Xian (Daoist immortal)

From New World Encyclopedia

Part of a series on

Yin yang.svg

Tao · De · Xiulian

Prominent Taoists
Laozi · Zhuangzi
Zhang Daoling · Zhang Jiao
Ge Hong · Chen Tuan
Wang Chongyang

Deities and Immortals
Three Pure Ones
Jade Emperor · Xi Wangmu
Eight Immortals

Main Sects
Quanzhen School
Tianshi Dao
Zhengyi Dao
Shangqing School
Lingbao School

Taoist Texts
Tao Te Ching · Zhuangzi

Taoist Precepts
The Five Precepts

Sacred Sites
Shizhou Sandao
Sanshiliu Xiaodongtian
Qishi'er Fudi
Mount Longhu


Xian (Chinese: 仙/仚/僊; pinyin: xiān; Wade-Giles: hsien) is a Chinese word for an enlightened person or “immortal." References to the term “xian” appeared in Chinese texts as early as the third century B.C.E., and its meaning appears to have evolved over the centuries.Early Zhuangzi, Chuci, and Liezi Taoist texts (third – second centuries B.C.E.) used xian immortals and magic islands allegorically to describe spiritual immortality. Later Taoist texts developed an elaborate hierarchy of physically immortal beings with supernatural powers such as the ability to fly. The term “xian” is used in a philosophical context to refer to a sage or someone who has achieved enlightenment or spiritual transcendence; in Chinese alchemy to refer to one who practices physical longevity techniques; in the Taoist pantheon to refer to a celestial being or saint; in folklore to refer to a hermit or a sage who lives in the mountains; in Chinese literature to refer to a genie, nymph or fairy; and as a metaphor for an extraordinarily accomplished person.

Semantically, Xian evolved from meaning spiritual "immortality; enlightenment," to physical "immortality; longevity" attained through practices such as alchemy, breath meditation, and Tai chi chuan, and eventually to legendary and figurative "immortality." Some scholars of Taoism allege that later practitioners of esoteric magic and alchemy adopted earlier Taoist texts containing references to allegorical “immortals” as scriptural authority to justify their own concepts of physical immortality. The Eight Immortals (Chinese: 八仙; pinyin: Bāxiān; Wade-Giles: Pa-hsien) are a group of legendary xian in Chinese mythology, first described in the Yuan Dynasty.

"The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea," from Myths and Legends of China, 1922, E.T.C. Werner.


The word xian

The most famous Chinese compound of xiān is Bāxiān (八仙; "the Eight Immortals"). Other common words include xiānrén (仙人; sennin in Japanese, "immortal person; transcendent," see Xiānrén Dòng), xiānrénzhăng (仙人掌; "immortal's palm; cactus"), xiānnǚ (仙女; "immortal woman; female celestial; angel"), and shénxiān (神仙; "gods and immortals; divine immortal").

The possible linguistic etymology of xian is Sino-Tibetan "shaman;" and the possible etymology of the character 仙 is "ascend" or "mountain." Axel Schuessler's etymological dictionary (2007, 527) suggests a Sino-Tibetan connection between xiān (Old Chinese *san or *sen):"'An immortal' … men and women who attain supernatural abilities; after death they become immortals and deities who can fly through the air;" and Tibetan gšen (g-syen): "shaman, one who has supernatural abilities, incl[uding] travel through the air."

The Shiming (circa 200 C.E.), the first Chinese dictionary of etymology, defines xiān (仙) as "to get old and not die," and etymologizes it as someone who qiān (遷; "moves into") the mountains."

The Chinese character and its variants

The word xiān is written with three characters: 僊, 仙, or 仚, which combine the logographic "radical" rén (人 or 亻 "person; human") with two "phonetic" elements (see Chinese character). The oldest recorded xiān character 僊 has a xiān ("rise up; ascend") phonetic, supposedly because immortals could "ascend into the heavens." (Compare qiān; 遷"; move; transfer; change" combining this phonetic and the motion radical.) The usual modern xiān character 仙, and its rare variant 仚, have a shān (山 "mountain") phonetic. Kristofer Schipper analyzes the character as meaning "'the human being of the mountain,' or alternatively, 'human mountain.' The two explanations are appropriate to these beings: they haunt the holy mountains, while also embodying nature."[1]

