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Tales of the Eight Immortals 1 (Prequel)

Zhāng Guǒ Lǎo 张果老: The Prequel

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Dramatis Personae

ZHĀNG Guǒ (lǎo) 张果老 = a venerable Daoist, the product of several incarnations of efforts to attain the Way

ZHĀNG Tiānchéng 张天成 = his father

Tōnghuì 通惠 = a Daoist adept

The Venerable Wénměi (Wénměi zhēnrén 文美真人) = her master

SŪN Xiāncì 孙仙赐 = ZHĀNG Guǒ's earlier incarnation

SŪN Jié 孙杰 = his father

SŪN Jiāo’ér 孙蛟儿 = his annoying little brother

Various rats, bats, suffering masses, dragons, &c.

A Baby Appears, Then a Daoist

Long ago in the city of Luòyáng 洛阳 there lived a very wealthy man named ZHĀNG Tiānchéng 张天成, whose wife did not give birth to a son for many years, which made the neighbors gossip and caused him some nervousness and his wife great shame. Finally, when he was nearly 40, she bore him a son. They named the boy ZHĀNG Guǒ 张果, and his arrival made the whole family very happy. In addition to being very cute, he was also extremely intelligent. Indeed, he was able to talk as soon as he was born. That too made the neighbors gossip, but this time it was good gossip.

On the day that little Zhāng Guǒ turned 10, a rather strange lady came to the house. She explained that her name was Tōnghuì 通惠, and that she was a Daoist adept, and that she intended to take Zhāng Guǒ as a disciple and teach him the Daoist arts.

Among her skills, she could tell people about their previous lives, and she told the family about their previous incarnations, and why Zhāng Guǒ was destined to go with her. Here is what she told them:

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Zhāng Guǒ’s Prior Lives: From Rat to Bat

Zhāng Guǒ, she said, had been a nameless rat spirit long ago when the world was made, and in that form he had cultivated the Way for thousands of years. But that had not been enough study for him to become an immortal or even a human being. At the time of the mythical three emperors (period 01), he was working ever so hard to attain the Way in the vicinity of Guànkǒu 灌口 (which may have been in Fújiàn 福建 or may have been in Sìchuān 四川), when a terrible flood arose, caused, like all floods, by a flood dragon (jiāolóng 蛟龙).

A rat may not be able to become a human being, but it can do surprising things (as anyone with a granary well knows), and the rat was able to save many people in the flood, which gained him a good deal of merit. A Daoist master, the Venerable Wénměi (Wénměi zhēnrén 文美真人), therefore transformed him from a rat into a bat and took him as a student so that he might advance more quickly to achieve the Way.

Bats of course are very felicitous animals, spreading good fortune and happiness everywhere they go, and as a bat the future Zhāng Guǒ brought so much happiness to the people of Guànkǒu that they built him a wonderful temple and burned sweet-smelling incense to him every day. This of course aroused the envy of the flood dragon, who was already annoyed with the upstart animal for interfering with his beautiful flood, so when the bat was away in the mountains, the Flood Dragon attacked the temple and knocked it all to bits. On his return, the bat retaliated by using his Daoist arts to lift a mountain and pin the annoying flood dragon underneath.

When the Venerable Wénměi learned of all this, he was very impressed, and he decided that, since the temple was a lost cause anyway, it was time for his talented bat disciple to join the realm of humans.

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The Earthly Life of Sūn Xiāncì

And so it was that the bat became a human and was born into the family of a certain SŪN Jié 孙杰. Some years before, Sūn Jié’s wife had saved a snail whose life was endangered. In gratitude, the snail assiduously studied the Way, and when the wife died, the spiritually advanced snail managed to make herself human so she could marry Sūn Jié as a successor wife, since everybody knows that no man can long survive without a wife to look after him and make sure he behaves properly. Thus the bat’s human mother was actually an enchanted snail.

When the bat that was to become Zhāng Guǒ arrived as a baby Sūn, the Sūn family was filled with happiness. They named him Xiāncì 仙赐, which meant “Fairies’ Gift,” because his birth was obviously even more miraculous than most.

Life went smoothly in the Sūn household, and little Xiāncì soon grew into a handsome and precocious teenager. He had read all the classics by the age of fourteen, and memorized most of them, and so he showed every promise of turning into a government official and growing rich. Suddenly, when he was not quite 20, he encountered a Daoist, none other, as it happened, than the Venerable Wénměi, his master from way back when he been a rat just achieving bathood. Wénměi told him about his past lives, and as Xiāncì became aware of them, he was seized with an overwhelming desire to devote himself to the study of the Way.

