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FANGSHI . The fangshi ("specialists in occult prescriptions"), also called "magicians" and "recipe masters," and later known as daoshi ("specialists in the Way") were important contributors to the development of religious Daoism. They were experimental philosophers and occult technicians who, in the course of their observations of nature and search for physical immortality, created a body of prescientific knowledge that formed the basis of Chinese medicine, pharmacology, chemistry, astrology, divination, and physiological alchemy. A major part of this knowledge was later incorporated into the Daoist religion.

The origin and precise meaning of the term fangshi are far from certain; but they may have developed from the wu, shamans or sorcerers who were involved in mediating between the human and spiritual realms from the earliest times in Chinese court and village life. By the second century bce the term was used to refer to a group of practitioners of various esoteric arts who were generally outside the literati mainstream. These practitioners apparently maintained their own texts and lore and transmitted their knowledge from master to disciple, yet they have never been regarded as constituting a distinct philosophical school. This is perhaps due to the fact that, while early historians respected their arcane skills, they did not hold them in very high regard and only recorded events in which these abilities were used to strive for political power. The fangshi were most influential in China during a period of roughly six hundred years beginning in the third century bce.

While in later times they came from various areas on the periphery of the empire, the fangshi were first associated with the coastal states of Qi and Yan (now Shantung), and it is here in about 330 bce that we hear of them encouraging local rulers to set out to sea in search of the holy immortals (xian ) who possessed the potions of immortality. Though their exact relationship to the Naturalist school first systematized by Zou Yan (340270 bce) remains unclear, we know that they took the ideas of this school as the philosophical basis for their observations of nature and their various experimental techniques. According to this Naturalist philosophy, all phenomena are infused by one of the Five Phases (wuxing ) of Energy (qi ), namely, Earth, Fire, Water, Wood, and Metal. Phenomena infused with the same phase of energy influence and resonate with one another, and these phases themselves spontaneously transform according to their own inherent laws, and so influence all things from the succession of seasons to the succession of dynasties.

When the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuangdi, united the country in 221 bce, fangshi from Qi and Yan flocked to his court. Their influence there is clearly attested to by the historical records. The emperor believed that he had come to power because the energetic phase of water had gained ascendancy in the world, and so he adopted water as the symbol of his reign. He also sent expeditions to search for Penglai, the Isle of the Immortals, and was himself devoted to the quest for immortality.

In the succeeding century and a half, the cult of immortality flourished, and its principal proponents, the fangshi, were influential among the ruling elite. Their power reached its zenith under Han Wudi (14087 bce), who appointed a number of them court officials when they promised to contact the immortals and to provide him with their secrets of avoiding death. On the advice of these specialists in occult prescriptions, the emperor undertook expeditions both to the eastern seacoast and to the sacred Kunlun mountains in the west in quest of these secrets. He also reinstated ancient sacrifices to the spirits, the most important of which were the feng and shan sacrifices on Mount Tai. According to the fangshi, the feng and shan sacrifices had last been performed by their patron and ancestor, the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), who thereupon had achieved immortality. The ultimate failure of these endeavors was discouraging to Emperor Wu, and after his reign the influence of these esoteric masters declined considerably on a national scale.

On the local level, however, the fangshi were still powerful at the courts of a number of vassal states. The most notable was the state of Huainan, whose ruler, Liu An, was sponsor and editor of the important philosophical compendium the Huainanzi. Liu An died in 122 bce after his presumed rebellion was discovered by imperial authorities, but according to legend, the fangshi gave him and his family a potion of immortality and they all ascended to heaven to live forever. It is interesting to note that rulers of several other vassal states in which the specialists in occult prescriptions were influential during the next two centuries also plotted (unsuccessful) rebellions and that a number of them were associated with Wang Mang, who seized the reins of the empire for fifteen years early in the first century ce.

The surviving records show the fangshi to have been involved in a wide range of experiments aimed at lengthening life and avoiding death. Their experimentation with transmuting cinnabar to mercury and gold in the search for the potion of eternal life is regarded as the origin of Chinese alchemy and chemistry. Their creation of various plant and animal compounds for health and longevity is the basis of the long Chinese pharmacological and medical traditions. Their respiratory and gymnastic techniques, methods of dietary hygiene, and various "bedroom arts" are among the earliest examples of physiological alchemy. The fangshi were also adept at shamanistic trance and at contacting and influencing spirits and demons. Mantic practices were also an important aspect of their tradition. Some of the large cache of medical and divinatory texts excavated at Mawang dui in 1973 are likely representative of fangshi writings.