The Shijing (220/3) contains the oldest occurrence of the character 僊, reduplicated as xiānxiān (僊僊, "dance lightly; hop about; jump around"), and rhymed with qiān (遷): "But when they have drunk too much, Their deportment becomes light and frivolous – They leave their seats, and [遷] go elsewhere, They keep [僊僊] dancing and capering."[2]

The Shuowen Jiezi (121 C.E.), the first important dictionary of Chinese characters, does not contain 仙 except in the definition for 偓佺 (Wo Quan "name of an ancient immortal"). It defines 僊 as "live long and move away" and 仚 as "appearance of a person on a mountaintop."


Xian (Chinese: 仙/仚/僊; pinyin: xiān; Wade-Giles: hsien) is translatable in English as:

  • "spiritually immortal; transcendent; super-human; celestial being" (in Daoist/Taoist philosophy and cosmology)
  • "physically immortal; immortal person; immortalist; saint" (in Daoist religion and pantheon)
  • "alchemist; one who seeks the elixir of life; one who practices longevity techniques" or by extension "(alchemical, dietary, qigong) methods for attaining immortality" (in Chinese alchemy)
  • "wizard; magician; shaman" (in Chinese mythology)
  • "genie; elf, fairy; nymph" (in popular Chinese literature, 仙境 xian jing is "fairyland," Faerie)
  • "sage living high in the mountains; mountain-man; hermit; recluse" (folk etymology for the character 仙)
  • "immortal (talent); accomplished person; celestial (beauty); marvelous; extraordinary" (metaphorical modifier)

According to the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, Chinese xian (仙) can mean Sanskrit ṛṣi (rishi "inspired sage in the Vedas").

Textual and visual references

Early Zhuangzi, Chuci, and Liezi texts used xian immortals and magic islands allegorically to describe spiritual immortality. Later texts like the Shenxian zhuan and Baopuzi took immortality literally and described esoteric Chinese alchemical techniques believed to increase physical longevity. Neidan (內丹; "internal alchemy") techniques included taixi (胎息; "embryo respiration") breath control, meditation, visualization, sexual training, and Tao Yin exercises (which later evolved into Qigong and Tai Chi Chuan). Waidan (外丹; "external achemy") techniques for attaining immortality included alchemical recipes, magic plants, rare minerals, herbal medicines, drugs, and dietetic techniques like inedia.

The earliest artistic representations of Chinese immortals, dating from the Han Dynasty, portray them flying with feathery wings (the word yuren (羽人; "feathered person") later meant "Daoist") or riding dragons. In Chinese art, xian are often pictured with symbols of immortality including the dragon, crane, fox, white deer, pine tree, peach, and mushroom.

Xian riding dragons, from Myths and Legends of China, 1922, E.T.C. Werner.

Besides the following major Chinese texts, many others contain the graphic variants of xian. Xian (仙) occurs in the Chunqiu Fanlu, Fengsu Tongyi, Qian fu lun, Fayan, and Shenjian; xian (僊) occurs in the Caizhong langji, Fengsu Tongyi, Guanzi, and Shenjian.


Two "Outer Chapters" of the Zhuangzi (莊子 "[Book of] Master Zhuang," circa third century B.C.E.) use the archaic character xian (僊). Chapter 11 contains a parable about "Cloud Chief" (雲 將)  and "Big Concealment" (鴻 蒙)   that uses the Shijing compound xianxian ("dance; jump"):

Big Concealment said, "If you confuse the constant strands of Heaven and violate the true form of things, then Dark Heaven will reach no fulfillment. Instead, the beasts will scatter from their herds, the birds will cry all night, disaster will come to the grass and trees, misfortune will reach even to the insects. Ah, this is the fault of men who 'govern'!"
"Then what should I do?" said Cloud Chief.
"Ah," said Big Concealment, "you are too far gone! (僊僊) Up, up, stir yourself and be off!"
Cloud Chief said, "Heavenly Master, it has been hard indeed for me to meet with you—I beg one word of instruction!"
"Well, then—mind‑nourishment!" said Big Concealment. "You have only to rest in inaction and things will transform themselves. Smash your form and body, spit out hearing and eyesight, forget you are a thing among other things, and you may join in great unity with the deep and boundless. Undo the mind, slough off spirit, be blank and soulless, and the ten thousand things one by one will return to the root—return to the root and not know why. Dark and undifferentiated chaos—to the end of life none will depart from it. But if you try to know it, you have already departed from it. Do not ask what its name is, do not try to observe its form. Things will live naturally end of themselves."
Cloud Chief said, "The Heavenly Master has favored me with this Virtue, instructed me in this Silence. All my life I have been looking for it, and now at last I have it!" He bowed his head twice, stood up, took his leave, and went away. (11, translated by Burton Watson) [3]

