Eight Immortals

One of the Chinese gods that the atheists in Wisconsin claimed was “dead” was “Royal Uncle Cao,” also known as Cao Guojiu. Cao Guojiu, however, is still worshiped in China.

Cao Guojiu is one of the Eight Immortals (Ba Xian), who were all originally humans that attained immortality. In his The Lunar Tao: Meditations in Harmony with the Seasons, Deng Ming-Dao explains who Cao Guojiu is:

[…] an old, bearded man dressed in royal robes and carrying a pair of clappers [castanets]. The younger brother of the mother of a Song emperor, he was ashamed of how the nobility killed the common people so lightly and so often. Disillusioned, he retreated to a mountain cave to practice Taoist austerities. (322)

Elsewhere, Deng says that in addition to castanets, Cao Guojiu is sometimes depicted holding “plaques required for admission to court,” and that he “represents the nobility” (124). But back to the story: Cao eventually met two of the other Immortals (Han Zhongli and Lu Dongbin), who tested him by asking where Heaven was. Cao pointed at his own heart, whereupon the two Immortals invited him to join them.

Note for those planning to include Cao Guojiu in their rituals: I haven’t found any liturgy yet, but I’ll keep on looking.


One famous temple to the Eight Immortals is located in Xian, the capital of Shaanxi Province (and an old imperial capital as well). It is said to be the largest Daoist temple in the city of Xian today. A temple/monastery was first built in the Song Dynasty, but most of the buildings there today were built during the Qing Dynasty.

Historical sidenote: in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, when foreign forces invaded Beijing, the imperial family fled to Xian and took refuge at the Monastery of the Eight Immortals.

There is also a famous temple in Penglai, Shandong Province. “Penglai” (蓬莱) is both the name of an actual city, and of a mythical island in the ocean where the Eight Immortals live. The city of Penglai is said to be the location where the Eight Immortals “got drunk” and began floating across the ocean, presumably on their way to the island of Penglai.


Temple of the Eight Immortals, Penglai. Credit: Two Otters.

Deng Ming-Dao on Apotheosis

Deng Ming-Dao’s book has a page for each day of the lunar year. On Cao Guojiu’s birthday, the 2nd day of the 10th moon, his meditations were upon apotheosis and “gods once human” (322). Some of his thoughts are especially pertinent to the discussion around atheism and proselytizing (emphasis is mine):

Perhaps this is just a macro- and communal extension of ancestor worship. Perhaps it happens because seeing how people become holy encourages us to believe that there are higher levels to human existence.

Cynics will say that this only proves that religion is fantasy, and a use of myth to shape societal attitudes. Others may object to the idea that humans can become gods: they want gods who are supreme […]

In general, the Chinese and Taoist attitude is not to proselytize. If you’re curious about the gods and temples, people will happily invite you in. If you’re not interested, people will hardly thrust pamphlets in your face or invade your house with their gods. So the right way to understand the gods is simply to meet them and see if their stories resonate with you. If they do, then you’ve gained something, as you would from any other happy encounter with another.

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