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Lǐ Xuán 李玄 (=Lǐ Níngyáng 李凝阳) = A child who loves Daoism
Gold Flash of Tàibái Mountain (Tàibái Jīnxīng 太白金星) = a rather forceful immortal
Lǎozǐ 老子 = the founder of Daoism
A little boy, an old man, various monsters, mountain spirits, wild tigers, &c. and a carnivorous hermit
In the Táng 唐 dynasty (period 12), in the city of Luòyáng 洛阳, the wife of a very rich man named Lǐ Qí 李奇, had a dream in which a Daoist appeared and gave her a baby. When she awoke, the room was filled with bright light and a wonderful smell. Some months later, she indeed did bear a child, a remarkably cute little boy. They named him Lǐ Níngyáng 李凝阳 (which meant “concentrated life” or something very like that which it is not dignified to inquire too closely about). But as he grew older, they noticed that, although still extremely cute, he was a bit odd. For one thing, he showed no interest in becoming an imperial official. For another he kept wanting to wander off and practice the Way. He even insisted on being called Lǐ Xuán 李玄, which meant “Lǐ the Mysterious.”
One day, when he was somewhere in his teenage years and when his impressive childhood cuteness had given way to stunning adult handsomeness, an immortal came floating down on a cloud into the Lǐ household. He called himself Gold Flash of Tàibái Mountain (Tàibái Jīnxīng 太白金星), a place in Shāanxī province. He was, of course, the same immortal who had appeared to little Lǐ Xuán’s mother, although it took the family a little while to work that out. Xuán was delighted, and he was quick to learn from this visitor of his pre-birth adventures.
It developed that he had previously been a Daoist himself, devoted to doing good deeds. But one of them had gone wrong when he tried to retrieve a woman’s corpse from a body of water and inadvertently damaged it. He was so ashamed and depressed, that he died. (Some people say there was more to it than that, but if you think so then you should probably be ashamed too.)
Because he had meant well, the story goes, he had been reborn into the wealthy Lǐ family. Knowing all this, Lǐ Xuán was even more eager to go with Gold Flash of Tàibái to study the Way. His father naturally resisted this, but Gold Flash suddenly filled the room with a blinding light, and when Lǐ Xuán’s father could see again, Xuán and the Daoist had vanished, sliding away on a ray of bright light.
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When Xuán himself opened his eyes, he did not know where he was, but he was alone and outdoors. He wandered aimlessly for a bit, and then encountered a boy looking after a cow, who told him that he was at the foot of Huáshān 华山 mountain, a very Daoist place to be. The boy led Xuán to meet his father, a surprisingly old man who was wise in all things. When Xuán explained that he wanted to go up the mountain and learn about the Way, the old man told him that Huáshān had 81 peaks and 36 caves, each of which had its own particular spirit. Sun Watch Peak (Guānrì Fēng 观日峰) at the north end and Purple Cloud Cave (Zǐxiá Dòng 紫霞洞) to the south were used by Lǎozǐ 老子 himself for alchemy, and it was said that he was often to be found in these parts. That meant of course that all sorts of seekers came to the mountain looking for him. Some went up the mountain and never came back. They may have met Lǎozǐ. Or they may have been eaten by tigers and leopards. Those who came back had never met Lǎozǐ, only dangerous animals.
If Lǐ Xuán had been sensible, this would have frightened him. But then if he had been sensible, he probably wouldn’t have set out to practice the Way. (Besides, he was a teenager, and teenagers are often made of sturdy stuff just as they are often foolhardy). So the next day he headed up the mountain, where he bravely overcame various mountain spirits and fierce animals. On the following day he got lost, and just as he was wandering in despair, he suddenly detected a terrible smell, and out stepped an unbathed hermit from behind a tree. A Daoist hermit, bathed or not, was of course the very thing Xuán was looking for, and he dropped to his knees and asked to become the man’s disciple. “Of course,” smiled the hermit. “I’ve been waiting for you.” And together they walked to a carefully concealed cave.
As soon as they entered, the hermit summoned a whole group of servant demons, who quickly tied Xuán up and stoked up a fire under a huge pot so they could cook him for dinner. Knowing that his situation was hopeless and his fate was inevitable, Xuán told the demons not to bother dumping him ignominiously into the pot; he would bravely jump in himself. And with a great leap, that is what he did.
Now as it happened, the water in the pot, for all the fire that had been burning under it for a long time, was quite cool because none other than Lǎozǐ himself had noticed what was going on and had decided to intervene to save this sincere, if naïve, lad from the smelly pseudo-Daoist hermit and his horde of carnivorous demons.
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And that is how Lǐ Xuán came to learn Daoist arts from the greatest master of all, Lǎozǐ, the Ultimate Supreme Old Gentleman (Tàishàng Lǎojūn 太上老君), master of all knowledge, who dared to know that the Way was unknowable.
But Xuán did still feel a bit guilty about having been spirited away, as it were, by Gold Flash of Tàibái Mountain, and so, now that he had become an accomplished Daoist himself, he returned to his aging parents and taught them about the Way, and they too became adepts, able to perform magic. After they died and he had properly mourned their passing, some say that Lǐ Xuán traveled to Lúshān Mountain 庐山, another very Daoist place, and others say that he travelled to the Zōngnán Mouijntains 中南山. That is where we find him in the main story.
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Sources: The main story of Lǐ Tiěguǎi 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:
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