Chapter 12 uses xian when mythical Emperor Yao describes a shengren (聖 人, "sagely person"):

The true sage is a quail at rest, a little fledgling at its meal, a bird in flight who leaves no trail behind. When the world has the Way, he joins in the chorus with all other things. When the world is without the Way, he nurses his Virtue and retires in leisure. And after a thousand years, should he weary of the world, he will leave it and ascend to (僊) the immortals, riding on those white clouds all the way up to the village of God.”
12, translated by Burton Watson[4]

Without using the word xian, several Zhuangzi passages employ xian imagery, such as flying in the clouds, to describe individuals with superhuman powers. For example, Chapter 1, within the circa third century B.C.E. "Inner Chapters," has two portrayals. First is this description of Liezi:

Lieh Tzu could ride the wind and go soaring around with cool and breezy skill, but after fifteen days he came back to earth. As far as the search for good fortune went, he didn't fret and worry. He escaped the trouble of walking, but he still had to depend on something to get around. If he had only mounted on the truth of Heaven and Earth, ridden the changes of the six breaths, and thus wandered through the boundless, then what would he have had to depend on? Therefore I say, the Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame.
1, translated by Burton Watson [5]

Second is this description of a shenren (神人; "divine person"):

He said that there is a Holy Man living on faraway [姑射] Ku-she Mountain, with skin like ice or snow, and gentle and shy like a young girl. He doesn't eat the five grains, but sucks the wind, drinks the dew, climbs up on the clouds and mist, rides a flying dragon, and wanders beyond the four seas. By concentrating his spirit, he can protect creatures from sickness and plague and make the harvest plentiful. 1, translated by BurtonWatson [6]


The Chuci (楚辭; "Lyrics of Chu"), an anthology of poems dating from the third-second century B.C.E. contains xian (仙) once and xian (僊) twice, reflecting the disparate origins of the text. These three contexts mention the legendary Daoist xian immortals Chi Song (赤松; "Red Pine" [7] and Wang Qiao (王僑, or Zi Qiao; 子僑). In later Taoist hagiography, Chi Song was Lord of Rain under Shennong, the legendary inventor of agriculture; and Wang Qiao was a son of King Ling of Zhou (r. 571-545 B.C.E.), who flew away on a giant white bird, became an immortal and was never seen again.

The "Yuan You" (遠遊; "Far-off Journey") poem describes a spiritual journey into the realms of gods and immortals, frequently referring to Daoist myths and techniques:

My spirit darted forth and did not return to me,
And my body, left tenantless, grew withered and lifeless.
Then I looked into myself to strengthen my resolution,
And sought to learn from where the primal spirit issues.
In emptiness and silence I found serenity;
In tranquil inaction I gained true satisfaction.
I heard how once Red Pine had washed the world's dust off:
I would model myself on the pattern he had left me.
I honoured the wondrous powers of the [真人] Pure Ones,
And those of past ages who had become [仙] Immortals.
They departed in the flux of change and vanished from men's sight,
Leaving a famous name that endures after them.
translated by David Hawkes[8]

The "Xi shi" (惜誓; "Sorrow for Troth Betrayed") resembles the "Yuan You," and both reflect Daoist ideas from the Han period. It describes traveling through the air:

We gazed down of the Middle Land [China] with its myriad people
As we rested on the whirlwind, drifting about at random.
In this way we came at last to the moor of Shao-yuan:
There, with the other blessed ones, were Red Pine and Wang Qiao.
The two Masters held zithers tuned imperfect concord:
I sang the Qing Shang air to their playing.
In tranquil calm and quiet enjoyment,
Gently I floated, inhaling all the essences.
But then I thought that this immortal life of [僊] the blessed,
Was not worth the sacrifice of my home-returning.
translated by David Hawkes[9]

