Tales about Immortals

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As a form of popular literature, Tales about Immortals highlighted the activities and anecdotes of immortals. In Daoism, these stories used to stress basic Daoist ideas, activities of immortals and their social influence. In most Tales of Immortals, we find not only the characteristics of folktales, but also Daoist religious pursuits for longevity and ascension to heaven. Today, most scholars on Daoism tend to put them under the title of Daoist literature.


Following the appearance of 'immortals' as an independent concept and records about their activities, the first Tales about Immortals came into being. In terms of etymology, an immortal refers to a man who spends his elderly years in the mountains. According to the definition, we can draw a conclusion that the first group of immortals must have been transformed from common people.


The concept of immortals could be dated in a period prior to the birth of religious Daoism. In surviving historical documents from that time, we find stories and records about immortals and their activities. On basis of historical documents, we conclude that some Tales about Immortals, such as tales about the Queen Mother of the West ( 西王母 Xiwangmu ), the Yellow Emperor ( 黃帝 Huangdi ) or the Elder of Penglai ( 蓬萊丈人 Penglai Zhangren ), were very popular in the Epoch of Warring States and that the earliest Tales of Immortals were transformed from mythical stories. In ancient times, people had unconsciously touched, in the stories, the motif of life and death that, in the later periods, was inherited and developed consciously in Tales about Immortals.


Prior to the Han dynasty, Tales about immortals comprised three types: feather people, states of longevity and teachers of human kings. In the first type, immortals became the equivalent of people with feather on their bodies, the artistic image for human ascension to heaven. In the second case, states of longevity recorded in sources like the Book of Mountains and Seas ( 《山海經》 Shanhai Jing ), reflected ancient people's anxiety about death and desire for longevity. In the third type, 'teachers of human kings' referred to immortals who came down from heaven, serving the states and the people by teaching their kings. One example was the story about Chi songzi who, as an immortal, became the teacher of kings. To some extent, the stories provided us with access to the inner world of ancient people.


Tales of Immortals dated back to the Han dynasty exerted a strong influence on Daoism. Since its birth, Daoists were collecting and rewriting Tales of Immortals dating before the Qin dynasty. For example, there were two stories about celebrating longevity on their birthday by Immortal Aunt Ma and the Eight Immortals. In terms of literary analysis, 'Tales of Immortals' are different from mythical stories in that, in the first case, a man can be transformed into an immortal through cultivation whereas elements of a deity in the mythical stories were predetermined. In terms of literary style, however, they enjoyed both similarities and dissimilarities. In Daoism, biographies of immortals were considered as a parallel to historical records. In contrast, Tales of Immortals highlighted magic elements of immortals through adapting and, in some cases, expanding the original stories. As a result, the immortals in such tales were granted more talents and capacities than human beings. For instance, they lived on the essence of wind and dew instead of food. They used to transform themselves into different forms or, by manipulating magic powers from inside their bodies, exert influence and control over things in nature. According to Daoism, an immortal represented freedom from all unfavorable restraints of governments. In this sense, immortals personalized the human pursuit for freedom and equality.

Since its birth, Tales of Immortals have become not only an impetus to Daoist cultivation, but also a bridge between Daoist ideas and folk literature. In the process of transmission, they produced many versions, among which were the 'fairy peach blossom', 'lady peach and plum', 'immortal lady jasmine', 'fairy of jade pistil' and 'fairy of golden toad'. The interplay of Tales of Immortals and folklore gave rise to new tales of immortals, which, in return, became an important form in Chinese literature, serving mainly Chinese people from the lower class.