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  • Ways to ImmortalityIn Popular and Daoist Tales
  • Wang Xiaoyang (bio) and Bao Yan (bio)
    Translated by Livia Kohn

Chinese traditional culture is full of stories of immortals, both in folk religion and Daoism, however, the religious experience they refer to is not the same. While Daoist practitioners attain immorality during their lifetime, first reaching extended longevity, then ascending into heaven after the physical body falls away, popular religion tends to describe immortality as a transformation that only occurs after death. Immortality in the former is a continuation of life after longevity; in the latter, it is a rebirth with no particular emphasis on long life. Daoism and popular religion, therefore, represent two different trajectories of life, alternative forms of the religious experience. To examine this feature more closely, we have studied immortal motives in oral folktales from Jiangsu, looking at how they describe and experience of longevity and immortality.

In the 1980s, China launched a nationwide fieldwork campaign to collect folk literature. Under the guidance of professional scholars, the campaign—unprecedented in the scale of its activities—used field surveys and questionnaires to collect materials from all over the country, creating a direct record of the people’s oral heritage. Millions of items were assembled and eventually published in three major encyclopedias, focusing on folktales and stories, proverbs and sayings, as well as folk songs, respectively—presenting China’s largest and most authoritative collection of folk literature. Within the encyclopedia of folk tales, moreover, [End Page 149] the volume on Jiangsu contains a total of 591 stories. It forms the foundation of our research.

Three Ways of Becoming Immortal

The Jiangsu volume contains 88 stories on immortals, 35 of which focus on the process of attaining the divine state—making up a relatively large proportion. All these tales describe how an ordinary mortal reaches advanced celestial stature, but their methods are not the same. Three major ways can be distinguished: perfecting special skills, doing good deeds, and receiving help from the gods.

Special Skills feature in three stories, focusing on excellence in self-cultivation practice rather than ritual or magical methods. Also, practitioners here tend to be social outsiders, not part of mainstream culture. This is a point of major difference to Daoism, whose practitioners tend to be socially integrated and members of mainstream society. For example, the “Sanguan laoye de chuanshuo” 三官老爷的传说 (The Story of the Three Officials) says:

The Three Officials were originally born in Shaanxi. They were three brothers who all greatly enjoyed doing good and giving to charity. Later they underwent Daoist training and attained immortality. The oldest, profound in his training, was most concerned with heaven, thus he became the Official of Heaven. The second was most concerned with earth, thus he became the Official of Earth. The third was most concerned with water, thus he became the Official of Water.

The other two tales that focus on skills are “Zhang Lata beibaota” 张邋遢 背宝塔 (Sloppy Zhang Carries the Treasure Pagoda) and “Baixian zaomi” 八仙造米 (The Eight Immortals Create Rice).

Doing good deeds is the way to immortality in 15 Jiangsu stories. Their motifs overlap to a certain degree with those featuring special skills, however, here content tends to focus more on the material as opposed to the spiritual level of life. “Good” in these folk stories typically refers to actions that come with a positive reward and often center on daily affairs, where the realities of life are most intense. An example is “Fengxian de zaoshen” 丰县的灶神 (The Stove God of Feng County): [End Page 150]

The Stove God originally was an ordinary mortal, who lived the life of a dissolute spendthrift. Eventually he came to repent and regret his earlier deeds, jumped into a large vat and boiled himself to death. The Jade Emperor, learning of his fate, appointed him as the Stove God.

Other tales of the same ilk include “Zhang Lata bei gege” 张邋遢背哥哥 (Sloppy Zhang Carries His Brother), “Liu Mengjiang de chuanshuo” 刘猛将的传说(The Tale of Liu Mengjiang), and “Gege, woku” 哥哥我苦(Brother, I Hurt).

Getting help from gods and immortals is the main way to ascension in 17 Jiangsu stories. While other types may also feature some divine support, the major distinguishing feature here is that...