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XIAN . Usually written using the characters for "man" and for "mountain," the character for xian is said originally to have been composed of those for "man" and for "ascend." An early dictionary explains that it refers to those who, "when they grow old, do not die." Xian means "to move into the mountains"; that is why it is written with the character for "man" next to that for "mountain." Together, these etymologies circumscribe a field of meaning that links the search for survival beyond death to mountains and to the heavensa range that quite accurately reflects both the practice and the status of xian throughout Chinese history. It also explains why the term is translated in English either as "immortal" or "transcendent."

The xian is in the first place a human being. But unlike ordinary human beings who die and become ancestors (or roving ghosts), the xian survives beyond death and becomes, as a result, the focus of tales and even of worship. The earliest images of these extraordinary beings date to the Han dynasty (206 bce220 ce) and sometimes portray them with wings, a feature expressed in later texts that refer to them as yuren, or "feathered humans" (this term is also a synonym for Daoists). One of the earliest tales describes them as living on distant, perhaps imaginary isles in the sea off the eastern coast of China. The First Emperor (r. 221206 bce), having heard of them and being desirous of surviving beyond death like them, dispatched three thousand lads and lasses to find them, but the ships never returned, and rumor had it, in later times, that they had found and populated what is now known as Japan.

Other early tales recount the earthly lives of future xian. Not surprisingly, many of them were indeed mountain-dwellers: people who had left their homes and families to become hermits and devote themselves to the search for survival. They went to the mountains not only to find the necessary solitude, but also because they could find there the herbs and minerals they needed to secure, at the very least, longevity. Xian who had lived several centuries became a standard trope in hagiographies, as were the capacity to foresee the future, ubiquity, and "ascension to the heavens in broad daylight."

Of the seventy immortals whose legends are recounted in the earliest collection, the Liexian zhuan (Biographies of the immortals; second century ce), over twenty may be classified as gods. Some, such as Chisongzi (Red Pine), the Master of Rain, are known to have been the focus of official worship, but most are worshiped as local saints. A woman by the name of Changrong, for example, is said to have been a "person of the Dao" living on Mount Chang. For over two hundred years she was seen coming and going, "and her complexion was that of a twenty-year-old." For generations, she sold plants used for dyeing and gave the money thus earned to widows and orphans. "Thousands worshiped her." Hanzi, a lover of dogs, was led by one into a cave where he discovered a magic world of palaces, forests, and immortals guarding the gates. He also encountered his dead wife, who urged him to join her. A year later he did so, and from then on only left the mountain on occasion "to succor his lineage. The people of Shu built a temple for him at the mouth of the cave. Over several thousand li in the southwest, people worship him."

The immortals of the Liexian zhuan are prescient, and this enables them to save local populations from floods by giving advance warning. Others provide drugs that save people from epidemics. Of some it is said simply that they disappear without a trace, of others that their corpse disappears and only a sacred writ or some clothing are found in the grave, of still others that people catch a glimpse of them now and again over decades or centuries.

Immortals are usually thought of as a quintessentially Daoist category, a classification that is probably legitimate in modern times, when the Eight Immortals with their drunken whimsicality and endearingly unorthodox behavior come to be almost synonymous with Daoism, at least in the popular mind. A Daoist work of the Yuan, the Lishi zhenxian tidao tongjian (Comprehensive mirror of the real persons and immortals who have embodied the Dao through the ages) by Zhou Daoyi (fl. 12941307), would seem to confirm this Daoist identity by linking xian and zhen, immortals and real persons, to the idea of "embodying the Dao." In fact, the term zhen has an even longer pre-Daoist history than xian. At the time of the compilation of the Liexian zhuan, Daoism did not yet exist as a self-conscious religious movement or institution, and only two or three of its xian were explicitly said to have been "people of the Dao" while alive. A good number of the immortals in the Liexian zhuan turn up again in two works of the fourth century: the Sou Shen Ji (In search of the gods) of Gan Bao (b. 280) and the Shenxian zhuan (Biographies of the gods and immortals) of Ge Hong (283343). While Ge Hong's work is generally classified as Daoist, that of Gan Bao is not: it is said to belong to the category mirabilia. Classifications aside, what the titles of their texts confirm is that xian and zhen, immortals and gods, were not hermetically sealed categories. Xian, insofar as they do constitute a distinct type of divine entity, should probably be distinguished from zuxian, or ancestors: both once lived on earth, and both continue to interact with humans after their death (both are also referred to as shen, "gods"). But in the case of ancestors, this interaction occurs primarily, though not exclusively, within the lineage, while in the case of immortals, virtually all links with lineage are severed: they belong to and embody the Dao; that is, they "live as long as Heaven and Earth."

See Also

Daoism, overview article and article on The Daoist Religious Community.


Campany, Robert Ford, trans. and ed. To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong's Traditions of Divine Transcendents. Berkeley, 2002. A complete translation with an excellent introduction and textual notes.

Kaltenmark, Max, trans. Le Lie-sien tchouan: Biographies légendaires des immortels taoïstes de l'antiquité. Beijing, 1953; reprint, Paris, 1987. Contains superb notes on each of the seventy biographies of the immortals.

Mathieu, Rémi, trans. and ed. A la recherche des esprits: Récits tirés du Sou shen ji par Gan Bao. Paris, 1992.

John Lagerwey (2005)

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