Tie Guai Li | Li T’ieh-kuai

  • Introduction to Li Tieguai, the first of the Eight Immortals
  • Connection to Taoism and immortality through teachings of Lao-tzu
  • Tragic incident of discipleship, burning of the body, and soul wandering
  • Acts of compassion, including resurrection and healing
  • Influence on Zhongli Quan and his role in the Eight Immortals
  • Unique abilities like walking through furnaces and shrinking to fit inside a gourd

The Immortal with an Iron Crutch

Tieguai Li, also known as Li Tieguai, is traditionally named Li Ningyang, Li Hongshui, Li Xuan, and Li Yue. His nickname is "Guai'er", and he also goes by the self-styled name Li Kongmu. He is one of the Eight Immortals in Taoism. Legend has it that he can protect blacksmiths and beggars.

The initial among the renowned Eight IMMORTALS, or BA XIAN, in the Taoist divine realm, is Li Tieguai. Also recognized as "Li with the Iron Crutch," artistic representations often portray him as a beggar reliant on a crutch, bearing a MEDICINE GOURD in hand or suspended around his neck. Revered as the guardian of pharmacists, Li Tieguai's prominence stems from Taoist beliefs.

Li Tieguai's Immortality and Taoist Connection

In accordance with Taoist lore, Li Tieguai achieved immortality as the foremost immortal, guided by LAO-TZU, who imparted the principles of TAOISM and the mysteries of nature. His escapades are recounted in various tales, featuring his ability to detach his spirit from his body, traverse the world, and safely return. Notably, he is associated with leaving his body in the care of a disciple, leading to a poignant incident.

The legendary Stories of TieGuai Li

Lü Dongbin Saves Tieguaili Yue

《Lü Dongbin Saves Tieguaili Yue》 is a Yuan dynasty opera created by Yue Bochuan. It is a divine comedy that extols the miraculous powers of gods and Buddhas, and the enlightenment of guiding people into the path of immortality. However, it also reflects the realistic life of Yuan society, as those who achieve immortality transcend from the mundane life of ordinary people, which naturally involves depicting the realities of society.

Yue Shou, a senior official in Zhengzhou, abuses his power. When Lü Dongbin discovers his potential for immortality, he comes to enlighten him. However, instead, Yue Shou hangs Lü Dongbin. The honest investigator Han Weigong arrives in Zhengzhou to investigate, saving Lü Dongbin but getting himself hanged by Yue Shou. After being extorted for money, Han Weigong is released. Upon learning Han Weigong's identity, Yue Shou becomes frightened and falls seriously ill, eventually dying. Lü Dongbin goes to the underworld to help Yue Shou regain his soul, accepts him as a disciple, and saves him from punishment. However, since his body has already been cremated by his wife, Lü Dongbin has to borrow the body of Xiao Li Tu, the son of an old butcher, to revive Yue Shou's soul. Lü Dongbin gives him the new name Li Yue, with the alias Tieguai. After returning to life, Lü Dongbin waits until Li Yue achieves success, and then guides him to become immortal.

Act I

It is written that the protagonist, Liu'an Dokou, is a member of the Zhengzhou Fengning County known for his integrity and efficiency in handling cases. He is nicknamed "xxxx" and is a diligent official. However, he holds immense power in the yamen, inevitably engaging in corrupt practices due to the excessive authority he wields. When the Eight Immortals arrive to enlighten Yue Shou, they label him as a "headless ghost" destined to die on the current day of the current month and year. They insult his son Futong as a "worthless brat" and his wife Li as a "widow". Yue Shou's subordinate, Zhang Qian, suspends Lü Dongbin and plans to interrogate him. At this moment, Han Weigong, disguised as a farmer, arrives and frees Lü Dongbin. Yue Shou then arrests Han Weigong for "abusing official authority". Zhang Qian attempts to extort money from Han Weigong, boasting about Yue Shou's importance and referring to himself as "Little Eagle". When Zhang Qian notices the golden token in Han Weigong's possession, he initially mistakes it for a "bed wiper", only to be startled upon realizing its true value. It turns out Han Weigong is the "honest investigator" appointed by the emperor to patrol with a "sword and golden token". Yue Shou's confrontation with Han Weigong leads to him falling ill due to the offense caused, unable to rise from his bed.

