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Xi'an

Xi'an (shē´än´) or Sian (shē´än´, sē´–), city (1994 est. pop. 2,114,900), capital of Shaanxi prov., China, in the Wei River valley. Situated on the Longhai RR, China's principal east-west line, it is an important commercial and tourism center in a wheat- and cotton-growing area. It has textile and steel mills, food-processing establishments, and plants making chemicals, cement, electrical machinery, and fertilizer.

Xianyang, one of several cities that have occupied this site, was (255–206 BC) the capital of the Ch'in dynasty. Excavations begun in 1974 some 20 mi (32 km) northeast of Xi'an at the tomb of Shih Huang-ti (emperor, 221–c.209 BC) uncovered an army of 6,000 life-size figures in battle formation. The 1990s brought the discovery nearby of some 800 royal tombs from the Han era, some containing hundreds of miniature clay soldiers, and the remains of sacrificial temples. The present city, then called Chang'an, was (202 BC–AD 25) the first capital of the Han dynasty and later the western capital of the T'ang dynasty (618–907), when it was a center of Buddhist, Muslim, and Nestorian Christian missionary activity. In the "Xi'an Incident" (1936), Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped by Chang Hsüeh-liang and imprisoned until he agreed to form a united front against the Japanese. The site of the incident is now a lush hot-spring resort with memorial pavilions.

The city has numerous T'ang dynasty pagodas and is noted for its history museum, housed in an 11th-century Confucian temple containing large stone tablets from the T'ang dynasty; one (781) commemorates the establishment of a Nestorian church. The city wall, dating from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), is still visible in places. In Xi'an are botanical gardens and Northwest Polytechnical Univ., Xi'an Jiaotong Univ., and many other institutions of higher learning. The city has a major airport. The name sometimes appears as Hsi-an.

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Xian

Xian (Sian, formerly Changan) Capital of Shaanxi province, at the confluence of the Wei and Huang He rivers, nw China. Inhabited since 6000 bc, from 255 to 206 bc it was the site of Xianyang, the capital of the Qin dynasty. The elaborate tomb of the dynastic founder, Emperor Qin Shihuangdi, is a world heritage site and major tourist attraction. Changan was the focus for the introduction of Buddhism to China, and in 652 the Big Wild Goose pagoda was built here. In the following centuries it became a major centre for other religious missionaries. The Great Mosque was built in 742. At the start of the 10th century, Changan was the world's largest city. Known as Xian since the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), extant monuments from this period include the 14th-century Drum and Bell towers. The Hua Qing curative hot springs were the site of the 1936 Xian Incident, when Chiang Kai-shek was held hostage until he agreed to a united Nationalist-Communist Chinese front against the Japanese. It is an important commercial centre of a grain-growing region. Industries: cotton, textiles, steel, chemicals. Pop. (1999) 2,294,970.

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Xian

Xian

In the Taoist mythology of China, the Xian (or Hsien) are a group of eight immortal characters who at one time lived as humans on earth. Some of the Xian were real individuals mentioned in historical records; others appear only in myths and legends.

Popular subjects in Chinese mythology and art, the Xian are said to travel the universe together in a state of perfect health and happiness. They perform various wonders and miracles and serve as models for those seeking the tao, or waythe path to an ideal state of being and existence. In Chinese art, these Eight Immortals often appear as a group, each depicted with his or her own characteristic clothing and possessions.


immortal able to live forever

How the Xian Achieved Immortality. The stories about the Xian explain how each achieved immortality in a different way. The first to reach this state was Li Tieguai (Iron Crutch), a hermit who went 40 years without food or sleep. According to some stories, Li Tieguai acquired immortality and his crutch from the Queen Mother of the West, who saw him limping and begging. Other legends say that Laozi, the founder of Taoism, came down from heaven to teach Li Tieguai the wisdom of the gods. One day Li sent his spirit to Laozi. When he returned, he found that a follower had burned his body, believing him to be dead. So Li entered the body of a deformed beggar who had died, gaining both immortality and a new identity.

Several different tales tell of the life of Han Zhongli, an army officer and state official. Some stories say that after losing a battle he went into the mountains, became a hermit, and learned the secret of immortality from the Flowers of the East. Other tales say that he was a priest or a beggar and that he discovered a jade box containing the magic potion of eternal life. In art, Han Zhongli is usually portrayed as a bearded old man holding a fan made of feathers.


Lu Dongbin. The most famous of the Xian was Lu Dongbin, a prince who traveled throughout China slaying dragons with a magic sword. One day he met Han Zhongli at an inn, and later that night he dreamed that his royal life would end in disgrace. When he awoke, he turned his back on worldly things and followed Han Zhongli into the mountains to seek the tao and gain immortality. Lu Dongbin is usually shown carrying a sword.

