Once Upon a Time in Penglai

Recently I was surprised by a friend who was using the word “zen” and didn’t know it’s origins in Buddhism. She thought it was just “a cool word which meant peace”.

Words enter other languages and become ‘borrowed words’ and take on new meanings in the process of cultural absorption.

The word “dao” has come into English usage relatively unharmed. It usually refers to the Chinese religion or philosophy of Daoism. The concept has become widespread in the west, with all kinds of best-sellers gracing the bookstores, from “The Tao of Pooh”, to “The Tao of Sales”, the “Tao of Vegetable Gardening” to “The Tao of Dating” and “The Tao of Travel”.

Goodness, there is even a “Tao of Twitter” and “The Tao of User Experience”!

 dao zi

In Chinese, the word is dào , which literally means “the way”.

The earliest – and still most famous – Daoist text is 老子Laozi’s 道德經 dàodéjīng.

There are a myriad translations of this classic text available online and in the bookstores.

The word and concept of 道dào, especially with respect to 道教 dàojiào, Daoist religion, needs no explanation in China.

Are the thoughts and principles of Daoism widespread in China? Census studies won’t give the answer, because the answer is intrinsically linked with how people live their lives.


Penglai Fairyland, on China’s eastern coast

Once upon a time in Penglai, I arrived late in the afternoon after a long, rickety bus-ride through rural Shandong – and headed straight to the newest restaurant, as people are want to do in China.

All over the restaurant were altars dedicated to Lu Dong Bin, one of China’s famous Eight Immortals. Waiters would come in and perfunctorily bow before Ancestor Lu’s image before delivering food, in a very casual, every-day kind of way.

Penglai is known in China as “Penglai Fairyland” – the place where the Eight Immortals crossed the sea. Lu Dong Bin, living in the Tang dynasty ( approx. 6-700 AD) and seven of his fellow Daoist practitioners, became immortal by walking on water – or crossing the sea by doing magical tricks on the waters off the coast of Penglai.

It’s the stuff of legend.

I asked the shop’s proprietor, over long-life noodles and greens with shitake mushrooms, if she believed in the literal truth of this.

Without thinking, she immediately replied, “of course” as she served more dishes.

“We all hear count Luzu as our Ancestor,” she said. “My grandparents told me the story of how he became immortal and crossed the sea at Penglai, and their grandparents told them.”

She poured green tea into the chinked china cups.

“We are all descendants of Luzu here. Of course it’s real.”

And with that, she went of to serve more customers.

To the people of Penglai, the Daoist deity Lu Dong Bin, who is revered by the       Dragon Gate school Daoists, is more than a ‘god’ – he is family, one of their town’s ancient inhabitants.


“Make sure you go to see Penglai castle,” the proprietor called out as I was leaving. “It’s Lu Dongbin’s home.”

Unknown-2蓬莱阁   Penglai Ge – Penglai Castle at Penglai, where the Eight Immortals Crossed the Sea