THE last of the Eight Immortals we’ll meet is Zhang Guolao, easily recognized by the strange bamboo instrument he usually carries, and the fact that he’s often seen riding a donkey — backwards! This donkey can be folded up as a piece of paper, then reconstituted with a spit of water and a clap of the hands.
Zhang was an historical person from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), but there are many legends about him. One, about how he gained immortality, also explains why he faces the wrong way on his donkey.
It is said that he was born to a poor family, and by age 12 had to lead his old donkey around on a regular route to deliver vegetables grown on his family’s small farm.
Each day, he would stop in an abandoned temple to eat his meager lunch and rest. Usually satisfied, one day he woke up still tired and hungry. Smelling a delicious aroma, he followed his nose to a hidden corner of the temple where he found a pan of vegetables cooking.
Looking around for its owner, Zhang was overcome with hunger and, improvising chopsticks from two dried reeds he found, he began to help himself, feeding his donkey a bite now and then.
Unbeknownst to him, the pan had been placed there by a local schoolteacher who had been studying Taoism. The herbs in it would guarantee immortal life. Delayed in his return from school, the teacher arrived to see Zhang eating the last morsel.
Naturally, seeing this, he set out after Zhang. But in his haste, Zhang mounted his donkey backwards and bounced away. Suddenly, the escape became smoother, as the donkey had taken flight!