Act II

It is written that upon learning of Yue Shou's illness, "he goes to the yamen to check the documents, finding not a single error in the case files". After reviewing the cases he handled, it is believed that Yue Shou "is an able official". Consequently, the magistrate of Zhengzhou sends Sun Fu, with "ten taels of salary", to visit and console Yue Shou, also conveying the message from the Han Duke: "When Yue Shou recovers, he will still be used in the cases as before." Feeling hopeful about his recovery, Yue Shou entrusts his wife and children to Sun Fu's care, instructing Li to not remarry. Eventually, Yue Shou dies due to ineffective treatment for his fright-induced illness.

As for the epilogue, it depicts Yue Shou in hell after his death. Yama instructs "ox-headed and horse-faced" demons to heat up nine cauldrons of boiling oil and place a coin inside, instructing Yue Shou to retrieve it himself. At this moment, Lü Dongbin arrives and enlightens Yue Shou, accepting him as a disciple and asking Yama to release his soul. However, because Yue Shou's wife has already "cremated his body", it is impossible to retrieve his soul. Therefore, it is decided to borrow the body of "Xiao Li Tu, the son of Qingyan, an old butcher from Fengning County, Zhengzhou", who had died of illness three days prior, to bring Yue Shou's soul back. The body belongs to Xiao Li Tu, but the soul is Yue Shou's, and despite being physically disabled and unsightly, he takes on the name Li Yue, with the alias Tieguai, and returns to the mortal realm.

Act III

It is written that when Yue Shou returns to the mortal realm and goes to the home of Li Tu in Qingyan, Dongguan, Zhengzhou, he claims, "Although it is my body, the corpse belongs to Li Tu, and my soul is Yue Shou's. The three souls are not complete, and one soul is still in the City God Temple." He uses the excuse of retrieving his soul from the City God Temple as a reason to return to his own home. In this scene, Yue Shou reflects on his past mistakes and repents multiple times, saying, "In the past, as an official, I twisted the truth, deceived myself, harmed others, and disrupted families. The sins of the past are now punished." He also compares himself to a butcher, saying, "Although a butcher kills and harms, it is still better than me, an official, who deceives and harms others. His boiling pig soup is not as hot as my concentrated ink. His knife for slaughtering dogs is not as quick as my finished brush. Although he kills and harms for a living, I have accepted a few coins from others and changed my ways. Such actions are shameful and disgraceful, tarnishing the hearts of the people. How many pig livers and trotters can offset it? It is like weighing the sizes of life. It is not as commendable as me, using pus and blood to exchange for someone's clothing." The play deeply exposes the darkness and corruption in Yuan Dynasty society and officialdom, making it unique.

Act IV

It is written that after Yue Shou returns home, his wife does not recognize him and mistakes him for a "chaotic-looking stranger". After Yue Shou recounts his experiences in detail, Mrs. Li finally acknowledges him. At this moment, Old Li Tu also arrives to search for his son. As both families cannot resolve the dispute, they bring it to the attention of Magistrates Han and Wei, but even they cannot settle the matter. Finally, Lu Dongbin arrives and reveals the karmic reasons behind the situation. Yue Shou bids farewell to his family, singing, "From this day on, I have repaid my wife's grievances, and my heart has no more concerns. I bid farewell to the realm of worldly affairs and brush off the dust from my face. I will sever all worldly attachments and follow my heart freely. I only fear displeasing my master, so I will depart from the secular world and seek the path to heaven." With these words, he leans on his iron staff and willingly follows Lu Dongbin to become a monk.

At this moment, various immortal beings appear, and celestial music plays. They sing, "Han Zhongli has a righteous heart, Lu Dongbin has vast knowledge, Zhang Guolao has great powers, Lan Caihe's clappers resound in the clouds, Han Xiangzi's immortal flowers bloom in the twelfth month, and Zhang Guo's old donkey gallops swiftly. We visit the Seven Immortals and travel to the islands, accompanying the Eight Immortals to Penglai."

