The Legendary Deities Who Inspired Our 8 Immortals Oolong Tea
Today, I'm exploring the namesake of our 8 Immortals Oolong: The 8 Immortals are a group of mythological heroes, believed to have a special connection with the secrets of nature, endowing them with physical and/or spiritual immortality. They have figured prominently in Chinese folklore from the ancient times of the Tang dynasty (7c - 10c) and have been a part of written art and culture since the Ming dynasty (14c - 17c). Each of the 8 Immortals is endowed with a specific supernatural power. Their stories and capabilities range from a beggar who wards off evil and heals the sick, to a hermaphrodite who wears only one shoe and communicates directly with the gods. As a group, they represent prosperity and longevity, and the ability to overcome earthly hardships. They were often depicted together, and one of the most significant writings about them tells of their voyage together across the ocean to the East. Below are illustrations of the 8 Immortals, with brief introductions of their characters. The image is from the Immortal Mountain blog, a site offering Insight into the World of Chinese Fantasy Novels.
1. Lü Dongbin (呂洞賓; pinyin: Lǚ Dòngbīn) is the chief leader. He was a scholar and is respected as such. His attributes are a sword and a fly brush, which can calm evil. He is the patron deity of barbers.
2. Zhongli Quan (鐘离權; Pinyin: Zhōnglí Quán) is endowed with the power of transmutation and the knowledge of the elixir of life. His attribute is a fan, which has the power to bring the dead back to life. He is represented as a Fat Man with a bare belly and is the patron deity of military men.
3. Han Xiang Zi (韓湘子; pinyin: Hán Xiāng Zi) is the Philosopher. His special power was the ability to make flowers bloom instantaneously. His talisman is the flute, which promotes growth and soothes wild animals. He is represented as a Happy Man and is the patron deity of musicians.
4. Zhang Guo Lao (張果老; pinyin: Zhāng Guǒ Lǎo) is reputed to have been a recluse who traveled with a white mule that could go great distances, then be folded up and placed in a wallet, and reconstituted with water. When needed, for further use. He is depicted as an old man riding the mule, backward, and is the emblem of the elderly.
5. Li Tie Guai (李鐵拐; pinyin: Lĭ Tiĕ Guăi) Iron-Crutch Li can free his soul from his body and travel in the celestial realm. Once, while his spirit was gone from his body, a disciple decided that he was dead and burned his body, as was appropriate, according to tradition. When Li Tie Guai’s soul returned from his celestial travels, he was forced to enter the body of a lame beggar, which is how he is represented. He has the ability to ward off evil and relieve the distressed.
6. He Xian Gu (何仙姑; pinyin: Hé Xiān Gū) is the Immortal Woman. Her immortality is attributed to a diet of powdered mother-of-pearl and moonbeams. Legend has it that she can cultivate people through meditation. She is attributed by the lotus, or a peach, the divine fruit of Gods, associated with immortality and purity.
7. Lan Cai (蓝采和; pinyin: Lán Cǎihé) is the Immortal Hermaphrodite, said to have wandered the streets as a beggar while singing about the brevity of mortal life. Her/his attribute is a basket of beautiful flowers, which remind viewers of the transience of life. She/he is generally represented as a young boy, wearing a tattered blue gown, and only one shoe. Lan Cai is the patron deity of florists.
8. Cao Gou Jiu (曹國舅; pinyin: Cáo Guó Jiù) is the Royal Uncle Cao. His attribute is a jade tablet that allows him admission into the royal court. He is represented in the finest dress among all Eight Immortals and carrying castanets. He is the patron deity of actors.
Depicting humans who have become immortal is a traditional practice in Chinese art. When Daoism gained popularity, it quickly adopted this tradition with its own immortals. Tea Master Huang, who handcrafts our 8 Immortals Oolong, is a practicing Daoist. He is the fifth generation producer from a long line of tea masters who have been producing Dancong oolong teas in the misty mountains near Chaozhou, China, since the early 1800s. Many of Tea Master Huang’s exquisite teas have won awards worldwide. The Tea Spot was honored to have presented 8 Immortals Oolong and received one of these awards on his behalf at the Global Tea Championships in 2018.
The story behind our beloved tea dates back to the Ming Dynasty. In a field not far from Master Huang’s present-day farm, many different tea types were being cultivated on the same mountain. As the story goes, the Phoenix Mountain region was experiencing a particularly dry Summer season that year. A forest fire broke out and devastated most of the tea crops in the area. In one of the fields, all but 8 individual tea trees were burned to the grounds. These eight surviving tea plants were all of the same cultivar, and soon thereafter dubbed the "8 Immortals” Cultivar. When sipping multiple infusions of this complex, woody and floral long-leaf oolong, one can imagine that the tea communicates the story of another one of the immortals with each subsequent steep.