The legend of the Eight Deities probably began in the Tang Dynasty, and the story varies with the dynasties. The characters, according to the post-Ming Dynasty version, were Han Zhongli, Zhang Guolao, Han Xiangzi, Tie Guaili, Cao Guojiu, Lu Dongbin, Lan Caihe, and He Xiangu. Very different in appearance and personality, the eight were great deities in the Taoist school, and they often gathered together.
Cao Guojiu was the relative of an Emperor; Tie Guaili was crippled and walked with a stick; He Xiangu was a young and attractive woman; Zhang Guolao looked very healthy in his old age and often rode backward on a donkey. Han Xiangzi was the nephew of Han Yu, a famous writer in the Tang Dynasty and was fond of playing the flute; Han Zhongli was always seen with a palm-leaf fan in his hand.
Throughout their journeys, the eight deities encountered various people and situations, many of which have been passed down as stories. One parable involves Lu Dongbin's thwarted effort to offer salvation to human beings.
Lu Dongbin had once pledged to Han Zhongli to save all sentient beings. But he had yet to save a single person, so he made a trip to the Yueyang area. He had been there twice before in attempts to reach out to common people. Yueyang is now an administrative district in the Hunan province of China, on the shores of Lake Dongting.
Lu Dongbin disguised himself as an old man selling cooking oil. Using selling oil as a pretext to meet and select his prospects, and if a customer appeared not to be greedy asking for more oil than what he had paid for, he could offer him salvation. So he went about selling oil for a number of years, during which time the customers he met, except for an elderly woman, all greedily made excessive demands. The elderly woman however, only took what she had paid for, and not a drop more.
Surprised, Lu Dongbin thought that finally he had found some one salvageable. He asked the woman: "Everyone who comes to buy oil wants to get extra except you. Why not?" The woman replied: "I am satisfied with just a pot of oil besides, its not easy for you to make a living selling oil. How could I take more?" Then she offered Lu Dongbin some liquor to express her gratitude.
Lu Dongbin felt she was a good prospect and intended to offer her salvation. When he discovered that there was a well in her yard, he dropped several grains of rice in it. He told the old woman: "You can make a fortune selling the water in the well. " Then he left. The old woman turned and found that the water in the well had been transformed into liquor. As Lu Dongbin suggested, the old woman sold the liquor in the well and made a fortune within a year.
One day Lu Dongbin came by the old woman's place. The old woman was not at home; only her son was in. Lu Dongbin asked him: "How has the business been selling liquor?"
"The business is okay, but there are no distillers grains to feed the pigs" the son replied. At these words, Lu Dongbin sighed to himself: "Peoples' insatiable greed has reached this deplorable extent." So he took back the grains of rice in the well and left.
Shortly, the old woman returned. Her son told her what happened. She went to the well and took a look. The liquor in the well had turned into water. The old woman rushed to the door, but Lu Dongbin had long gone.
Lu Dongbin left Yueyang for Lake Dongting and left a poem in lament of humankind: "Thrice to Yueyang unrecognized, hum a verse as I cross Lake Dongting."
This story is adapted from Journey to the East, a program by international television station New Tang Dynasty TV.