Ultimately a large part of the knowledge and practices of the fangshi found their way into the Daoist religion. Their occult practices and philosophies included breath cultivation and a cosmology of the Dao that are also the hallmarks of the famous foundational works of the Daoist religion, Laozi and Zhuang Zi, as well as some lesser known texts such as "Inward Training" (Nei-yeh ), a fourth century bce poetic work included in the Guan Zi that contains the oldest extant Chinese discussion of meditation and its results. The fangshi maintained their own independent learning centers throughout the Han dynasty and their lore and practices formed the foundations of the organized Daoist religion that coalesced around a few charismatic fangshi leaders between 140 and 184 ce. The oldest source of religious Daoism, the Taiping jing, is said to have been authored by fangshi and was presented to the imperial court by one in 140 ce. They also wrote a collection of now lost subaltern commentaries on the Confucian classics, the Zhanwei ("Wei Apochrypha") that were also transmitted outside government sanctioned circles. Because the rise of Daoism as a religious and political force during the second century ce took place largely outside the purview of the official historians who are our main sources, the precise role of the fangshi in the beginnings of the Daoist religion is difficult to clarify. However scholars have been able to identify textual influences between Han dynasty fangshi works and the later Shang qing ("Highest Clarity") and Lingbao ("Numinous Treasure") Schools of Religious Daoism.

See Also

Alchemy, article on Chinese Alchemy; Daoism, overview article; Liu An; Xian; Yinyang Wuxing.


There are three Western-language sources devoted exclusively to the fangshi. Ngo Van Xuyet's Divination, magie et politique dans la Chine ancienne (Paris, 1976) contains an accurate translation of all the fangshi biographies in the History of the Latter Han (Hou Han shu ) as well as excellent supporting material including a detailed discussion of the historical context of the biographies and appendices on the various esoteric techniques of the fangshi. Kenneth J. DeWoskin has published one article and one book on the fangshi. "A Source Guide to the Lives and Techniques of Han and Six Dynasties Fangshi," Society for the Study of Chinese Religion Bulletin 9 (1981): 79105, is a valuable list of biographical sources and makes an important attempt to define the fangshi and delineate their activities. Many of the biographies listed in this article, and all of those translated in Ngo's work, are translated by DeWoskin in Doctors, Diviners, and Magicians of Ancient China: Biographies of Fangshi (New York, 1983), which also contains a useful introduction. This work is the most comprehensive to date in the West but unfortunately fails to deal with the very thorny problem of the role of the fangshi in the rise of the Daoist religion.

Information on the fangshi can be found in a number of other works, the most valuable of which is Yu Yingshi's "Life and Immortality in the Mind of Han China," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 25 (19641965): 80122. Anna K. Seidel's superb study La divinisation de Lao-tseu dans le daoïsme des Han (Paris, 1969) contains some useful information on the fangshi and their relationship to the Yellow Emperor and to the Huang-Lao Daoists. The activities of the fangshi under Qin Shihuangdi and Emperor Wu of the Han can be found in Burton Watson's translation of Ssu-ma Qien's Shih chi, Records of the Grand Historian of China, vol. 2 (New York, 1963), pp. 1369. There are also scattered references to the fangshi in Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China (Cambridge, U.K., 19561976), especially volume 2, which contains an excellent discussion of the school of Naturalists, and volume 5, part 3, which discusses alchemy. Finally there is a detailed discussion of the practices and texts of the fangshi along with a meticulous translation of medical writings that likely derived from them in Donald Harper, Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts (London, 1998).

There are now several excellent sources for the relationship between the fangshi and the organized Daoist religion. Solid overviews can be found in two general histories of Daoism, Isabelle Robinet's Daoism: Growth of a Religion (Stanford, 1997) and Livia Kohn's Daoism and Chinese Culture (Boston, 2001). Toshiaki Yamada's "Longevity Techniques and the Compilation of the Lingbao wufuxu " in Kohn's edited collection Daoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques (Ann Arbor, 1989), pp. 99123, is a superb textual study of the links between this religious Daoist work and the fangshi. There are also a number of notable articles in the masterful Handbook of Daoism edited by Kohn (Leiden, 2000): Robinet's "ShangqingHighest Clarity," pp. 196224, an overview of this important Daoist school in which she traces its roots back to the Han dynasty fangshi ; Yamada's "The Lingbao School," pp. 225255, which demonstrates the influence of the fangshi on the development of this second major school of religious Daoism; Fabrizio Pregadio's "Elixirs and Alchemy," pp. 165195, which argues that the roots of inner and outer alchemy can be found in fangshi practices and texts; and Mark Csikszentmihalyi's "Han Cosmology and Mantic Practices," pp. 5373, an analysis of the divination practices and texts of the Han dynasty fangshi and how they were transmitted. Finally, for a discussion of early Daoist meditation and its origins, see Harold D. Roth, Original Dao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Daoist Mysticism (New York, 1999).

Harold D. Roth (1987 and 2005)