Worship of Immortals

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The idea of "divinity" can be found in many of the books of the pre-Qin era (prior to 221 BC), and as a sort of supernatural existence, the deities or spirits have the mysterious power to control everything in the world. The idea of "immortality" is the faith that living beings can enjoy longevity without death. The book Explanations of the Chinese Characters ( 說文解字 shuowen jiezi) says that the immortals are those who live forever and move far away. Another book, the Interpretations of Terms ( 釋名 shiming), defines "immortals" as those who will not die when they are old. In spite of the fact that the idea of immortality had a long history, only the Daoists of later times began to put the two words "divine" (shen) and "immortal" (xian) together as one term when they referred to immortals. The Unfettered Excursion of Zhuangzi describes the divine men as those who are able to keep away from eating the five grains and having journeys beyond the four seas by sitting on clouds and riding dragons. There are many descriptions about the life and magical arts of the divine men, higher men, and perfect men in the book Zhuangzi. The Book of Mountains and Seas ( 山海經 shanhai jing) records the "state without death", the elixirs without death, the tree without death, and the people without death as well.

In ancient times there were many legends about immortals such as Peng Zu and Guangchengzi. It is said that Peng lived for over 800 years, and Guangchengzi was still full of drive by cultivating himself after having stayed in this world for over 1200 years. Such ideas of immortality were popular in the coastal areas like Yan and Qi, while the legends of immortals were widespread in the areas of Jin and Chu. It can be said that the Yan-Qi and Jin-Chu cultures of the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC) bred the Chinese people's idea of immortality. The Yan and Qi areas being close to the sea, the mirages on the sea inspired the people so much that they thought that immortals lived on the sea who would never die. As a result there appeared the Immortalists who propagated the longevity of immortals and transmitted the magical arts of immortality, which King Zhao of the Yan believed in very much. Such ideas of immortality of the pre-Qin era were still prevalent in the Qin and Han dynasties due to the rulers' keen interest. In the periods of the first emperor of the Qin and Emperor Wu of the Han there occurent a climax of pursuing immortality on a large scale. Religious Daoism succeeded and developed the thoughts of longevity and immortality, which eventually became the basic belief of Daoism, which is strikingly different from the other religions in the world.