The "Ai shi ming" (哀時命; "Alas That My Lot Was Not Cast") describes a celestial journey similar to the previous two:

Far and forlorn, with no hope of return:
Sadly I gaze in the distance, over the empty plain.
Below, I fish in the valley streamlet;
Above, I seek out [僊] holy hermits.
I enter into friendship with Red Pine;
I join Wang Qiao as his companion. We send the Xiao Yang in front to guide us;
The White Tiger runs back and forth in attendance.
Floating on the cloud and mist, we enter the dim height of heaven;
Riding on the white deer we sport and take our pleasure. .
translated by David Hawkes[10]

The "Li Sao" (離騷; "On Encountering Trouble"), the most famous Chuci poem, is usually interpreted as describing ecstatic flights and trance techniques of Chinese shamans. The three poems quoted above are variations describing Daoist xian.

Some other Chuci poems refer to immortals with synonyms of xian. For instance, "Shou zhi" (守志; "Maintaining Resolution), uses zhenren (真人; "true person," tr. "Pure Ones" above in "Yuan You"), which Wang Yi's commentary glosses as zhen xianren (真仙人; "true immortal person"):

I visited Fu Yue, bestriding a dragon,
Joined in marriage with the Weaving Maiden,
Lifted up Heaven's Net to capture evil,
Drew the Bow of Heaven to shoot at wickedness,
Followed the [真人] Immortals fluttering through the sky,
Ate of the Primal Essence to prolong my life.
translated by David Hawkes[11]


The Liezi (列子; "[Book of] Master Lie"), which according to Louis Komjathy "was probably compiled in the third century C.E. (while containing earlier textual layers)," uses xian four times, always in the compound xiansheng (仙聖 "immortal sage").[12]

Nearly half of Chapter 2 ("The Yellow Emperor") comes from the Zhuangzi, including this recounting of the fable about Mount Gushe (姑射, or Guye, or Miao Gushe 藐姑射):

The Ku-ye mountains stand on a chain of islands where the Yellow River enters the sea. Upon the mountains there lives a Divine Man, who inhales the wind and drinks the dew, and does not eat the five grains. His mind is like a bottomless spring, his body is like a virgin's. He knows neither intimacy nor love, yet (仙聖) immortals and sages serve him as ministers. He inspires no awe, he is never angry, yet the eager and diligent act as his messengers. He is without kindness and bounty, but others have enough by themselves; he does not store and save, but he himself never lacks. The Yin and Yang are always in tune, the sun and moon always shine, the four seasons are always regular, wind and rain are always temperate, breeding is always timely, the harvest is always rich, and there are no plagues to ravage the land, no early deaths to afflict men, animals have no diseases, and ghosts have no uncanny echoes. (tr. Graham 1960:35)

Chapter 5 uses xiansheng three times in a conversation set between legendary rulers Tang (湯) of the Shang Dynasty and Ji (革) of the Xia Dynasty.

T'ang asked again: 'Are there large things and small, long and short, similar and different?'
—'To the East of the Gulf of Chih-li, who knows how many thousands and millions of miles, there is a deep ravine, a valley truly without bottom; and its bottomless underneath is named "The Entry to the Void." The waters of the eight corners and the nine regions, the stream of the Milky Way, all pour into it, but it neither shrinks nor grows. Within it there are five mountains, called Tai-yü, Yüan-chiao, Fang-hu, Ying-chou and P'eng-Iai. These mountains are thirty thousand miles high, and as many miles round; the tablelands on their summits extend for nine thousand miles. It is seventy thousand miles from one mountain to the next, but they are considered close neighbours. The towers and terraces upon them are all gold and jade, the beasts and birds are all unsullied white; trees of pearl and garnet always grow densely, flowering and bearing fruit which is always luscious, and those who eat of it never grow old and die. The men who dwell there are all of the race of (仙聖) immortal sages, who fly, too many to be counted, to and from one mountain to another in a day and a night. Yet the bases of the five mountains used to rest on nothing; they were always rising and falling, going and returning, with the ebb and flow of the tide, and never for a moment stood firm. The (仙聖) immortals found this troublesome, and complained about it to God. God was afraid that they would drift to the far West and he would lose the home of his sages. So he commanded Yü-ch'iang to make fifteen giant turtles carry the five mountains on their lifted heads, taking turns in three watches, each sixty thousand years long; and for the first time the mountains stood firm and did not move.
'But there was a giant from the kingdom of the Dragon Earl, who came to the place of the five mountains in no more than a few strides. In one throw he hooked six of the turtles in a bunch, hurried back to his country carrying them together on his back, and scorched their bones to tell fortunes by the cracks. Thereupon two of the mountains, Tai-yü and Yüan-chiao, drifted to the far North and sank in the great sea; the (仙聖) immortals who were carried away numbered many millions. God was very angry, and reduced by degrees the size of the Dragon Earl's kingdom and the height of his subjects. At the time of Fu-hsi and Shen-nung, the people of this country were still several hundred feet high.' (tr. Graham 1960, 97-98)

