When immortals cross the sea

ABOUT a month before the Chinese New Year festival, you can see tents of arts and craft stalls occupying almost every open space next to a coffeeshop. On display will be figurines, vases and paintings of stallions (depicting speed, strength and stamina), fishes (financial surplus), flowers (rejuvenation), and a bunch of eight strange-looking characters crossing the sea.

No, these are not newly-minted American comic book heroes but the Eight Immortals of Taoist tradition.

Unlike the violence-prone American guys with angst and attitude problems (Batman, Spiderman, Ironman and even the Man of Steel), the Eight Immortals are more peaceful, laidback and easy-going. They hang out on mountain summits and in bamboo groves to sip wine, play chess and sit in meditation.

The only time they show some energy is when crossing the sea, each using his or her own special ability to do so. Hence, we have this much-quoted idiom:

bā xiān guò hǎi, gè xiǎn shén tōng

“When the Eight Immportals cross the sea, each uses his or her own special capability.”
Eight Immortals cross the sea, by Huang Yi
Eight Immortals, by gongbi painter Huang Yi, art graduate of Guilin Normal College

This popular proverb encapsulates the spirit of team work where individual members contribute their own strength and skill set, all to achieve a common goal.

The story goes that the Immortals were on their way to attend the Fairy Peach Conference 蟠桃會 when they encounter the ocean. Instead of relying on clouds to fly over, team leader Lu Dongbin proposed that they each exercise their unique powers to cross.

Lu Dongbin (755-805 Tang Dynasty) himself exemplifies lifelong learning and achievement, despite many setbacks, including failing the Imperial Exams twice (things haven’t changed much – if you want to succeed, you must first pass your exams!). In a much-quoted poem, he wrote that you can sit on the cushion until you’re blue in the face but you would still not get enlightened unless you’re correctly guided, hence the importance of a teacher.

The sub text of the Eight Immortals crossing the sea is the benefits of team work. When people of different abilities work together, they get certain productivity gains not possible when working alone.

First, the output of their combined work is usually much more than the total of the individuals each working on their own. This is usually phrased as “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”.
Second, the quality of team-based solutions are usually better because a single brain can’t bounce ideas off of each other. Also, with different members offering different points of views, the final decision is more complete in the sense that it covers more issues, addresses more challenges and anticipates more likely consequences.

Third, team work gets the job done faster. Single individuals do not have the time or energy that an entire team has when handling multiple tasks. The team can divide the tasks among themselves based on the abilities, passion and capability of each member.

Fourth, relationship is developed and deepened when team members work together over a long stretch of time. Stronger bonding is always good for any organisation.

Every one – mortal or immortal – has unique qualities and skill sets that help improve other team members. Through the sharing of these qualities, all members raise their own competence, enrich their knowledge stock and enlarge their own scope of work.

– Chinese New Year Day January 31, 2014

Contents Page