The Eccentric Taoist Deity Zhang Guolao
He was a Taoist who lived during the Tang Dynasty. Zhang Guolao—also known as Elder Zhang Guo—is perhaps one of the most eccentric of the Taoist eight immortals.
Zhang is often portrayed as an old man with a long white beard, riding on his white donkey, seated facing backward. Some have stated that Zhang rode the donkey sitting backward because he discovered that going forward is moving backward.
Zhang noticed that human society had regressed from the divine principles of heaven and becoming more corrupt. Yet ordinary people saw this as progress. So he decided to sit backward on his donkey.
One story has it that Zhang could ride on his donkey for up to 1,000 miles a day. He could shrink his donkey paper-thin, fold, and tuck it away in a box. And when he needed the donkey, he spat on it, and the donkey would regain its normal size.
As the oldest of the eight immortals, it was believed that Zhang was born during the Yao era, making him more than 3,000 years old.
According to The book of Tang Dynasty, Zhang was a real person who lived in Zhongtiao Mountains in the south of China’s Shanxi Province.
Several emperors tried to persuade Zhang to serve them and share his secrets of immortality. Emperor Tang Gaozhong invited Zhang repeatedly. Zhang declined each time.
Empress Wu Zetian also tried to invite Zhang. When her imperial messengers arrived at Zhang’s home, they found his dead body decaying and covered with maggots. After the envoys left, Zhang got up and walked away.
Later the Tang Emperor Xuanzong asked Zhang to be his adviser. Again Zhang declined. The emperor then asked Zhang, “You have already attained the Tao, but why do you look so old, with so little hair and few teeth?”
Zhang replied: “To get this old, I don’t have any method to follow, so I have turned out to look like this. It’s embarrassing. But if I pull out my few white hairs and break my teeth, can’t I get new ones?” He then pulled all his hair out and knocked out his teeth. But shortly afterwards, Zhang appeared completely transformed, with black hair and new white teeth. Everyone at the palace begged him to reveal his secret. But Zhang declined and disappeared again.
Another emperor implored Zhang to visit the palace, with the promise that Zhang would not be pressured into service. Zhang went to the palace, entertained the emperor with his supernatural abilities, and never revealed his secrets. The emperor then asked the court magician, who said, “I dare not disclose Zhang’s identity, for if I do, I will die.” The magician continued: “If anything happens to me, after I tell you who Zhang really is, you must take off your crown, your shoes, and ask for forgiveness.” The emperor agreed and the magician dropped dead, as soon he said Zhang was a white bat spirit.
The emperor indeed removed his crown, took off his shoes, and knelt down to ask for forgiveness. Zhang appeared and said: “This man knew the consequences, if he revealed the secrets of heaven.” The emperor replied, “It was my fault he died. Let me take the punishment.” Seeing the integrity of the emperor, Zhang revived the magician.
After Zhang passed away, his disciples found his tomb empty when they opened it. Emperor Tang Xuanzong ordered a shrine built on Heng Chou Mountains to honor the Taoist immortal.
It’s believed that Zhang wrote a treatise on astrology—a system of heavenly divination that’s still used by Chinese today.