Zhang Guolao: How necromancer, hooligan became immortal and saint

Taoist stories about saints are not at all like Christian hagiographies. The enlightened Taoist person does not exactly embody the qualities that are commonly regarded as benefactors by us. He may be a knave (or even a swindler), an alchemist, a bully, a drunkard… And even a necromancer! He gets away with everything, and even more than that – the Universe supports him in every way on the roads of trickery. It’s a different paradigm out there. And the best embodiment of the principle of holy trickery is Zhang Guolao, whose name is Zhang Guo, one of the incredibly revered “Eight Immortals.” And yet, at first glance, he is just a drunkard and a hooligan.

There’s a concept in Taoism that I like so much – any fool can become enlightened (even an official, which Taoists didn’t like very much). The main thing is the right concentration, luck, and optimism. Basically, it’s like gambling. That’s why some of the most revered saints, the Eight Immortals, are so much like the people you’d want to spend an evening at the bar with.

One, for example, patronizes warriors and cool hairstyles, another casts fireballs and knows how to shrink so that he can sleep in a gourd. Another one (or one) seems to be a transvestite actor altogether (the information varies). And all of them are not fools to drink. Sometimes they’re even called “The Eight Immortal Drunkards. I’ll tell you even more: the various schools of combat in Drunken Master with Jackie Chan refer to just these life-loving saints.

Zhang Guolao seems to be the most interesting of the eight. He lived in the 7th-8th centuries during the Tang Dynasty and was a kind of rock star at the time. Fangshi were wildly popular at that time – occultist-alchemists (with a strong admixture of magicians).

In general, Taoist esoteric showmen, and Guolao was one of them. He was respected among the people and at court and was so badass that he could have sent the emperor himself when he asked him to marry his daughters and become a minister. Another man would certainly have been sentenced to bamboo execution or something like that, but Zhang got away with it.

He was, of course, a sly one. He shrugged off the same imperial proposal by saying that he had already been a minister hundreds of years before at the court of the ancient Emperor Yao, who at the same time helped invent the calendar. The next time the same proposal came from another emperor, he faked his death. Legend has it that Zhang agreed, but on his way to visit the emperor, he dropped dead at the “Temple of the Jealous Woman”, and then he fled the country and soon returned “resurrected.” The trick here is that you can’t execute a man who is already dead (even if he is resurrected). All in all, it’s gone again.

Zhang Guolao is depicted as an old man with a white beard who rides a mule, often backwards, reflecting his Trickster nature (as well as his eccentric knowledge, which is far from ordinary knowledge). He carries a drum made of bamboo and fish skin, as well as some sticks for it. And he always carries with him a little magic elixir, an alcoholic tincture of secret herbs, which he prepared for his fellow saints.

They would all get together to drink this elixir and have fun. After all, what good is immortality if you spend it in dejection? Actually, no kidding, the same “Kung Fu Panda” humorously depicts a version of Taoist paradise – someplace, either a monastery or a commune – where saints are busy exploring the world, alchemy, martial arts, and at the same time comprehending the wonder of endless friendship and adventure.

It was not for nothing that Zhang Guolao gave up his ministerial position – ministers at court lost their heads more often than chickens at the cook’s court. And he wanted to live longer, the more so, he liked to travel to all sorts of beautiful places, surprise peasants with their tricks and engage in alchemy and qigong. He doesn’t know about alchemy, but qigong is really the thing. The main thing is to find a teacher who’s not a crazy esoteric but a cunning guy who does gymnastics just for fun and health.

The peasants, of course, remembered Guolaos more for their tricks. So there are plenty of stories about how he made himself invisible, drank water from the petals of poisonous flowers, caught birds on the fly with his hands, and made flowers fade just by pointing his finger at them. In principle, Zhang can be understood: that life among peasants is not good, it’s not a sin to please them with funny tricks sometimes. It doesn’t cost Fangshi anything, and it’s a holiday for the poor souls.

Most of the time, Zhang roamed the country on his mule, which was magical; at night, the immortal would turn him into a paper mule, and in the morning, he would turn him back into a real one by dropping saliva on him. But sometimes, Guolao got tired of traveling and returned to his dacha on Mount Tiaoshan, where he engaged in alchemy, moonshining, and necromancy. Such were the man’s hobbies.

True, necromancy should not be understood as the summoning of armies of the dead but as something more pleasant. Zhang summoned the spirits of the ancients, chatted with them, and learned secrets (peacefully and amicably). They also taught him how to bring dead people back to life, just in case, and at least once, it came in handy.

One day Zhang’s colleague, who is also a Fangshi, only rejuvenated in terms of abilities and serving at the court, found himself in a difficult situation. His Majesty wanted to know at all costs who this mysterious Zhang Guolao really was. Zhang’s colleague replied that if he told the secret, he would die, but the emperor was not deterred. The troublemaker obeyed and gave out: “Zhang Guolao is a white metaphysical bat that came out of primordial chaos,” after which he immediately died. The ashamed emperor had to apologize to Zhang to forgive him and resurrect the court man, and he did, not as a zombie, but as a normal human being-in, short, good necromancy.

And soon, Zhang Guolao himself died – he came to the crypt on Mount Zhongtiao, lay there, and never got up again. But it seems to have risen again: the students came to check on the body, but it was not there again he outsmarted everyone.

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