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Many of the stories and myths of Taoism center on the eight immortals, a group of ancient entities who mastered powerful magic to such an extent that they transcended mortality and rose to a state of near divinity.  Zhang Guo Lao, the eccentric elderly potions master, is one of the eight immortals (and we have seen what an odd figure he is), but some of the others are even more peculiar.  Probably the strangest member of the group is Lan Caihe, whose age and precise origin are unknown. In fact, the gender of Lan Caihe is unknown: S/he is sometimes depicted as a young girl or a cross-dressing boy or a strange genderless old person.

Lan Caihe is the patron saint of florists and minstrels (or maybe I should say “singing courtesans” since the musical lifestyle in classical China often bore some relation to the pleasure trade). His/her sacred emblem is the flower basket, a bamboo or wicker container born on a hoe-like handle filled with up with sacred flowers, herbs, and plants.  Lan Caihe is also sometimes shown holding castanets, playing a flute, or riding a crane.  Ambiguity and the reversal of expectations are trademarks of this immortal as is the power of unheeded prophecy.  In addition to not having a fixed gender, Lan Caihe dons heavy winter clothes in summer but strips down to a flimsy barely-there shift to sleep in snowbanks in the winter. Sometime s/he is portrayed within a melting snowbank transforming into steam from quasi-divine magic.

While some of the eight immortals have lengthy or complicated creation stories (involving magic items or a lifetime of study) Lan Caihe’s apotheosis to immortality was quick and random. While playing music, drinking heavily, and otherwise entertaining at a bar, Lan Caihe got up to go to the bathroom. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he/she flew up to heaven on a crane letting a single shoe fall down (in some versions of the tale various other dubious garments joined the shoe).  Despite having immense power and magic (and immortality), Lan Caihe is frequently portrayed dressed in a frayed blue dress and only one shoe, consorting with the lowest classes of society.  I can think of few figures from any mythology more evocative of the socially constructed nature of identity than this gender-ambiguous immortal.

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.

Ming Double-gourd Vase, Jiajing mark and period

The eleventh Emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Jiajing emperor, who (mis)ruled China from 1521 to 1567, was a tremendously devout taoist.  During the Jiajing reign, Taoist symbolism became omnipresent in art and culture–especially near the end of the emperor’s reign when his fanatical search for immortality began to bring ruin to China.  Jiajing porcelain is distinct in that the robust naturalism of earlier Ming blue and white ware is replaced by increasingly fanciful imagery.  Cranes, dragons, phoenixes, immortals, and flaming pearls all float through a dreamlike magical world.  Sorcerers and magicians frolic happily through scerene forests filled with deer, pine, fungi, and bamboo (all of which are symbols of immortality or longevity).  Frilly clouds complete the picture of whimsical abandon.   Even the shape of porcelain became more fanciful: to quote the website Eloge de l’Art par Alain Truong, (which contains many fine photographs of Jiajing porcelain, several of which are used here), “The double-gourd is a popular symbol of longevity and is associated with the Daoist Immortal Li Tiegui, who is depicted holding a double gourd containing the elixir of immortality.”  The vase at the top of the article, which shows a lighthearted scene of people playing in a garden is double gourd shaped. Here are some additional examples of Jiajing porcelain:

Ming Dynasty Vase, Jianjing mark and period

Another lovely blue and white double gourd vase also reflects the Jiajing zeitgeist.  On this vase, an auspicious crane flies throught the clouds above a powerful dragon.

Ming Jar, Jiajing mark and period

This small jar portrays the four Daoist Immortals Li Tieguai, Liu Hai, Hanshan and Shide dancing in a pine forest beneath swirling clouds.

Ming Double-gourd Vase, Jiajing mark and period

‘Shou’ is the symbol for longevity. This double vase presents numerous shou medallions of various sizes embedded in a matrix of clouds and flames.

The insubstantial nature of the arts and crafts of the Jiajing reign was counterpointed by all-too-real deterioration of conditions within China.  Though occasionally wracked by external wars and secession crisises the early Ming dynasty had been a golden age when Chinese power and affluence reached peak levels.  However as the Jiajing emperor turned his back on the world to sip mercury and contemplate the serenity of clouds, fissures started growing between the Empire’s various classes, the treasury became empty, and barbarians and client states around China perceived opportunities to exploit China’s weakness.

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