ZHENREN . The term zhenren ("real person") is first encountered in parts of the Zhuangzi that are thought to date from the third century bce. Zhenren may also be translated "perfect person" or "true person" (most Sinologists now translate it "Perfected"). Zhuangzi's "real person" is one who does not oppose the human and the natural, who knows how to accept both defeat and victory, joy and sorrow, life and death without being affected by them. Ordinary people, according to Zhuangzi, "wallow in their passions because they are out of touch with the workings of Heaven. The 'real person' of ancient times knew neither to love life nor to hate death…He took pleasure in what he received; he forgot what he gave back. This is what it means not to throw away the Dao with the heart, not to use what is human to help out what is heavenly. This is what is called a 'real person'" (chap. 6). The "real person" is thus one who possesses what is for Zhuangzi the highest form of knowledge, the knowledge that enables him to "make all things equal" and so renders him invulnerable to the vicissitudes of human life.
Zhuangzi uses a range of terms to refer to this ideal person, among them "divine person" (shenren ), "accomplished person" (zhijen ), and "saintly person" (shengren ). The last term in particular, being the standard term in the Laozi, appears much more frequently than "real person." But the term saintly person had the disadvantage, at a time when the battle between the different schools of philosophy had reached its pitch, of referring also to the Confucian ideal person. In the Laozi itself, in fact, it refers indifferently to the ruler of men and the person who, even if he does not rule, is worthy of ruling. By Zhuangzi's time the feudal system of the Zhou dynasty (c. 1150 to 256 bce) was in its final agony, and interstate relationships were characterized by ruse and violence. This political context forced philosophers to choose between "man" and "nature," between politics and integrity, and the term saintly person came increasingly to serve only as the designation of the Confucian (that is, political) ideal. In its place the Daoists put the "real person." This person does not yet, by definition, refuse all contact with human society and politics, but if he should happen to "get involved," he will not allow himself to "feel involved."
In chapter 21 of the Zhuangzi we thus read of Sun Shu Ao, who had "thrice been named prime minister without considering it glorious and thrice been dismissed without looking distressed." Someone asks Sun Shu Ao whether he has some special way of "using his heart." "Why should I be any better than anyone else?" he responds. "When [the nomination] came, I could not refuse it; when it left, I could not keep it. Neither getting it nor losing it had anything to do with me." Such a man, comments Zhuangzi through the mouth of none other than Confucius, is "a real person of old."
This phrase, "a real person of old," shows that the concept of the "real person" is associated from the very first with the notion of a golden age in times past, a paradise lost. On the individual level, it is linked with the preservation of one's original purity and integrity; "The way of whiteness and purity consists exclusively in keeping one's spirit. If you keep your spirit and do not lose it, you will become one with your spirit" (Zhuangzi, chap. 15).
Zhuangzi makes no explicit reference to the techniques that enable one to maintain one's purity and "keep" one's spirit, but they are implicit in the vocabulary used to describe the "real persons of old." The reference to these techniques is even clearer in another third-century bce text, the Lushi chunqiu (Annals of Mr. Lu): "One who daily renews his seminal energy and gets rid entirely of perverse energies, and [so] lives out his heaven [-appointed] years, is called a 'real person.'" The reference is all the more interesting in that the next line reads: "The saint-kings of the past perfected their persons, and the empire then perfected itself. They regulated their bodies, and the empire was regulated." To solve the crisis of the body politic, says this author, we must find individuals who, like the saints of old, concentrate on the vital energies of their own bodies.
A long dissertation on the Daoist ideal in chapter 7 of the Huainanzi by Liu An (c. 180–122 bce) adds little of substance to Zhuangzi's conception of the "real person." Liu An's language, however, is more explicitly physiological and cosmological: the essence of the "saintly person" or "real person"—the terms remain interchangeable—is "one with the root of Great Purity, and he wanders in the realm of no-form…He makes ghosts and gods to do his bidding." In chapter 14 we learn that the "real person" has such cosmic powers because he has "never become distinct from the Great One." By "closing up his four gates"—the eyes, ears, mouth, and heart—and keeping his vital forces from being wasted on the outside, he "regulates what is within and knows nothing of what is without" (chap. 7).
The Huainanzi is no more specific about how to become a "real person" than the Zhuangzi. But Liu An's "real person" is obviously far less concerned with the world of politics and society than the "real person" of Zhuangzi, and he is correspondingly more concerned with his interior world of spirits, souls, and oneness. Within the scope of that world, moreover, he has attained what can only be called superhuman powers. These powers are precisely those later ascribed to exorcists and Daoist priests.
A wide range of techniques leading not just to supernatural powers but to immortality are described in the Liexian zhuan (Biographies of the immortals, second century ce). The "way of the immortals" might involve a diet of pine seeds or sap, of mushrooms, or simply of clouds; it might mean the ingestion of a variety of elixirs or mineral drugs, the "circulation of energy and the transmutation of the body," the elimination of the five cereals from one's diet, or "nourishing one's energy." "Nourishing one's energy" usually refers to an art of intercourse in which the semen, rather than being allowed to flow out of the body, is "returned" by way of the spinal column to "repair the brain." In the Liexian zhuan this technique is specifically attributed to Laozi, who is one of only three immortals in this text to be called a "real person."
The second, Master Fuju, makes a living as a wandering mirror-polisher in the region of Wu (southeastern China). He also regularly heals sick clients with "purple pills and red drugs," and the local people first recognize in him a "real person" when he saves thousands from an epidemic with his medicine. Later, before leaving for one of the "isles of the immortals" in the Eastern Sea, he creates a stream with miraculous healing powers for the local people, who, after his departure, set up dozens of sanctuaries for his worship. The third "real person," Zhuhuang, is himself first cured of an ailment by a "Daoist" (daoshi) living on a mountain and is then given a book called Laojun huangting jing (The Yellow court classic of Lord Lao). When he finally returns home eighty years later, "his white hair had all turned black."
