Tao Hongjing

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TAO HONGJING (456536 ce), a polymath scholar of Daoism, was largely responsible for establishing the textual corpus of the Maoshan or Shangqing (Highest Clarity) lineage, of which he is recognized as the tenth patriarch. Tao's contributions to the study of pharmacology and alchemy in China are also of singular importance, and during his own lifetime he was recognized for his authoritative knowledge of calligraphy and astrological calculations. Born near the southern imperial capital of Jiankang (modern-day Nanjing), Tao was the scion of a leading family of gentry officials with a long history of service to the southern courts since the fall of the Han dynasty (206 bce220 ce).

The Tao family had marital links to some of the most important Daoist figures in Southern China, including the great scholar Ge Hong (283343 ce), but Hongjing's mother and grandfather were both Buddhists. Despite these religious affiliations, Tao's early training was Confucian. He completed several commentaries on Confucian classics at an early age, and his dedication to scholarship soon earned him a reputation at court. By his early twenties he had achieved modest success in official service, being appointed "reader in attendance" to imperial princes. His intellectual and scholastic accomplishments garnered him much respect and allowed him to move freely in the élite social circles and literary salons of Jiankang.

During the period of mourning for his mother between 484 and 486, Tao began his formal initiation into Daoism. He became a disciple of Sun Youyue (398489 ce), abbot of the Xingshi Temple in Jiankang. Sun had, in turn, been a disciple of Lu Xiujing (406477 ce), the main systematizer of the Lingbao ritual liturgy. Sun possessed textual artifacts of the Maoshan revelations passed on by Lu, and he allowed Tao to view them. These texts had been produced between 364 and 370 ce by a visionary named Yang Xi (330c. 386) living in the area of Maoshan (Mount Mao), southwest of the imperial capital. Yang claimed that he had received the texts from a number of "perfected immortals" (zhenren ), residents of the Heaven of Highest Clarity (Shangqing tian ). The message of the perfected was a synthesis of Celestial Master's Daoism, and elements of the southern occult traditions, such as represented in the work of Ge Hong. Alchemy and apotropaic ritual is much in evidence, but the texts pointed towards the future of Daoism with their tendency toward techniques of internal cultivation, such as visualization meditation.

The style and content of the Maoshan manuscripts, as well as their calligraphy, made a deep impression on Tao, and he began searching for more examples, making a trip in 490 to the eastern regions (present-day Zhejiang) for that purpose. Two years later, in 492, he renounced secular life altogether and retired to live at Maoshan. With the help of imperial sponsorship, Tao built a hermitage there, which he named the Huayang Observatory (Huayang guan ). He assembled some disciples, and began the work of reconstructing the Shangqing scriptural corpus.

Tao's first major project was the compilation of the Dengzhen yinjue (Secret formulae for ascending to perfection). Most of this work is now lost, but originally it was a large collection of technical material derived from Yang Xi's revelations. It was intended for Tao's disciples, for whom he added copious annotations. The two works for which Tao Hongjing is best know seem both to have been completed in the same year, 499. The Zhengao (Declarations of the perfected), is a compendium of the Maoshan revelations themselves. It includes correspondence between Yang Xi and his patrons, and records of conversations between Yang and his perfected guests, as well as information on the secret geography of the Maoshan area. The Zhengao also contains many poems, ostensibly composed by the perfected. The ecstatic style of these poems was to be influential, particularly during the later Tang dynasty (618907 ce).

Continuing a tradition passed down from his father and grandfather, Tao also compiled his Bencao jing jizhu (Collected notes on the classic of pharmacopoeia). This was an expanded and annotated version of the oldest work of Chinese pharmacopoeia, Shennong bencao jing (Shen Nong's classic of pharmacopoeia). Tao doubled the number of entries in the earlier classic and also reorganized the material according to more rational criteria. Although this work comes down to us only in fragmentary form, it had an enormous impact on traditional Chinese medicine because it brought order and reason to a tradition in disarray. It also facilitated the systematic incorporation of materia medica into Chinese medical practice.

In 502 a new dynasty, the Liang, replaced the previous Qi dynasty (479502 ce). Fortunately, Tao Hongjing enjoyed a close personal relationship with Wudi (464549 ce), the first Liang emperor. This ensured continued imperial support for Tao's work, even when Wudi, a fervent Buddhist, proscribed Daoism in 504. It was in the same year, 504, that Wudi commissioned Tao to undertake alchemical experiments on his behalf. Tao expended a great amount of time and energy in his attempts to produce elixirs according to recipes described in the Shangqing scriptures. Tao's careful notes on his research are the earliest extant records of alchemical experimentation in China. His work also strengthened the relationship of alchemy to Daoism.

