Liexian Zhuan

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The Liexian Zhuan (Chinese: 列仙傳/列仙传; pinyin: Lièxiān zhuàn; Wade–Giles: Lieh-hsien chuan; "Collected Biographies of Immortals"), edited by Liu Xiang (c. 79-8 BCE), was the first Daoist hagiography. This collection of legendary xian ("immortal; transcendent") biographies preceded the Shenxian zhuan (神仙傳 "Biographies of Divine Immortals") attributed to Ge Hong (283-343 CE).

Like Liu Xiang's book the Lienü zhuan, the Liexian zhuan follows the lièzhuàn (列傳 "arrayed biographies") biographical format established by the historian Sima Qian. It contains brief hagiographies, with appended hymns, for early Daoist figures such as Huangdi and Laozi, who are reputed to have been xian (仙 "transcendent; immortal; celestial being; fairy; genie"). In the description of Giles (1948:13), the Liexian Zhuan: "contains tersely worded notices of 72 persons of every rank and station, ranging from purely mythical beings to hermits, heroes, and men and women of the common people." Here is a typical hagiography.

[Mashi Huang 馬師皇] was a horse doctor in the time of the Yellow Emperor. He knew the vital symptoms in a horse's constitution, and on receiving his treatment the animal would immediately get well. Once a dragon flew down and approached him with drooping ears and open jaws. Huang said to himself: "This dragon is ill and knows that I can effect a cure." Thereupon he performed acupuncture on its mouth just below the upper lip, and gave it a decoction of sweet herbs to swallow, which caused it to recover. Afterwards, whenever the dragon was ailing, it issued from its watery lair and presented itself for treatment. One morning the dragon took Huang on its back and bore him away. (tr. Lionel Giles)

There are no full English translations of the text analogous to the French one by Kaltenmark (1953), but selected biographies are translated by Lionel Giles (1948). The Liexian Zhuan is discussed by Wu and Davis (1934), Campany (1996), and Eskildsen (1998).


  • Campany, Robert Ford. (1996). Strange Writing: Anomaly Accounts in Early Medieval China. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-2660-2
  • Eskildsen, Stephen. (1998). Asceticism in Early Taoist Religion. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-3955-0
  • Giles, Lionel. 1948. A Gallery of Chinese Immortals. London: John Murray. 1979 reprint. New York: AMS Press. ISBN 0-404-14478-0
  • Kaltenmark, Max, tr. (1953), Le Lie-sien tchouan: Biographies légendaires des immortels taoïstes de l'antiquité. Beijing: Université de Paris, Publications du Centre d'études sinologiques de Pékin. 1987 reprint Paris: Collège de France.
  • Wu, L.C. and Davis, T.C. (1934). "Ko Hung's biography in Lieh-hsien chuan," Journal of Chemical Education, pp. 517-20.

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