Li Tieguai, or “Li with the Iron Crutch,” has been worshipped as the first of the Eight Immortals of Taoism since the 14thcentury in China. Li Tieguai is regarded as a divine saint and revered for his power to leave his body and wander the heavens and the earth. As the mythology says, returning from one of his spiritual travels, Li found his human body was burned and had to inhabit the body of a crippled beggar who dies of starvation. The crutch, tangled beard, and his scrawny chest become the recognized characteristics of his image in both literature and art.
To reveal Li Tieguai’s identity on this carving, the artist cleverly directs the viewers’ look onto his crutch by placing the strings of his bamboo hat and his right hand towards the crutch and his right foot stepping directly on the crutch. Li Tieguai turns his head backward with his mouth opening as if he was talking to those behind him. The corals and shells beneath him suggest the ocean scene of the most widely known legendary story when Li Tieguai crossed the sea with the rest of the Eight Immortals. His crutch, as the mythology tells, ferries him through the journey. The clouds above his head and the waves behind him are rendered in curvilinear forms to bring a sense of motion to the carving. A pair of bats the auspicious symbol of happiness in Chinese art, are also visible amidst the cloud.