During the latter part of his life, Tao Hongjing remained based at Maoshan, but made an extended trip to the southeast, to the area of modern Fujian province. He continued his alchemical experiments on the trip, but it may be that he was also motivated by anticipation of a messianic apocalypse, such as predicted in certain Shangqing texts. While on that excursion, Tao made the acquaintance of Zhou Ziliang, a young man who became his disciple. Zhou was a visionary after the model of Yang Xi, and played host to some of the same perfected beings. In 515, at the age of only twenty, Zhou committed ritual suicide in response to a divine summons received in the course of his visions. Tao submitted a textual record of Zhou's activities and visions, entitled Zhoushi mingtongji (The record of Master Zhou's communication with the unseen world), to the imperial court in 517.

Tao Hongjing's involvement with Buddhism is often overlooked. Tao had early exposure to the religion via his mother and grandfather. Throughout his lifetime he continued to befriend Buddhist priests, and was actively involved in debates over Buddhism's nature and significance. It is claimed that the founder of Chinese Pure Land Buddhism, Tanluan (476542 ce), studied Daoist arts and herbalism with Tao. In 513 Tao formally took Buddhist vows and when he died, about a month before his eightieth birthday in 536 his disciples followed his instructions and arranged for an equal number of Daoist and Buddhist priests to attend his funeral.

Tao Hongjing's legacy is multifaceted. His work on pharmacopoeia and medicine was of great consequence for the later development of Chinese medical practice. His alchemical studies were also highly influential, due especially to the methodical and empirical spirit that he brought to them. In terms of the history of Chinese religions however, the institutional and textual foundation that he laid for the Maoshan or Shangqing school had the greatest lasting impact. The semimonastic community that he established at Maoshan was to provide the base upon which the success of the Shangqing school was built during the succeeding Tang dynasty, a time during which Daoism was favored with its greatest popularity among the Chinese elite.

See Also

Alchemy, article on Chinese Alchemy; Daoism, overview article and articles on Daoist Literature and The Daoist Religious Community.


Mugitani Kunio. "Tō Kōkei nempo kōryaku." Tōhō shukyō 47 (1976): 3061; 48 (1976): 5683. An excellent source for biographical information on Tao Hongjing. Relates Tao's life to other political and cultural events of the day.

Needham, Joseph, and Lu Gwei-Djen. "Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Physiological Alchemy." In Science and Civilization in China, vol. 5: Chemistry and Chemical Technology, pt. 5, pp. 210220. Cambridge, U.K., 1983. Section h, discusses historical aspects of Tao Hongjing's involvement with alchemy.

Needham, Joseph, et al. "Pandects of Natural History (Pen Tsao )." In Science and Civilization in China, vol. 6: Biology and Botanical Technology, sect. 38, pp. 220263. Cambridge, U.K., 1986. Discusses early Chinese pharmacopoeia and Tao's contributions to it.

Robinet, Isabelle. La révélation du Shangqing dans l'histoire du taoïsme. 2 vols. Paris, 1984. A detailed study of the Maoshan revelations and the Shangqing textual corpus. Volume 2 contains an extensive annotated listing of Shangqing texts and their content.

Robinet, Isabelle. Taoist Meditation: The Mao-shan Tradition of Great Purity. Translated by Norman Girardot and Julian Pas. Albany, N.Y., 1993. Excellent general study of Shangqing meditation.

Strickmann, Michel. "The Mao Shan Revelations: Taoism and the Aristocracy." T'oung-pao 63 (1977): 164. Discussion of the social and historical context of the Maoshan revelations. Contains a translation of Tao's account of the dispersion of the Shangqing manuscripts.

Strickmann, Michel. "On the Alchemy of T'ao Hung-ching." In Facets of Taoism: Essays in Chinese Religion, edited by Holmes Welch and Anna Seidel, pp. 123192. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1981. Still the best English-language source for Tao Hongjing's life and religious activities. Special focus on Tao's alchemical practice and its significance.

Strickmann, Michel. Le Taoïsme du Mao Chan: Chronique d'une révélation. Paris, 1981. Strickmann's book-length discussion of the Maoshan revelations and the Shangqing textual legacy. The annotated reconstruction of the Shangqing textual corpus is less extensive than Robinet's, but is still very useful.

T. C. Russell (2005)