Li Tieguai, Immortal

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on January 9, 2017.)

A bas relief of Li Tieguai with crutch, gourd, and head band; at the Tianhou Palace in Chiwan, Shenzhen

Li Tieguai, or "Iron-Crutch Li," is another extremely popular member of the Daoist "Eight Immortals."

He is easily identified by the crutch under his arm and the potion-filled gourd that he carries. He sometimes has strange eyes, giving him the nickname Kong Mu or "Hollow Eyes."

One story says that, though now disheveled and beggarly, he was originally quite tall and handsome. He was so favored that the sage Laozi descended from Heaven to instruct him in wisdom.

However, once, when he left his body to visit Hua Mountain--an important Daoist site for millennia, and even today--Li Tieguai left a disciple named Lang Ling in charge of his dormant body. If, he told his student, he had not returned in seven days, Lang Ling was to cremate his body, to prevent it from being occupied by evil spirits.

Unfortunately, after six days the student learned that his mother was dying, and was called to her bedside. Torn between his responsibility to Li Tieguai and his filial duty, he decided to cremate the body immediately.

Thus, on the seventh day, when Li returned, there was no body to return to--just a pile of ashes! However, a beggar had died of hunger in a nearby forest, and the spirit inhabited that instead--with its unkempt hair and beard, its outsized eyes, and its lame leg. He planned to seek another body, but Laozi gave him a golden band for his hair, and an iron crutch, and encouraged him to stay put. In an act of forgiveness, Li Tieguai revived Lang Ling's mother, using the potion in his gourd.

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