The Chinese philosophy Taoism emphasizes the harmony of the universe and following the Tao, or the "Way." The Tao can be understood as the pervasive spirit of the universe that we must align with in order to live a good life. Also prevalent in Taoism are Immortals (hsiens) who have transcended physical limitations, attaining superhuman powers and the ability to travel to other worlds. The idea of immortality, however, has changed over time. In particular, there is what we can call "worldly immortality" as well as "otherworldly immortality." The change of otherworldly immortality to worldliness is explained in this paper:
From "Life and Immortality in The Mind of Han China" by Ying-shih Yu (1965):
"The whole development of immortality both as an idea and as a cult from its beginning in the late Warring-States period down through Han times may be best characterized by one word: worldliness...The process of the worldly transformation of immortality is particularly well illustrated by the changing views on the life of hsien immortals. In pre-Ch'in literature the hsien is portrayed only as a secluded individual wandering in the sky, in no way related to the human world. But in Han literature we begin to find that the hsien may sometimes also enjoy a settled life by bringing with him to paradise not only his family but also all his chattels of his human life."
First of all, for a sense of context, the Han dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China that lasted from 206 BC to 220 AD, though much of what is spoken of here is applicable to other periods of Chinese history.
To understand immortality, we must first look at longevity. Longevity is one of the most ancient desires sought after by the Chinese people. They have studied longevity and have striven to create drugs and other practices to prolong life, such as certain exercises (e.g., what is known as fetal breathing), abstaining from certain foods, meditation, and, strangely, by metamorphosing into a bird. This, however, is not the same as the later concept of a Taoist Immortal. Longevity is about extending your life to enjoy earthly things, even if it involves helping others or learning more; it is not about leaving the world to go to a higher place.
Such is the concept of "worldly immortality," extending our mortal life and what we have in it. It may involve living for long periods of time, hundreds of years, perhaps, though not indefinitely, so it's technically not immortality, though it was still called immortality in some periods. Magicians and philosophers such as the fangshi (see my previous post on the fangshi) were highly sought after by Emperors and princes who wanted to prolong their life, offering them such things as "drugs of no death" and promises of becoming immortal if they followed the guidance of the fangshi.
In contrast, "otherworldly immortality" involved becoming a true Immortal. Taoists believed that the Tao, or Heaven, produces life, and that the Earth nurtures it. The Earth is often associated with Te, or virtue, which is the way people must act in order to live in accordance with the Tao. Te is our inherent nature, which is tied to morality. When we truly live in accordance with our inner nature, we can become immortal, because the Tao is eternal, and aligning to the Tao can lead to personal immortality. Those who sought otherworldly immortality wanted to eventually leave Earth and live as a hsien immortal in higher worlds. These sages studied the esoteric arts, the hexagrams of the I Ching, and most often became recluses living away from human society in mountains or caves as they meditated and reflected upon the world. They could develop super-human powers, such as the enlightened monks who practice kung-fu, as commonly seen in movies where they have super-powers including the ability to fly.
The most well-known Immortals are the Eight Immortals, seen in the picture below:
The idea of true immortality came into existence much later in China than longevity, around the fourth century BC. Some people believe this idea was imported from other cultures (India? Egypt? I'm not entirely sure), though others hold the belief that it arose from extending the prevalent ideas of longevity. Attaining immortality and longevity often involved similar practices, such as meditation, martial arts, and the exercises previously spoken of. Yet otherworldly immortality focused on leaving the world rather than extending one's life within it. There is, however, a large overlap between the two notions.
During the Han period, the concept of worldly and otherworldy immortality blended together, largely due to the popularization of immortality by the fangshi, with promises that people could live forever by taking elixirs or engaging in peculiar activities. Thus, the otherworldly immortal became more "worldly," as we saw in the quote. Much of the spiritual nature of true immortality was lost by those engaging in elaborate means to become immortals while still retaining all their power and wealth on Earth. There was little interest in the otherworldly life of the true immortal. For example, the emperor Ch'in Shih Huang thought that there was a land of immortals past the Eastern sea, which he sent envoys to search for. This is different from the traditional idea of hsien immortality, which was not about finding a place of immortality on Earth, but ascending beyond it. In addition, Emperor Ch'end-ti had 683 sacrificial halls built with the hopes of meeting gods and hsien there. It is also thought that Emperor Han Wu-ti expanded his empire westward in order to find Mount K'un-lun where immortals lived, and he went to conquest the city Ferghana because they supposedly had "Heavenly Horses" which he believed could communicate with the hsien immortals for him. The traditional view of a reclusive, ascetic immortal was thus changed to someone who could still pursue worldly pleasures. So, as the author says, "the demarcation line between otherworldly and worldly immortality had become increasingly blurred." Indeed, even people who lived exceedingly long lives were often called immortals, which only furthered the shift of otherworldly to worldly immortals.
Yet despite this tension between the desire for worldly and more transcendent immortality, the concept of the true hsien immortal has been carried down through history. It is also similar to many other traditions that depict spiritual adepts with superhuman abilities, including the ability to live forever, in some cases, remaining in this world, or, in the ideal case, venturing beyond to a higher place.