Zhang Guolao | Chang Kuo-lao

  • Zhang Guolao, part of the Ba Xian or Eight Immortals in Taoist legends
  • An incarnation of primeval chaos pre-dating Earth's creation
  • Patron of childless couples and newlyweds
  • Emperor's pursuit of Zhang Guolao's true identity leads to a Taoist master's sacrifice
  • Zhang Guolao's portrayal as an elderly man riding a mule facing backward
  • Mule's magical abilities to fold into a scrap of paper and revive with water
  • Zhang Guolao's diverse powers, including invisibility and granting offspring to couples

Zhang Guolao in Taoist Legends

Zhang Guolao is one of the "Eight Immortals" of Daoism. Originally a Daoist priest during the Tang Dynasty, he was skilled in magical arts and often lived in seclusion in Zhongtiao Mountain, Hengzhou, traveling between Fenhe and Jinhe. It is said that he lived for several hundred years, earning the honorary title "Zhang Guolao."

According to tales from Taoism, Zhang Guolao is part of the BA XIAN, recognized as the Eight IMMORTALS. Born in the eighth century B.C., Zhang Guolao is described as an elderly figure, believed to be a manifestation of the original CHAOS that predates the creation of the EARTH. He holds a special significance as the protector of couples struggling with infertility and newlyweds.

Zhang Guolao and the Emperors of the Tang Dynasty

In a particular narrative involving Zhang Guolao, an emperor grew curious about him and sought answers from a Taoist master. However, the master hesitated, warned that disclosing Zhang Guolao's true identity would result in immediate death. Eventually, the master relented, but only under the condition that the EMPEROR humble himself by approaching Zhang Guolao barefoot and bareheaded. The emperor agreed, and upon the revelation of Zhang Guolao's identity, the master succumbed to death. Overwhelmed with remorse, the emperor sought forgiveness by finding Zhang Guolao, who, in a benevolent gesture, revived the Taoist master.

According to historical records, two Tang Dynasty emperors invited Zhang Guolao to their palaces to discuss Daoism.

One was Wu Zetian, who had heard about Zhang Guolao's reputation as a reclusive old Daoist with great fame. It was said that he possessed secret longevity techniques or even immortality skills. She repeatedly sent envoys to invite him, but Zhang Guolao politely declined each time.

Another was Tang Xuanzong, who in the 21st year of the Kaiyuan era, sent an official named Pei Wu to personally invite Zhang Guolao. When Pei Wu found him, Zhang Guolao had lost most of his teeth and hair, with a snowy white head and a hunched back. He pretended to die in front of Pei Wu, but after Pei Wu burned incense and sincerely expressed the emperor's earnest desire to learn from him, Zhang Guolao gradually regained consciousness. Later, Tang Xuanzong sent Xu Qiao, a scholar in the Secretariat, to invite him again, bestowing upon him the title of "Master of Profound Comprehension." When Zhang Guolao entered the capital to meet the emperor, he instantly transformed into a man with dark hair and a youthful appearance, surprising the emperor. Xuanzong was overjoyed and considered marrying his daughter, Princess Yuzhen, to Zhang Guolao. However, Zhang Guolao politely declined, and soon he returned to the Ascension Cave in Ruozhuo Mountain to continue living the life of a Daoist immortal, feeding deer, raising cranes, and riding his donkey through the mountains.

Zhang Guolao Riding a White Donkey Backward

According to folklore, Zhang Guolao frequently traveled around with a bamboo cylinder slung over his shoulder, riding a white donkey backward, journeying across the land while spreading Daoist teachings and encouraging moral behavior. His white donkey could travel 10,000 miles in a day, but at night, Zhang Guolao would fold it up into paper and store it in a box. During the day, he would sprinkle water on the paper, and it would transform back into a donkey.

Zhang Guolao's choice to ride a donkey backward stemmed from his philosophical reasoning. He believed that riding a donkey facing forward could be disrespectful, as he would be facing away from people, while others might feel slighted having their backs turned toward him. On the other hand, riding backward, he faced toward others, which he considered polite, and they faced his back, which seemed fair.

Zhang Guolao and He Xiangu

Legend has it that He Xiangu, another of the Eight Immortals, once came to visit Zhang Guolao. After bathing in a stream in front of the Ascension Cave, she was applying makeup when suddenly a strong wind arose, lifting her powder into the air, where it mingled with the clouds above and mixed with the mountain mist below. In a moment, the powder whitened the trunks of the green pine trees all around, creating the white-barked pine trees we see today. Zhang Guolao came to greet He Xiangu, finding her with her hair neatly styled, her face as lovely as a peach blossom. As senior and junior disciples, they exchanged polite greetings before entering the cave mansion. After settling in, a young attendant served tea, and they shared casual conversation about Daoist practices. He Xiangu glanced around and noticed a traditional ink painting of a mountain landscape. Spontaneously, she recited, "An old painting, no birds call, no people smile, and no trees sway." Zhang Guolao was taken aback, recalling a game of Chinese chess he'd played earlier with Master Dong, and he instantly responded with a matching couplet: "Half a game of chess, no smoke from cannons, no saddles on horses, and no wheels on chariots."

Zhang Guolao's Mystical Abilities

Artistic depictions commonly portray Zhang Guolao as an aged man with a lengthy gray beard and a floppy cap, riding a white mule facing backward. The mule possesses extraordinary capabilities, covering vast distances without resting. At night, Zhang Guolao would fold the mule into a tiny piece of paper and store it in his wallet. To revive the mule, a mere squirt of water onto the wallet would bring it back to life. Zhang Guolao's legendary powers extended to invisibility and the ability to bestow children upon childless couples and newlyweds.