Could a bat become a god in Chinese mythology?  You need to read the story of the immortal Zhang Guo Lao!

The Chinese underworld illustrates how Chinese mythology portrays existence as a struggle through many different levels of enlightenment.  The damned souls of the “dark mansion” (aka hell) are at the bottom of karmic heap.  At the top of the pantheon are gods, spirit beings, bodhisattvas, and great magicians.  Zhang Guo Lao was one such entity.  This mythical figure was apparently based on a one-time real person, a hermit/mystic who lived on Mount Tiáo in Héngzhōu during the Tang dynasty.

One of the oldest of the eight Taoist immortals, Zhang Guo Lao was originally a fangshi (a sort of highly literate gentleman-alchemist).  It was this mastery of potions which enabled him to step free of mortality (and he reputedly continues to make magical wines and elixirs from various berries, shrubs, and mushrooms).   An eccentric among eccentrics, Zhang Guo Lao would frequently perform strange magic tricks to delight himself and was frequently found  sipping from poison flowers and toxic plants for fun.  Using his own “drunk kung fu”, he was capable of killing animals and people by pointing at them.  Sometimes he would lie around dead and festering for months before leaping up and skipping through the woods.

Zhang Guo Lao

Zhang Guo Lao is known by his long flowing white hair, his extreme age, and by his pet donkey which he is often pictured riding on (backwards of course).  This white donkey was no ordinary beast of burden:  when Zhang Guo Lao had reached his destination he would fold the wondrous quadruped up into a tiny slip as thin as a slip of paper.  He would then keep the donkey in his cap box.  When he needed to travel he would reconstitute the creature with a jet of water from his mouth.  The ancient immortal also carried a “fish drum. To quote Perceval Yetts’ article The Eight Immortals (published in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society), “[Zhang Guo Lao] is easily recognized by his pao pei, a curious object which to Western eyes resembles a diminutive golfer’s bag containing two clubs. Actually it is a kind of musical instrument called a “fish-drum”, composed of a cylinder, often of bamboo, over one end of which is stretched a piece of prepared fish or snake skin. What look like two projecting golf clubs are the ends of long slips of bamboo used as castanets.”

Earlier, I wrote that Zhang Guo Lao started as a fangshi.  This is to ignore his long history of lives before he ascended to near-divinity.  Stories say that Zhang Guo Lao claimed to have been a court minister for Emperor Yao in a former life.  Additionally, elsewhere in the canon of Taoist literature, Yeh Fa-shan, a fabulist wonder-worker, told a story about how Zhang Guo Lao started out as a bat.  Indeed Zhang Guo Lao is frequently portrayed with auspicious bats (a symbol of good fortune) and is said to be able to transform himself into a bat.  The idea that a virtuous bat could rise up through the ranks of being–first into a man, then into an emperor’s minister, then into an alchemist/monk, and finally into an immortal quasi-god is a “rags-to-riches” story that Horatio Algiers could never conceive of.  Zhang Guo Lao’s path to godhood illustrates that America holds no monopoly on Cinderella dreams.