He Xiangu, Immortal

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on February 13, 2017.)

A bas relief of He Xiangu with a flower in her
hair at the Tianhou Palace in Chiwan, Shenzhen

He Xiangu is the only one of the Eight Immortals who is unambiguously a woman. (We will come to understand this better next time.) She is usually seen holding a basket of flowers which in fact (though not in pictures!) has no bottom and no edges, and could hold all of the world's flowers and grasses and still have room for more. Other times she holds a lotus, or a musical instrument. It is said she was born in the Zengcheng District of Guangzhou, during the Tang Dynasty.

This story tells how she became one of the Immortals.

She was working for a lazy and mean old lady, who constantly criticized her and was never satisfied. Once the old lady set off to visit her cousin, leaving the young girl unsupervised.

While seated outside the house door mending the old woman's clothes, He Xiangu saw seven old beggars approaching, in ragged clothes and with humble expressions. When they politely asked for some food, He Xiangu was in a quandary. Her heart told her to feed the men, but she knew the old lady would notice the missing rice (for she counted everything) and beat her black and blue.

Nevertheless, she did what she knew to be right. The seven beggars ate and moved on down the road. When the old lady returned and entered the house, she immediately began to scream, "WHERE IS MY RICE?!" When told that it had been given to seven old men, the old lady told He Xiangu to fetch the beggars. When they returned, the old lady forced them to vomit up her rice--and then forced He Xiangu to eat it! As the girl tearfully complied, she became lighter and lighter, until she--along with the other Seven Immortals--rose toward heaven.

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