Penglai Mountain became the most famous of these five mythical peaks where the elixir of life supposedly grew, and is known as Horai in Japanese legends. The first emperor Qin Shi Huang sent his court alchemist Xu Fu on expeditions to find these plants of immortality, but he never returned (although by some accounts, he discovered Japan).

Shenxian zhuan

The Shenxian zhuan (神仙傳; Biographies of Spirit Immortals) is a hagiography of xian. Although it was traditionally attributed to Ge Hong (283-343 C.E.), most the approximately 100 hagiographies contained in the text date from 6th-8th centuries at the earliest.[13]

According to the Shenxian zhuan, there are four schools of immortality:

(气 - “Pneumas”) – Breath control and meditation. Those who belong to this school can

"...blow on water and it will flow against its own current for several paces; blow on fire, and it will be extinguished; blow at tigers or wolves, and they will crouch down and not be able to move; blow at serpents, and they will coil up and be unable to flee. If someone is wounded by a weapon, blow on the wound, and the bleeding will stop. If you hear of someone who has suffered a poisonous insect bite, even if you are not in his presence, you can, from a distance, blow and say in incantation over your own hand (males on the left hand, females on the right), and the person will at once be healed even if more than a hundred li away. And if you yourself are struck by a sudden illness, you have merely to swallow pneumas in three series of nine, and you will immediately recover.
But the most essential thing [among such arts] is fetal breathing. Those who obtain [the technique of] fetal breathing become able to breathe without using their nose or mouth, as if in the womb, and this is the culmination of the way [of pneumatic cultivation]."[14]

Fàn (饭 - “Diet”) – Ingestion of herbal compounds and abstention from the Sān Shī Fàn (三尸饭; “Three-Corpses food:”meats (raw fish, pork, dog), leeks and scallions) and grains. According to the book To Live As Long As Heaven and Earth: Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents, the importance of 'grain avoidance' was told in a story by Ge Hong:

"During the reign of Emperor Cheng of the Han, hunters in the Zhongnan Mountains saw a person who wore no clothes, his body covered with black hair. Upon seeing this person, the hunters wanted to pursue and capture him, but the person leapt over gullies and valleys as if in flight, and so could not be overtaken. [But after being surrounded and captured, it was discovered this person was a 200 plus year old woman, who had once been a concubine of Qin Emperor Ziying. When he had surrendered to the 'invaders of the east', she fled into the mountains where she learned to subside on 'the resin and nuts of pines' from an old man. Afterwards, this diet 'enabled [her] to feel neither hunger nor thirst; in winter [she] was not cold, in summer [she] was not hot.']
The hunters took the woman back in. They offered her grain to eat. When she first smelled the stink of grain, she vomited, and only after several days could she tolerate it. After little more than two years of this [diet], her body hair fell out; she turned old and died. Had she not been caught by men, she would have become a transcendent."[15]

Fángzhōng Zhī Shù (房中之术 - “Arts of the Bedchamber”) – According to a discourse between the Yellow Emperor and the immortaless Sùnǚ (素女; ”Plain Girl”), one of the three daughters of Hsi Wang Mu:

