Lu Dongbin, Immortal

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on January 2, 2017.)

A bas relief of Lü Dongbin with a fly whisk at the Tianhou Palace in Chiwan, Shenzhen

Having dealt with eighteen popular Buddhist figures, let's next turn to eight Daoist ones.

The "Eight Immortals" are some of the most popular figures in Chinese folklore. Originally seen as individual figures in the Tang and Song Dynasties, they were brought together in the late Jin and on into the Yuan.

First we'll meet Lü Dongbin, the de facto leader of the Eight. He is often depicted with a sword which symbolizes his ability to fight off evil spirits. He is also sometimes seen with a fly-whisk, giving him the power to walk on the clouds.

Like all of the "Immortals" (sometimes translated "fairies"), he was a Daoist practitioner who mastered the art of long life. Unlike most of them, however, he was a real person who lived in the Tang Dynasty.

One of the most famous stories about him is called the "Yellow Millet Dream."

The legend says that one night when he was a young man, Lü fell asleep while cooking millet at an inn. In a dream, he took the imperial exam and scored a very high mark; this allowed him to obtain a high office, and soon he worked his way up to vice minister. Marrying the daughter of a rich man, he fathered a boy and a girl, and was again promoted until finally he was the prime minister.

Alas, others became jealous, and accused him of wrongdoing. He fell from official grace, and his wife ran off. His children were killed, and he lost everything. As he lay dying on the road, he woke up--and the millet had just finished cooking! Realizing that worldly success was fleeting, he then set out on the path to cultivate the Dao.

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