Iron Crutch Li's Soul Return

Before becoming immortal, Iron Crutch Li, originally named Li Xuan, was a bright young man who could comprehend the subtleties of the Dao. He abandoned scholarship to pursue the Dao, eventually reaching the peak of Mount Hua, where he found traces of the Supreme Old Lord. The Supreme Old Lord took him as a disciple and imparted the marvelous Taoist arts of the Great Clearness.

After practicing these arts, Li Xuan could project his primordial spirit out of his body. Despite his achievements, he felt he was still missing something on the path to immortality. Perplexed, he decided to project his primordial spirit to the place where the Supreme Old Lord cultivated to seek guidance on his missteps.

Li Xuan summoned his disciple Yang Zi and said, "My disciple, my primordial spirit will journey to the immortal realm to seek enlightenment. This body will remain here. Guard it for seven days. If I do not return after seven days, it means I have died. Then, bury my body." After instructing his disciple, Li Xuan projected his primordial spirit to Mount Hua to visit his master, the Supreme Old Lord.

His disciple guarded Li Xuan's body for six days and nights. On the seventh day, suddenly, the family of Yang Zi came looking for him, saying his mother was critically ill and close to death, urging him to return home to take care of her. Yang Zi was torn between guarding his master's body and returning home. He waited until noon on the seventh day, ascertained that Li Xuan's body had turned cold, and decided to bury his master before rushing home to tend to his sick mother. However, in the haste, he couldn't prepare a coffin or dig a grave. He came up with a clever idea and gathered dry rice straw and firewood. He cremated Li Xuan's body hastily and rushed home to care for his sick mother.

When Li Xuan's primordial spirit returned, he couldn't find his body anywhere. Anxiously searching, he saw a tombstone not far away inscribed with the words "Grave of Esteemed Master Li Xuan." Li Xuan was overjoyed to see this and quickly dug up the grave. To his dismay, he found no body inside, only a jar of ashes. Shocked to see his body, which he had cultivated for many years, burned by his disciple, Li Xuan felt despondent.

Once the soul and body were separated for seven days, they would be eroded by the Yin energy of the earth. The Yang spirit would be contaminated by impurities, and the only path left would be to practice as a ghost or a celestial being in Fengdu. With the sun setting and the Yin energy thickening, Li Xuan had to find a new body. He suddenly saw a drunkard's corpse by the riverside and hastily possessed it without hesitation.

As his primordial spirit returned to its place, it happened to be at the very last moment of the seventh day. Li Xuan couldn't help but feel relieved. After calming down, he realized that the body he possessed was crippled, filthy, infested with fleas and lice, covered in ulcers and sores, and completely bald except for a few sparse hairs. Seeing his reflection in a mirror at home, Li Xuan was shocked by his grotesque appearance. He couldn't help but feel extremely sad, considering his previously handsome appearance compared to his current ugliness and congenital disability.

At this moment, a Daoist in white robes appeared. It was Li Xuan's master, the Supreme Old Lord, who looked young despite his white hair. Seeing his disciple's new appearance, the Supreme Old Lord nodded and smiled, saying, "My disciple, if Heaven favors beauty and despises ugliness, then is it still Heaven?" Li Xuan suppressed his sadness and replied, "Heaven is impartial, and beauty and ugliness are equal in its eyes. Only then can it be called Heaven." The Supreme Old Lord then asked, "If an immortal favors beauty and despises ugliness, is he still an immortal?" Li Xuan was speechless for a moment, pondered, and answered, "Immortals transcend worldly concerns. They do not care about wealth, status, offspring, or beauty. If an immortal cannot let go of wealth, status, offspring, or beauty, he cannot attain freedom and is not worthy of being called a deity." Li Xuan felt enlightened after speaking these words and no longer cared about his appearance. He transcended worldly constraints and attained the marvelous Tao, becoming the foremost immortal among the Eight Immortals.