The grandnephew of a great statesman and poet, Han Xiang became a follower of Lu Dongbin. While climbing a sacred peach tree one day, he fell from the branches and achieved immortality before he reached the ground. Some stories say he died as a result of the fall and was then transformed into an immortal. Han Xiang is shown in art carrying a basket of flowers.

Cao Guojiu was the brother of an empress. Disgusted by the corruption at the royal court, he went into the mountains to seek the tao. He met a boatman on the way and showed him a golden tablet that would admit the holder to the royal court. The boatmanLu Dongbin in disguisewas not impressed, but he took Cao Guojiu as a disciple and taught him the tao and the secret of immortality. In art, Cao Guojiu appears wearing official robes and carrying his golden tablet.

The immortal Zhang Guolao was also a hermit. Famous for his skills in magic, he traveled around on a white mule that he could fold up like a sheet of paper and put into a carrying bag. Many stories say that Zhang Guolao achieved immortality simply by never dying or by appearing alive again after people saw him die. In art he is shown with a peacha symbol of immortalityand a feather from the legendary phoenix.

The immortal Lan Caihe sometimes appears as a man and other times as a woman. One day while gathering medicinal herbs, Lan Caihe met a beggar and helped tend the sores on his body. The beggar was Li Tieguai in disguise, and he rewarded this kindness by granting Lan Caihe immortality. Lan Caihe traveled around the country in a tattered blue dress, urging people to seek the tao. He is usually shown with a flute or a basket of fruit.

The eighth Xian, He Xiangu, is the only one who is definitely a woman. As a young girl, He Xiangu dreamed that a spirit told her to grind up and eat some mother-of-pearl. She did this and became immortal. Thereafter, she floated from mountain to mountain gathering herbs and fruit. Artists generally portrayed her as a beautiful woman wearing a lotus flower in her hair or on her clothing.


The Qi Xian. The Eight Immortals were also known as the Ba Xian, a title that distinguished them from the Qi Xian, a group of seven Chinese poets and scholars who lived in the a.d. 200s. The Qi Xian, known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, were historical figures who retreated to the countryside to write works that embraced Taoist ideas and that criticized the corruption of the royal court. Their self-imposed exile served as a model for later Chinese writers seeking to escape worldly troubles.

See also Chinese Mythology.

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Xian

Xi'an: see SIAN.

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Xian

XianAberfan, Adrianne, an, Anne, artisan, astrakhan, ban, began, Belmopan, bipartisan, bran, can, Cannes, Cézanne, Cheyenne, clan, courtesan, cran, dan, Dayan, Diane, divan, élan, Elan, fan, flan, foreran, Fran, Friedan, Gell-Mann, gran, Han, Hunan, Ivan, Jan, Japan, Jinan, Joanne, Kazan, Klan, Kordofan, Lacan, Lausanne, Leanne, Limousin, Louvain, man, Mann, Marianne, Milan, Moran, nan, Oran, outran, outspan, Pan, panne, parmesan, partisan, pavane, pecan, Pétain, plan, Pusan, ran, rataplan, rattan, Rosanne, Sagan, Saipan, saran, scan, scran, sedan, span, spick-and-span, Spokane, Suzanne, Tainan, tan, than, tisane, trepan, van, vin, Wuhan, Xian, Yerevan, Yunnan, Zhongshan •koan • kanban • Seremban •Cardin, Teilhard de Chardin •Rodin • Ramadan • dauphin •turbofan • Afghan • Gauguin •Callaghan

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Xian

XIAN

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.

Bibliography

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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Xian

Xian

Nationality/Culture

Chinese/Taoist

Pronunciation

shee-EN

Alternate Names

Hsien

Appears In

The Eight Immortals Depart and Travel to the East

Lineage

Varies

Character Overview

In the Taoist mythology of China, the Xian (or Hsien) are enlightened beings who at one time lived as humans on earth, but eventually became immortal, or able to live forever. Some of the Xian were real individuals mentioned in historical records; others appear only in myths and legends. Early Chinese texts refer to various numbers of Xian, but the most famous of these, the Eight Immortals, were first identified during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

The Eight Immortals are said to travel the universe together in a state of perfect health and happiness. They perform various wonders and miracles and serve as models for those seeking the tao (pronounced DOW), or way—the path to an ideal state of being and existence. In Chinese art, these Eight Immortals often appear as a group, each depicted with his or her own characteristic clothing and possessions.