“The sexual behaviors between a man and woman are identical to how the universe itself came into creation. Like Heaven and Earth, the male and female share a parallel relationship in attaining an immortal existence. They both must learn how to engage and develop their natural sexual instincts and behaviors; otherwise the only result is decay and traumatic discord of their physical lives. However, if they engage in the utmost joys of sensuality and apply the principles of yin and yang to their sexual activity, their health, vigor, and joy of love will bear them the fruits of longevity and immortality. [16]

Dān (丹 - "Alchemy," literally "Cinnabar") – Elixir of Immortality.[17]


The Baopuzi (抱朴子; [Book of] Master Embracing Simplicity), which was written by Ge Hong in the fourth century C.E., gives some highly detailed descriptions of xian:

The text lists three classes of immortals:

Tiānxiān (天仙; “Celestial Immortal”): The highest level.

Dìxiān (地仙; “Earth Immortal”): The middle level.

Shījiě xiān (尸解仙; "Escaped-by-means-of-a-stimulated-corpse-simulacrum Immortal," literally "Corpse Untie Immortal"): The lowest level. This is considered the lowest form of immortality since a person must first “fake” his own death by substituting a bewitched object like a bamboo pole, sword, talisman or a shoe for his corpse or slipping a type of death certificate into the coffin of a newly departed paternal grandfather, thus having their name and "allotted life span" deleted from the ledgers kept by the Sīmìng (司命; "Director of Allotted Life Spans," literally "Controller of Fate"). Hagiographies and folktales abound of people who seemingly die in one province, but are seen alive in another. Mortals who choose this route must cut off all ties with family and friends, move to a distant province, and enact the Ling bao tai xuan yin sheng zhi fu (靈寳太玄隂生之符 ; Numinous Treasure Talisman of the Grand Mystery for Living in Hiding) to protect themselves from heavenly retribution.[18]

However, this is not a true form of immortality. For each misdeed a person commits, the Director of Allotted Life Spans subtracts days and sometimes years from their allotted life span. The Shījiě xiān method allows a person to live out the entirety of his or her allotted lifespan (whether it be 30, 80, or 400 years) and avoid the agents of death. But the body still has to be transformed into an immortal one, hence the phrase Xiānsǐ hòutuō (先死後脱 – “The ‘death’ is apparent, [but] the sloughing off of the body’s mortality remains to be done.”)

Sometimes Shījiě are employed by heaven to act as celestial peace keepers. These have no need to hide from retribution because they are empowered by heaven to perform their duties. There are three levels of heavenly Shījiě:

Dìxià zhǔ (地下主; “Agents Beneath the Earth”) are in charge of keeping the peace within the Chinese underworld. They are eligible for promotion to earthbound immortality after 280 years of faithful service.

Dìshàng zhǔzhě (地上主者; "Agents Above the Earth") are given magic talismans which prolong their lives (but not indefinitely) and allow them to heal the sick and exorcize demons and evil spirits from the earth. This level was not eligible for promotion to earthbound immortality.

Zhìdì jūn (制地君; "Lords Who Control the Earth") - A heavenly decree ordered them to "disperse all subordinate junior demons, whether high or low [in rank], that have cause afflictions and injury owing to blows or offenses against the Motion of the Year, the Original Destiny, Great Year, the Kings of the Soil or the establishing or breaking influences of the chronograms of the tome. Annihilate them all." This level was also not eligible for promotion to immortality.

These titles were usually given to humans who had either not proven themselves worthy of or were not fated to become immortals. One such famous agent was Fei Changfang, who was eventually murdered by evil spirits because he lost his book of magic talismans. Some immortals are written to have used this method in order to escape execution. [19]

Zhong Lü Chuan Dao Ji

Hé (和) and Hé (合), two immortals associated with happy marriage, depicted in Changchun Temple, a Taoist temple in Wuhan

The Zhong Lü Chuan Dao Ji (鐘呂傳道集/钟吕传道集; Anthology of the Transmission of the Dao from Zhong[li Quan] to Lü [Dongbin]) is associated with Zhongli Quan (second century C.E.?) and Lü Dongbin (ninth century C.E.), two of the legendary Eight Immortals. It is part of the so-called “Zhong-Lü” (鍾呂) textual tradition of internal alchemy (neidan). The text, which probably dates from the late Tang (618-906) dynasty, is in question-and-answer format, containing a dialogue between Lü and his teacher Zhongli on aspects of alchemical terminology and methods.[20]

