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"But when they have drunk too much, Their deportment becomes light and frivolous—They leave their seats, and [遷] go elsewhere, They keep [僊僊] dancing and capering." (tr.James Legge) Needham and Wang (194) suggest xian was cognate with wu 巫 "shamanic" dancing.
Xian semantically developed from meaning spiritual "immortality; enlightenment", to physical "immortality; longevity" involving methods such as alchemy, breath meditation, and tai chi, and eventually to legendary and figurative "immortality". They dwell apart from the chaotic world of man, subsist on air and dew, are not anxious like ordinary people, and have the smooth skin and innocent faces of children.
While the early Zhuangzi, Chuci, and Liezi texts allegorically used xian immortals and magic islands to describe spiritual immortality, later ones like the Shenxian zhuan and Baopuzi took immortality literally and described esoteric Chinese alchemical techniques for physical longevity.
On one the hand, neidan (內丹 "internal alchemy") techniques included taixi (胎息 "embryo respiration") breath control, meditation, visualization, sexual training, and Tao Yin exercises (which later evolved into Qigong and T'ai chi ch'uan).
When the world is without the Way, he nurses his Virtue and retires in leisure.
And after a thousand years, should he weary of the world, he will leave it and [上] ascend to [僊] the immortals, riding on those white clouds all the way up to the village of God. Watson 190) Without using the word xian, several Zhuangzi passages employ xian imagery, like flying in the clouds, to describe individuals with superhuman powers.
Wu and Davis (194) suggested the source was jinn, or jinni "genie" (from Arabic جني jinnī).