly depicted as a scholarly man with a sword slung across his back and a Daoist fly whisk in his hand. His Treasure Sword (宝剑) can slay monsters and subdue evil.
Li Tieguai (李铁拐) – also known as Iron-Crutch Li. Commonly depicted as a lame beggar using a crutch and carrying a gourd of medicine. His Gourd (葫芦) can cure the sick and ward off evil.
He Xiangu (何仙姑) – also known as Immortal Woman He. Commonly depicted as a woman carrying a peach of immortality or a lotus flower. Her Lotus Flower (荷花) can improve health and assist in self-cultivation.
Lan Caihe (藍采和) – a mysterious person of ambiguous age/sex. Commonly depicted dressed in eccentric clothing and carrying a basket of flowers. His/Her Flower Basket (花篮) is associated with longevity and has great magical power.
Cao Guojiu (曹国舅) – also known as Imperial Uncle Cao. Commonly depicted dressed like an official of the imperial court and carrying a pair of castanets (檀板) or a jade tablet. His Jade Tablet (玉板) is a symbol of authority and can purify the environment.
The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea (八仙过海) is a famous phrase. It comes from a story about the Eight Immortals traveling to attend a banquet held by the Queen Mother of the West. On their journey, they came upon an ocean and decided to compete in crossing it. Each Immortal used their magic tool and unique powers to ferry themselves to the other side.
The full phrase is “The Eight Immortals crossing the sea, each showing their special talents” (八仙过海，各显神通). It metaphorically means that everyone has their own ways and abilities to accomplish their goals.