The Zhong Lü Chuan Dao Ji lists five classes of immortals:

Guǐxiān (鬼仙; "Ghost Immortal"): A person who cultivates too much yin energy. These immortals are likened to Vampires because they drain the life essence of the living, much like the fox spirit. Ghost immortals do not leave the realm of ghosts. [21]

Rénxiān (人仙; “Human Immortal”): Humans have an equal balance of yin and yang energies, so they have the potential of becoming either a ghost or immortal. Although they continue to hunger and thirst and require clothing and shelter like a normal human, these immortals do not suffer from aging or sickness. Human immortals do not leave the realm of humans. [21] There are many sub-classes of human immortals.

Dìxiān (地仙; “Earth Immortal”): When the yin is transformed into the pure yang, a true immortal body will emerge that does not need food, drink, clothing or shelter and is not effected by hot or cold temperatures. Earth immortals do not leave the realm of earth. These immortals are forced to stay on earth until they shed their human form. [21]

Shénxiān (神仙; "Spirit Immortal"): The immortal body of the earthbound class will eventually change into vapor through further practice. They have supernatural powers and can take on the shape of any object. These immortals must remain on earth acquiring merit by teaching mankind about the Tao. Spirit immortals do not leave the realm of spirits. Once enough merit is accumulated, they are called to heaven by a celestial decree. [21]

Tiānxiān (天仙 – “Celestial Immortal”) – Spirit immortals who are summoned to heaven are given the minor office of water realm judge. Over time, they are promoted to oversee the earth realm and finally become administrators of the celestial realm. These immortals have the power to travel back and forth between the earthly and celestial realms.[21]

Qualities of Immortals

Over the centuries, the term "xian" came to refer to beings with supernatural powers, but some scholars believe that the early Taoist "xian" referred to a person who was one with the Tao. Sinologist Holmes Welch identified the origins of Taoism, sometime around the fourth-third centuries B.C.E., as four separate streams: philosophical Taoism (Laozi, Zhuangzi, Liezi), a "hygiene school" that cultivated longevity through breathing exercises and yoga, Chinese alchemy and Five Elements philosophy, and those who sought Penglai and elixirs of "immortality." He concluded that though the early Taoists Zhuangzi and Liezi used the word “Immortal” ("xian") they did not believe in or condone the possibility of a supernatural existence. The magical powers they spoke of were intended to be allegories and hyperboles for the "natural" powers that come from identification with Tao, and the images in early texts of Spiritualized Man and Mount Penglai were meant to entertain and evoke reflection, not to be taken literally. Their texts were later adopted as scriptural authority by practitioners of magic and those who sought to become immortal.[22]

According to Dr. Victor H. Mair, a specialist in early Chinese vernacular, xian as described in Chinese texts were impervious to heat or cold, unaffected by the elements, and possessed the ability to fly. They lived on air and dew, and had smooth skin and innocent faces like children. They dwelt in a realm apart from the chaotic human world and did not suffer from anxiety or uncertainty.[23]

