I’ve got a good, but challenging, read for HSK 6 readers today: this is the classic story “The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea”, one of the most widely-known myths in Chinese culture. The Eight Immortals appear in endless traditional artworks – in paintings, as figurines, on pottery – and the story has spawned several idioms and sayings. This myth is also casually alluded to in some modern novels and pop culture, so it’s an important work to know.
There are a zillion variations on this story, the characters in it are thousands of years old, and so there is no real “original”. The details change from version to version, but the basics remain the same: the Eight Immortals (八仙) decide to show off a little, and each use their special powers (神通) to cross the ocean, the domain of the Dragon King. Their antics start a battle, which, like any dispute among powerful spirits, gets out of hand, and a few gods and goddesses have to step in to break up the fight.
Some language stuff
There are several idioms and lesser-known phrases in this piece, but the biggest linguistic lift here is the profusion of proper names: this story is like a who’s who of Buddhist, Taoist and folk mythology – many of the big deities pop in for a sentence or two. Plus, each of the Eight Immortals have a magic artifact (宝物), all of which are listed. So, if you ever wanted a rapid-fire introduction to Chinese gods and goddesses, you’ve come to the right place. The Eight Immortals are:
吕洞宾 lǚ dòng bīn – Lv Dongbin, with his magic double-edged sword (雌雄宝剑).
铁拐李 tiě guǎi lǐ – Iron Staff Li, with his metal staff (铁拐), and his magic bottle gourd (酒葫芦).
汉钟离 hàn zhōng lí – Han Zhongli, also known as Zhong Liquan, with his palm-leaf fan (芭蕉扇).
张果老 zhāng guǒ lǎo – Zhang Guolao with his mule (毛驴)
韩湘子 hán xiāng zi – Han Xiangzi with his flute (萧)
何仙姑 hé xiān gū – He Xiangu with her lotus flowers / flower basket (花篮)
蓝采和 lán cǎi hé – Lan Caihe with his magic clappers (拍板)
曹国舅 cáo guó jiù – Cao Guojiu with his jade tablets (玉版)
Other gods and mystical creatures that make a quick appearance include:
玉皇大帝 yù huáng dà dì – The Jade Emperor, supreme ruler in heaven, kind of equivalent to Zeus in Greek mythology.
西王母 xī wáng mǔ – The Queen Mother of the West, wife of the Jade Emperor, and keeper of the Peaches of Immortality.
东海龙王 dōng hái lóng wáng – The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea.
太上老君 tài shàng lǎo jūn – Exalted Lord Lao, a Taoist diety associated with Laozi, an actual historical figure who was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer.
如来佛 rú lái fó – One of the names of the Buddha.
观世音 guān shì yīn – More commonly known as Guanyin or Kwanyin, goddess of mercy.
More important things to note:
泰山 tài shān – Mount Tai, both a mythical and actual mountain, one of China’s five great mountains, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
虾兵蟹将 xiā bīng xiè jiàng – “Shrimp soldiers and crab generals”. As you probably know, dragons in Chinese mythology are water gods, no fire gods. So their soldiers are made up of sea creatures. In this story, the Dragon King’s armies were defeated, so in modern Chinese, the term “shrimp soldiers and crab generals” has come to mean “ineffective troops”.
蜃 shèn – My dictionary translates 蜃 as “clam”, but in this case, it actually means “mirage”. Don’t ask me how those words evolved out of the same character, I have no idea.
腾云驾雾 téng yún jià wù – Naturally, immortal beings don’t just walk around on two feet like the rest of us. Instead, they “ride the clouds and fly on the mist”. You’ll notice that in many Chinese myths, and mythological TV shows, immortals and gods jump on a cloud and fly around – this the official description of that, uh, supernatural method of transport.