The Venerable Wénměi assigned a female student by the name of Tōnghuì 通惠, to assist Xiāncì in his studies.

When Papa and Mama Sūn learned that Sūn Xiāncì wanted to leave them and cultivate the Way, they were horrified, for failing to pursue riches is what every parent fears in a child. Fortunately and unfortunately, Madame Sūn was already pregnant once again. She soon gave birth to a second son, whom they named Jiāo’ér 蛟儿.

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A Troublesome Little Brother

It was fortunate because with two sons, there was hope for Xiāncì’s plan to leave home to cultivate the Way, since he would not be leaving his parents without a son who could do them filial service. It was unfortunate because Jiāo’ér was in fact an incarnation of the flood dragon (jiāolóng 蛟龙) that Xiāncì had trapped under the mountain back when he was still a bat. (The character jiāo in his name should have given that away —who gives a kid a name like that?!— but who knew?) Becoming Xiāncì’s little brother was the first step in the dragon’s plan to destroy his hated bat enemy.

Jiāo’ér worked hard to become the favorite child, charming his parents but at the same time doing every sort of mischief and somehow managing to get the blame placed on his older brother. (Little brothers have done that from the beginning of time, of course, even when they are not vicious flood dragons. But only parents who have been brothers themselves see through the ruse.)

Finally, at about the age of 12, Jiāo’ér managed to poison Xiāncì, who promptly died.

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Moving On

Fortunately, Tōnghuì, the student of the Venerable Wénměi, was nearby, unseen, and as soon as Sūn Xiāncì had been duly buried, she was able to spade him up and bring him back to life.

“As long as everyone thinks you are dead anyway,” she told him, “you might as well go on with your study of the Way, just as you wanted to do.” And so Sūn Xiāncì, whom everyone thought dead and who had once been a rat and a bat, began to study the Way as the student of Tōnghuì, who was herself a disciple of the Venerable Wénměi.

Meanwhile his little brother Sūn Jiāo’ér, the former flood dragon, his vengeance having been accomplished, soon grew tired of life as the scion of the Sūn family, so he killed off his human father Sūn Jié, turned his human mother back into the snail that she had once been and locked her in her shell, and returned to his underwater dwelling.

When Xiāncì learned of this, he was filled with guilt. How could he have left his poor parents to the predatory designs of a little brother who had engineered Xiāncì’s own death? What had he been thinking of? How could he not have foreseen that Jiāi’ér would not be a filial son?! Diligently he studied the Way for another thousand years, hoping to develop the skill to liberate his mother and subdue the flood dragon once and for all.

When he had reached the level of accomplishment that was needed, he appeared in the womb of a woman married to a wealthy gentleman named Zhāng Tiānchéng 张天成, with whom our tale began, and who, to your surprise, dear reader, was a reincarnation of Sūn Jié, the father of Xiāncì, whom his little brother Jiāo’ér had killed. Zhāng Tiānchéng, of course, named the boy Zhāng Guǒ, which is also where we started.

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The end of Tōnghuì’s Tale

All of this is what the Daoist adept Tōnghuì explained when she visited the Zhāng family to take ten-year-old Zhāng Guǒ as her disciple. When he learned that he himself had once been Sūn Jié, and that he had been killed by a flood dragon posing as his younger son, and that Zhāng Guǒ (who was also Sūn Xiāncì as well as a rat and a bat) had a mission to protect the world from flood dragons and other malevolent forces, Zhāng Tiānchéng was naturally quite happy to let his beloved son go with the Daoist and advance his studies of the Way.

In the course of things, Zhāng Guǒ was able to liberate his snail mother —Madame Sūn— from her confinement, where in fact she had also been studying the Way. She immediately began a mission roaming the four seas to bring the Way to the sea creatures to liberate them from their discomforts. Zhāng Guǒ himself grew old and wise and extremely magical.

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Sources: The main story of Zhāng Guǒ lǎo derives from a whole range of sources, all of which treat of him when he is already an accomplished Daoist adept. This prequel contains much less common material, which I have found in only one source. That is:

SHǏ Xiùjuān 史秀娟
2006 Bāxiān guò hǎi. 八仙过海. Chángchūn (Hēilóngjiāng Province) 黑龙江长春市北方妇女儿童出版社. Pp. 2-22.
photo by DKJ
Daoist Temple Relief of the Eight Immortals

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