GE HONG (283–343) was a Chinese writer on alchemy and Daoism. Although a number of works have been attributed to Ge Hong, the only incontestable source for his thought is his Baopuzi (The master who embraces simplicity). This consists today of twenty "inner chapters" on Daoist themes, fifty "outer chapters" on more Confucian topics, and an account of his own life. In both portions of his work Ge demonstrates an encyclopedic eclecticism that has caused later scholars a certain amount of difficulty in assessing his ideas.
To understand Ge Hong's intellectual orientation, it is necessary to know his cultural situation. Ge was a member of the old aristocracy that had lived in the lands south of the Yangtze since the Han dynasty and had served in the separatist kingdom of Wu that in 222 succeeded the Han in South China. The Wu state was conquered from the north by the Jin in 280, but the expulsion of the Jin court from North China by barbarian invasions in the early fourth century forced this new regime to transfer its capital to present-day Nanjing. This demoralizing cultural invasion further accentuated the southern aristocrats' loss of independent political power, for the southerners saw themselves as the true heirs of Han civilization, unlike the northern immigrants, who had abandoned much of the Han heritage. Ge at first had some hopes of a political career under the Jin, but the premature death of his patron forced him to turn increasingly to a life of scholarship. As a consequence, his writings manifest an urge to collect the various strands of the old culture of pre-Jin times and make from them a compendium of southern intellectual conservatism. Dominant in this is a defense of local occult traditions against introduced religious and philosophical ideas.
To what degree Ge, the political outsider, managed to compensate for his disappointments by becoming a master of the occult is not clear. Recent scholarship has preferred to see him as an enthusiast who derived his knowledge from written sources more than from initiation into secret lore. But Ge used this knowledge to the full to defend his thesis that any person may become a genuine immortal. In arguing against those who interpreted immortality as a symbol of liberation from human limitations and against those who believed that immortals where born, not made, Ge provides a treasure trove of information on ancient techniques for achieving immortality. Ge's references to the alchemical preparation of elixirs of immortality have attracted the attention of modern historians of science, but he provides information on much else besides: sexual and other physiological practices, the use of talismans, herbal aids to longevity, lists of occult texts, and heterodox cults to be avoided. Because by the end of the fourth century, the religious situation in south China had been transformed totally by outside influences and internal developments, the Baopuzi constitutes virtually the only source for this type of lore at an earlier period.
Although the exact date of the Baopuzi is unknown, it would appear to have been substantially completed by 317. The Jin court bestowed on Ge honorary, politically powerless appointments in the following decade, but thereafter Ge seems to have sought to distance himself from court life in favor of alchemical pursuits. He managed eventually to obtain a posting to the far south (present-day North Vietnam) in order to search for the ingredients of the elixir of immortality. He was detained en route in present-day Guangdong and remained there, on Mount Luofu, until his death. His contemporaries readily believed that this was a feigned death and that he had in fact reached his goal of immortality.
Despite the philosophical Daoist underpinnings that he provides for his repertory of techniques, Ge Hong's contributions to the development of Daoism were in a sense negligible. His approach to the beliefs that he recorded remained a purely individual one, and his writings, in all their contradictory richness, can in no way be taken as representative of the religion of any particular body of believers. Indeed, the group religious practices of his day seem to have fallen largely outside the scope of his research. Nonetheless he may be seen as the first of a number of southern aristocrats with similar concerns. Such later figures as Lu Xiujing (406–477) and, especially, Tao Hongjing (456–536), though priests in the mainstream of Daoist belief, maintained Ge's emphasis on broad erudition and surpassed him in critical scholarship. But for Daoists and non-Daoists alike, the Baopuzi remained one of the most widely cited apologies for the pursuit of immortality.
James R. Ware's Alchemy, Medicine, and Religion in the China of a.d. 320: The Neipian of Ge Hong (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), provides a complete translation of the "inner chapters" of the Baopuzi and of Ge's autobiography. Jay Sailey's The Master Who Embraces Simplicity: A Study of the Philosopher Ge Hong, a.d. 283 –343 (San Francisco, 1978) translates the autobiography, plus twenty more of the "outer chapters"; a lengthy study of Ge Hong and his thought is also appended. Neither volume is beyond criticism, but taken together they give a good picture of the diversity of Ge Hong's work.
Lai, Chi-tim. "Ko Hung's Discourse of Hsien-Immortality: A Taoist Configuration of an Alternative Ideal Self-Identity." Numen 45, no. 2 (1998): 183–220.
Lopez, D. S. Religions of China in Practice. Princeton, 1996.
T. H. Barrett (1987)