Lü Tung Pin: a Taoist Immortal
excerpted from The Eight Taoist Immortals: Legends and Fables of Popular Taoism, translated and edited by Kwok Man Ho and Joanne O’Brien (New York: Meridian Books, 1991), pp. 23-25.
Lü Tung Pin, one of the legendary the Eight Immortals of popular Chinese folklore, is said to have been born in the year 798 CE at Yung-lo Hsien. In many of the stories as recorded in Chinese, the picture of life given is very much that of the prosperous T'ang dynasty. This has led scholars to place the earliest traditions of the Eight at the end of the T'ang dynasty with the full corpus of tales developing during the Sung dynasty (960 -- c.1260 CE) and reaching their fullest "official" form by the time of the Yuan dynasty (1260-1368 CE).
Lü Tung Pin is the most popular of the Eight Immortals. His statue can be found in most temples in towns and villages and many grottoes are dedicated to him on the sacred mountains of China. He is, venerated for two reasons. Firstly, because he is associated with medicine and with the elixir of life. For example, if you are ill but not sure of what to do, then you pay a visit to one of Lü Tung Pin's grottoes or go to his shrine in the temple. There, using the old fortune telling method of a bamboo container filled with numbered sticks, you offer sincere prayers, describe your symptoms and then shake the container. When a stick falls out, you note the number and go to the prescription shop within the temple grounds or at the base of the mountain. Here you report your number and receive an herbal prescription to take to the herbalist. Lü Tung Pin is the doctor of the poor.
Lü Tung Pin also has power over evil spirits and through charms. He is usually shown carrying a large sword, his symbol when the Eight are symbolically represented. The sword is known as Chan-yao Kuai, the Devil Slayer. With this sword he is able to capture and tame all evil spirits if he is invoked correctly. Lü Tung Pin's other symbol is a bushy fly whisk, a traditional symbol of one who can fly at will. The field of these Chinese symbols or charms is an enormous one and still immensely popular. The yearly Almanac (the Tung Shu) contains many pages of charms and most Chinese homes will have at least two or three charms pinned to the walls to prevent illness or ward off evil. Lü Tung Pin is seen in the popular imagination as the source of many of the most efficacious charms, although his main source of power is his sword.
In fact, the sword is one of the most potent symbols or charms in Taoism. The other great producer of charms, whose picture appears in almost all yearly almanacs, is the founder of religious Taoism, Chang Tao Ling. His descendents were made into sort of hereditary Taoist "Popes," although they had none of the power or authority which the West associates with such a title. The Celestial Masters, as they were known, dwelt at the base of Mount T'ien-mu in Kiangsi province until the mid 1930's when they were chased out by the Communists. The greatest possession of the Celestial Masters was an ancient sword, said to destroy or trap devils. This sword was supposed to have been the very one which Chang Tao Ling received from Heaven back in the early second century CE. Thus the use of a sword as a charm against evil spirits is common to both Chang Tao Ling, the Celestial Masters and Lü Tung Pin.
Anyone requesting Lü Tung Pin's help will worship at a temple where appropriate charms can be bought to cover most needs. The medical and magical often merge, for beside many shrines or grottoes of Lü Tung Pin is a container of clear water, usually spring water. This is seen to have magical powers since it is in close proximity to the shrine. For simple ailments, it is enough to drink the water. For certain ailments, a charm is bought, burnt and the ashes added to some of the water, which is then drunk. Finally, for very special ailments, a skilled Taoist Master will make an invisible charm. The Master traces, with his finger, the characters of this charm over a bowl full of water which is then drunk.
Note: for an interesting and philosophically suggestive myth involving Lü Tung Pin, please click here.