The Stories of the Eight Immortals The stories about the Xian explain how each achieved immortality in a different way. The first to reach this state was Li Tieguai (pronounced LEE tee-eh-GWYE, meaning “Li of the Iron Crutch”), a hermit who went forty years without food or sleep. According to some stories, Li Tieguai acquired both immortality and his crutch from the Queen Mother of the West, who saw him limping and begging. Other legends say that Laozi (pronounced low-DZOO), the founder of Taoism, came down from heaven to teach Li Tieguai the wisdom of the gods. One day Li sent his spirit to Laozi. When he returned, he found that a follower had burned his body, believing him to be dead. So Li entered the body of a deformed beggar who had died, gaining both immortality and a new identity.

Several different tales tell of the life of Zhong-Liquan (pronounced DJORNG-lee-choo-AHN), an army officer and state official. Some stories say that after losing a batde he went into the mountains, became a hermit, and learned the secret of immortality from the Flowers of the East. Other tales say that he was a priest or a beggar and that he discovered a jade box containing the magic potion of eternal life.

The most famous of the Xian was Lu Dongbin (pronounced LOO dorng-BEEN), a prince who traveled throughout China slaying dragons with a magic sword. One day he met Zhong-Liquan at an inn, and later that night he dreamed that his royal life would end in disgrace. When he awoke, he turned his back on worldly things and followed Zhong-Liquan into the mountains to seek the tao and gain immortality.

The grandnephew of a great statesman and poet, Han Xiang (pronounced HARN shee-YEN) became a follower of Lu Dongbin. While climbing a sacred peach tree one day, he fell from the branches and achieved immortality before he reached the ground. Some stories say he died as a result of the fall and was then transformed into an immortal.

Cao Guojiu (pronounced TSOW gwor-JEE-yoo) was the brother of an empress. Disgusted by the corruption at the royal court, he went into the mountains to seek the tao. He met a boatman on the way and showed him a golden tablet that would admit the holder to the royal court. The boatman—Lu Dongbin in disguise—was not impressed, but he took Cao Guojiu as a disciple and taught him the tao and the secret of immortality.

The immortal Zhang Guolao (pronounced DJARNG gwor-LOW) was also a hermit. Famous for his skills in magic, he traveled around on a white mule that he could fold up like a sheet of paper and put into a carrying bag. Many stories say that Zhang Guolao achieved immortality simply by never dying, or by appearing alive again after people saw him die.

The immortal Lan Caihe (pronounced LARN TSWEE-HUH) sometimes appears as a man and other times as a woman. One day while gathering medicinal herbs, Lan Caihe met a beggar and helped tend the sores on his body. The beggar was Li Tieguai in disguise, and he rewarded this kindness by granting Lan Caihe immortality. Lan Caihe traveled around the country in a tattered blue dress, urging people to seek the tao.

The eighth Xian, He Xiangu (HUH SHEE-yen-GOO), is the only one who is definitely a woman. As a young girl, He Xiangu dreamed that a spirit told her to grind up and eat some mother-of-pearl. She did this and became immortal. Thereafter, she floated from mountain to mountain gathering herbs and fruit.

Xian in Context

The story of the Xian reflects the importance of the idea of immortality in Chinese culture. This notion runs through both Taoism and Buddhism; physical death is often seen as the last stage leading to eternal life. The myth of the Xian, like Buddhist teachings, suggests to believers that immortality is something that can be achieved by anyone. This reflects a view that the godlike figures of Chinese myth are not only closely connected to typical humans, but in many cases represent advanced stages of what it means to be human.

Key Themes and Symbols

The most important theme that runs through all the tales of the Xian is the search for immortality. Some search diligently for it, while others stumble upon it. In most cases, however, immortality is described as a reward or something that is earned. Usually this is earned through acts of cleansing or purifying, or by giving up worldly things. Several items in the myths of the Xian are ancient Chinese symbols of immortality, such as peaches, jade, and mother-of-pearl.

Xian in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The Eight Immortals are identified in Chinese art primarily by their clothes and the things they carry. Li Tieguai is depicted as a disabled beggar with an iron crutch. Zhong-Liquan is usually portrayed as a bearded old man holding a fan made of feathers. Lu Dongbin is usually shown carrying a sword, while Han Xiang is shown carrying a basket of flowers. Cao Guojiu appears wearing official robes and carrying his golden tablet. Zhang Guolao is shown with a peach—a symbol of immortality—and a feather from the legendary phoenix. Lan Caihe is usually shown with a flute or a basket of fruit. Artists generally portrayed He Xiangu as a beautiful woman wearing a lotus flower in her hair or on her clothing. The Eight Immortals remain a popular artistic subject in modern times, and several Chinese films have been made about their lives.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel (2007) by Michael Scott is a novel about twin California teens who discover they are at the center of a prophecy about saving—or destroying—the world. One takes a job at a bookstore owned by an alchemist who has discovered the secret of immortality. When the book containing the secret is stolen, the twins must learn to use their untapped magical powers to get it back.

SEE ALSO Chinese Mythology

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