In his Lunheng (Critical disquisitions), Wang Chong (27–97 ce) refers to the belief that Laozi became a "real person" by "nourishing his spermatic essence and being chary of his energy" (chap. 7). A commentary from the second century ce on the Laozi, the Heshang gong, confirms that the "real person" is one who "cultivates the Dao within his body by being chary of his energy and by nourishing his spirits" (chap. 54). The first glimpse of what all this means comes from the oldest extant version of The Yellow Court Classic, which alludes to the "Real-Person Infant Elixir" inside the body.
The Laojun zhong jing (Classic on the center of the person, second century ce) identifies the "Real-Person Infant Elixir" as the "father and mother of the Dao, [those who] give birth to the infant" (1.6b). He (or she) is also called the "master of the real self, who is constantly instructing me in the techniques of eternal life, the way of gods and immortals" (1.7b). This internal "real person" also appears in the Tai-shang lingbao wu-fu xu (Preface to the five symbols of the numinous treasure of the Most High), a work of the fourth century. The main technique for obtaining immortality described in this text involves absorption of the energies of the heavens of the five directions. The energies of the center are used to nourish the "real person" whose name is Infant Elixir, and who dwells in the Yellow Court.
Every adept thus contains within his or her body a "real person" in embryo. It is the adept's "real self," and if it is properly fed and instructed, it will grow up to replace entirely the "old self." For this nourishment and instruction it relies on what Zhuangzi called "real persons of the past": in the text of The Five Symbols, for example, it is the Real Person of Bell Mountain who reveals to the legendary Emperor Yu the "oral instructions for the way to eternal life" (1.6a). When a hermit later explores a cave in which Yu had buried a set of the five symbols called "real writs," he discovers it to be a "residence full of real persons" (1.9a). The most important of the myriads of "real persons" who come thus to inhabit Daoist caves and heavens is Laozi himself, who is in fact already the real self the adept will become.
In general, the religious content of the term real person, implicit already in the Zhuangzi, becomes entirely explicit by the fourth and fifth centuries: he or she is the revealer of sacred texts. The revelations on Mount Mao (Maoshan), for example, which date to the years 364 to 370 and which form the scriptural basis for the Maoshan tradition, are almost all attributed to zhenren, many of whom are female. The Lingbao canon of the late fourth/early fifth century also contains texts ascribed to real persons. But an even more important development is their appearance on the ritual arena, where "flags of the real persons" are hung up to mark the Gate of All Real Persons. According to a text attributed to Lu Xiujing (406–477), this gate represents the divinized spirits of the sacred mountains and rivers of China. The gods of the Five Sacred Peaks, in particular, are referred to as real persons, a usage that was continued in the Tang dynasty (618–907 ce), when Sima Chengzhen convinced Emperor Xuanzong (r. 713–756) to replace the worship of the blood-eating gods of these mountains with the vegetarian real persons of Daoist worship. The same emperor in fact considered himself a zhenren and had his statue set up next to that of his divine ancestor, Laozi, to illustrate his semi-divine status. He also conferred the title real person on four Daoist philosophers, among them Zhuangzi.
By the Song dynasty (960–1279), living Daoists were also being called "real persons." The title of the massive Yuan collection of Daoist hagiographies, the Lishi zhenxian tidao tongjian (Comprehensive mirror of the real persons and immortals who have embodied the Dao through the ages), shows that real person and immortal had become synonymous terms that could be combined to refer to any Daoist of some renown. Among the most famous were the seven disciples of the founder of the Quanzhen movement, known collectively as the Seven Real Persons.
Erkes, Eduard, trans. Ho-shang kung's Commentary on Lao tse. Ascona, Switzerland, 1950.
Forke, Alfred, trans. Lun-hêng (1907–1911). 2d ed. 2 vols. New York, 1962.
Lau, D. C., trans. Tao-te ching (1963). Reprint, New York, 1976.
Le Blanc, Charles, Rémi Mathieu, et al., trans. Huainan zi. Paris, 2003. Complete translation with excellent introductions to each chapter.
Ware, James Roland, trans. Alchemy, Medicine, Religion in the China of A. D. 320: The Nei P'ien of Ko Hung (1967). Reprint, New York, 1981.
Watson, Burton, trans. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York, 1968.
Wilhelm, Richard, trans. Frühling und Herbst des Lü Bu We (1928). Reprint, Düsseldorf, Germany, 1971. A translation of the Lushi chunqiu
Translations with Studies
Chan, Alan K. L. Two Visions of the Way: A Study of the Wang Pi and the Ho-shang Kung Commentaries on the Lao-Tzu. Albany, N.Y., 1991.
Kaltenmark, Max, trans. Le Lie-sien tchouan, biographies légendaires des immortels taoïstes de l'antiquité. Beijing, 1953; reprint, Paris, 1987. Contains superb notes on each of the seventy biographies of the immortals.
Schipper, Kristofer. Le corps taoïste. Paris, 1982. Translated by Karen Duval as The Taoist Body. Berkeley, 1993. Contains good introductions to and partial translations of the Huang-t'ing ching (chap. 6) and the Laojün zhong jing (chap. 8).
The Tang Changes
Benn, Charles David. The Cavern-Mystery Transmission: A Taoist Ordination Rite of A.D. 711. Honolulu, 1991.
John Lagerwey (1987 and 2005)
"Zhenren." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/zhenren
"Zhenren." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved December 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/zhenren
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.