See also


  1. Kristofer Schipper. The Taoist Body. (Berkeley: University of California. 1993), 164
  2. translation by James Legge Retrieved January 20, 2009.
  3. Burton Watson, tr. The Complete works of Chuang Tzu. (New York: Columbia University Press. 1968), 122-123
  4. Watson, 1968, 130
  5. Watson, 1968, 32
  6. Watson, 1968, 33
  7. Livia Kohn. The Taoist Experience: an anthology. (Albany: State University of New York Press. 1993), 142-144
  8. David Hawkes, tr. The Songs of the South: An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets. (Penguin Books. 1985), 194
  9. Hawkes 1985, 240
  10. Hawkes 1985, 266
  11. Hawkes 1985, 318
  12. Daoist Texts in Translation. Louis Komjathy, 2004.
  13. Komjathy 2004, 43
  14. Robert Campany, To Live As Long As Heaven and Earth: Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2002), 21
  15. Campany 2002, 22-23
  16. Lai Hsi,. The Sexual Teachings of the Jade Dragon: Taoist Methods for Male Sexual Revitalization. (Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books. 2002), 99-100
  17. Campany 2002:31
  18. Campany 2002, 52-60
  19. Campany 2002, 52-60
  20. Komjathy, 2004, 57
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 Eva Wong. The Tao of Health, Longevity, and Immortality: The Teachings of Immortals Chung and Lü. (Boston: Shambhala. 2000).
  22. “It is my own opinion, therefore, that though the word hsien, or Immortal, is used by Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu, and though they attributed to their idealized individual the magic powers that were attributed to the hsien in later times, nonetheless the hsien ideal was something they did not believe in—either that it was possible or that it was good. The magic powers are allegories and hyperboles for the natural powers that come from identification with Tao. Spiritualized Man, P'eng-lai, and the rest are features of a genre which is meant to entertain, disturb, and exalt us, not to be taken as literal hagiography. Then and later, the philosophical Taoists were distinguished from all other schools of Taoism by their rejection of the pursuit of immortality. As we shall see, their books came to be adopted as scriptural authority by those who did practice magic and seek to become immortal. But it was their misunderstanding of philosophical Taoism that was the reason they adopted it.” Holmes Welch. Taoism: The Parting of the Way. (Boston: Beacon Press. 1957), 95.
  23. "They are immune to heat and cold, untouched by the elements, and can fly, mounting upward with a fluttering motion. They dwell apart from the chaotic world of man, subsist on air and dew, are not anxious like ordinary people, and have the smooth skin and innocent faces of children. The transcendents live an effortless existence that is best described as spontaneous. They recall the ancient Indian ascetics and holy men known as ṛṣi who possessed similar traits." Victor H. Mair, Wandering on the Way: early Taoist tales and parables of Chuang Tzu. (New York: Bantam. 1994), 376.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Akahori, Akira. "Drug Taking and Immortality," in Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques, ed. Livia Kohn. 73-98. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1989. ISBN 0892640847
  • Blofeld, John. Taoism: The Road to Immortality. Boston: Shambhala. 1978. ISBN 1570625891
  • Campany, Robert Ford. To Live As Long As Heaven and Earth: Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. 18-31, 52-60 and 75-78. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. ISBN 0520230345
  • DeWoskin, Kenneth. "Xian Descended: Narrating Xian among Mortals." Taoist Resources 1990. 1(2): 21-27.
  • Fox, Alan. Zhuangzi, in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World, Ian P. McGreal ed., HarperCollins Publishers, 1995, 99-103. Retrieved January 20, 2009.
  • Hawkes, David, tr. The Songs of the South: An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets. Penguin Books. 1985. ISBN 0140443754
  • Hsi, Lai. The Sexual Teachings of the White Tigress: Secrets of the Female Taoist Masters. 48. Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books, 2001. ISBN 0892818689
  • Hsi, Lai. The Sexual Teachings of the Jade Dragon: Taoist Methods for Male Sexual Revitalization. 99-100. Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books. 2002. ISBN 0892819634
  • Kohn, Livia. The Taoist Experience: an anthology. Albany: State University of New York Press. 1993. ISBN 0791415791
  • Komjathy, Louis. 2004. Daoist Texts in Translation. Retrieved January 20, 2009.
  • Mair, Victor H. Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. New York: Bantam. 1994. ISBN 0553374060
  • Robinet, Isabel. "The Taoist Immortal: Jesters of Light and Shadow, Heaven and Earth" Journal of Chinese Religions 1986. 13/14:87-106.[1] Retrieved January 20, 2009.
  • Schipper, Kristofer. The Taoist Body. Berkeley: University of California. 1993. ISBN 0520082249
  • Schuessler, Axel. ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 2007. ISBN 0824811119
  • Watson, Burton, tr. The Complete works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press. 1968. ISBN 0231031475
  • Welch, Holmes. Taoism: The Parting of the Way. Boston: Beacon Press. 1957. ISBN 0807059730
  • Wong, Eva. The Tao of Health, Longevity, and Immortality: The Teachings of Immortals Chung and Lü. Boston: Shambhala. 2000.

External links

All links retrieved May 20, 2023.

  • Xian – Encyclopedia of Religion


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.