The "''Li Sao''" , the most famous ''Chuci'' poem, is usually interpreted as describing ecstatic flights and trance techniques of Chinese shamans. The above three poems are variations describing Daoist ''xian''.
Some other ''Chuci'' poems refer to immortals with synonyms of ''xian''. For instance, "''Shou zhi''" , uses ''zhenren'' , which Wang Yi's commentary glosses as ''zhen xianren'' .
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 Immortals fluttering through the sky,
Ate of the Primal Essence to prolong my life.
The ''Liezi'' , which Louis Komjathy says "was probably compiled in the 3rd century CE ", uses ''xian'' four times, always in the compound ''xiansheng'' .
Nearly half of Chapter 2 comes from the ''Zhuangzi'', including this recounting of the above fable about Mount Gushe .
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 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.
Chapter 5 uses ''xiansheng'' three times in a conversation set between legendary rulers of the Shang Dynasty and Ji 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 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 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 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.'
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 .
Holmes Welch analyzed the beginnings of Daoism, sometime around the 4th-3rd centuries BCE, from four separate streams: philosophical Daoism , a "hygiene school" that cultivated longevity through breathing exercises and yoga, Chinese alchemy and philosophy, and those who sought Penglai and elixirs of "immortality". This is what he concludes about ''xian''.
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.
The ''Shenxian zhuan'' is a hagiography of ''xian''. Although it was traditionally attributed to Ge Hong , Komjathy says, "The received versions of the text contain some 100-odd hagiographies, most of which date from 6th-8th centuries at the earliest."
According to the ''Shenxian zhuan'', there are four schools of immortality:
– 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 , 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 is fetal breathing. Those who obtain 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 ."
Fàn – Ingestion of herbal compounds and abstention from the ''Sān Shī Fàn'' —Meats 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 , 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 . 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 to feel neither hunger nor thirst; in winter was not cold, in summer 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 , her body hair fell out; she turned old and died. Had she not been caught by men, she would have become a transcendent."
Fángzhōng Zhī Shù – . According to a discourse between the Yellow Emperor and the immortaless ''Sùnǚ'' , 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.
The ''White Tigress Manual'', a treatise on female sexual yoga, states,
“A female can completely restore her youthfulness and attain immortality if she refrains from allowing just one or two men in her life from stealing and destroying her essence, which will only serve in aging her at a rapid rate and bring about an early death. However, if she can acquire the sexual essence of a thousand males through absorption, she will acquire the great benefits of youthfulness and immortality.”
Dān – .
The 4th century CE ''Baopuzi'' , which was written by Ge Hong, gives some highly detailed descriptions of ''xian''.
The text lists three classes of immortals:
Tiānxiān - The highest level.
Dìxiān – The middle level.
Shījiě xiān - The lowest level.This is considered the lowest form of immortality since a person must first “fake” their own death by substituting a bewitched object like a bamboo pole, sword, or a shoe for their 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'' . 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'' to protect themselves from heavenly retribution.
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. This method allows a person to live out the entirety of their allotted lifespan and avoid the agents of death. But the body still has to be transformed into an immortal one, hence the phrase ''Xiānsǐ hòutuō''
Sometimes the ''Shījiě'' are employed by heaven to act as celestial peace keepers. Therefore, they have no need for hiding from retribution since they are empowered by heaven to perform their duties. There are three levels of heavenly ''Shījiě'':
Dìxià zhǔ – Are in charge of keeping the peace within the . They are eligible for promotion to earthbound immortality after 280 years of faithful service.
Dìshàng zhǔzhě - Are given magic talismans which prolong their lives 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 - A heavenly decree ordered them to "disperse all subordinate junior demons, whether high or low , 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. However, some immortals are written to have used this method in order to escape execution.
Ge Hong wrote in his book ''The Master Who Embraces Simplicity'',
The Dark Girl and Plain Girl compared sexual activity as the intermingling of fire and water , claiming that water and fire can kill people but can also regenerate their life, depending on whether or not they know the correct methods of sexual activity according to their nature. These arts are based on the theory that the more females a man copulates with, the greater benefit he will derive from the act. Men who are ignorant of this art, copulating with only one or two females during their life, will only suffice to bring about their untimely and early death.
''Zhong Lü Chuan Dao Ji''
The ''Zhong Lü Chuan Dao Ji'' is associated with Zhongli Quan and Lü Dongbin , two of the legendary Eight Immortals. It is part of the so-called “Zhong-Lü” textual tradition of internal alchemy . Komjathy describes it as, "Probably dating from the late Tang , the text is in question-and-answer format, containing a dialogue between Lü and his teacher Zhongli on aspects of alchemical terminology and methods."
The ''Zhong Lü Chuan Dao Ji'' lists five classes of immortals:
Guǐxiān – A person who cultivates too much energy. These immortals are likened to Vampires because they drain the life essence of the living, much like the . Ghost immortals do not leave the realm of ghosts.
Rénxiān – 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. There are many sub-classes of human immortals, as discussed above under .
Dìxiān – 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.
Shénxiān – 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.
Tiānxiān – 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.