Alchemy: China

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Alchemy: China

Chinese alchemy is based on doctrinal principles, first set out in the founding texts of Daoism, concerning the relation between the domains of the Absolute and the relative, or the Dao and the "ten thousand things" (wanwu ). Its teachings and practices focus on the idea of the elixir, frequently referred to as the Golden Elixir (jindan ), the Reverted Elixir (huandan ), or the Medicine (yao ). Lexical analysis shows that the semantic field of the term dan (elixir) evolves from a root-meaning of "essence"; its connotations include the reality, principle, or true nature of an entity, or its most basic and significant element or property. The purport of alchemy as a doctrine is to illustrate the nature of this underlying "authentic principle" and to explicate its relation to change and multiplicity.

In the associated practices, compounding the elixir has two primary meanings. In the first sense, the elixir is obtained by heating its ingredients in a crucible. This practice, as well as the branch of alchemy that is associated with it, is known as waidan, or "external alchemy" (literally, "outer elixir"). In the second sense, the ingredients of the elixir are the primary components of the cosmos and the human being, and the entire process takes place within the practitioner. This second form of practice (which incorporates some aspects of Daoist meditation methods and of physiological techniques of self-cultivation), as well as the corresponding branch of the alchemical tradition, is known as neidan, or "inner alchemy" (literally, "inner elixir"). The Chinese alchemical tradition has therefore three main aspects, namely a doctrinal level and two paradigmatic forms of practice, respectively based on the refining of an "outer" or an "inner" elixir.

The Elixir in External Alchemy

Although the first allusions to alchemy in China date from the second century b.c.e., the combination of doctrines and practices involving the compounding of an elixir, which is necessary to define alchemy as such and to distinguish it from proto-chemistry, is not clearly attested to in extant sources until the third century c.e. The first identifiable tradition, known as Taiqing (Great Clarity; Pregadio, 2005), developed from that time in Jiangnan, the region south of the lower Yangzi River that was also crucial for the history of Daoism during the Six Dynasties (third to sixth centuries). The Taiqing scriptures consist of descriptions of methods for compounding elixirs and of benefits gained from their performance and contain virtually no statements regarding their doctrinal foundations. The emphasis given to certain aspects of the practice and the terminology used in those descriptions, however, show that the central act of the alchemical process consists in causing matter to revert to its state of "essence" (jing ), or prima materia. The main role in this task is played by the crucible, whose function is to provide a medium equivalent to the inchoate state (hundun ) prior to the formation of the cosmos. In that medium, under the action of fire, the ingredients of the elixir are transmuted, or "reverted" (huan ), to their original state. A seventh-century commentary to one of the Taiqing scriptures equates this refined matter with the "essence" that, as stated in the Daode jing (Scripture of the Way and Its Virtue), gives birth to the world of multiplicity: "Indistinct! Vague! But within it there is something. Dark! Obscure! But within it there is an essence."

In the Taiqing texts, compounding the elixir constitutes the central part of a larger process consisting of several stages, each of which is marked by the performance of rites and ceremonies. Receiving the scriptures and the oral instructions, building the laboratory, kindling the fire, and ingesting the elixir all require offering pledges to one's master and to the gods, observing rules on seclusion and purification, performing ceremonies to delimit and protect the ritual area, and making invocations to the highest deities. Ingesting the elixir is said to confer transcendence and admission into the celestial bureaucracy. Additionally the elixir grants healing from illnesses and protection from demons, spirits, and several other disturbances. To provide these supplementary benefits, the elixir does not need to be ingested and may simply be kept in one's hand or carried at one's belt as a powerful apotropaic talisman.

The methods of the Taiqing texts are characterized by the use of a large number of ingredients. Sources attached to later waidan traditions instead describe different varieties of a single exemplary method, consisting of the refining of mercury (Yin) from cinnabar (Yang), its addition to sulfur (Yang), and its further refining. This process, typically repeated seven or nine times, yields an elixir that is deemed to embody the qualities of pure Yang (chunyang ) that is, the state of oneness before its differentiation into Yin and Yang.

Role of Cosmology

The doctrinal aspects of alchemy are the main focus of many sources dating from the Tang period (seventh to tenth centuries) onward. These sources formulate their teachings and practices by borrowing the language and the abstract emblems of correlative cosmology, a comprehensive system designed to explicate the nature and properties of different domainsprimarily the cosmos and the human beingand the relations that occur among them. The main work that reflects these changes and provides them with textual authority is the Zhouyi cantong qi (Token of the Agreement of the Three According to the Book of Changes ; the "three" mentioned in the title are, according to some commentaries, Daoism, cosmology, and alchemy). Virtually the entire alchemical tradition from the Tang period onward acknowledges this text as its most important scriptural source. Despite this, the Cantong qi does not primarily deal with either waidan or neidan and only occasionally alludes to both of them. Its main purpose is to illustrate the nonduality of the Dao and the cosmos; the task of explicating the details of this doctrinal view, and of applying it to waidan and neidan, is left to the commentaries and to a large number of related texts.

The emblems of correlative cosmologytypically arranged in patterns that include Yin and Yang, the five agents (wuxing ), the eight trigrams and the sixty-four hexagrams of the Book of Changes (Yijing ), and so forthplay two main roles closely related to each other. First, they illustrate the relation between unity, duality, and the various other stages of the propagation of Original Pneuma (yuanqi ) into the "ten thousand things." In this function, cosmological emblems serve to show how space, time, multiplicity, and change are related to the spacelessness, timelessness, nonduality, and constancy of the Dao. For instance, the Cantong qi describes the five agents (which define, in particular, the main spatial and temporal coordinates of the cosmos) as unfolding from the center, which contains them all, runs through them, and "endows them with its efficacy." In their second role, the emblems of the cosmological system are used to formulate the relation of the alchemical practice to the doctrinal principles. For instance, the trigrams of the Book of Changes illustrate how the alchemical process consists in extracting the pre-cosmic Real Yin (zhenyin ) and Real Yang (zhenyang ) from Yang and Yin as they appear in the cosmos, respectively, and in joining them to produce an elixir that represents their original oneness (Pregadio, 2000, pp. 182184).

In the traditions based on the Cantong qi, alchemy is primarily a figurative language to represent doctrinal principles. The waidan process loses its ritual features, and the compounding of the elixir is based on two emblematic metals, mercury and lead. The refined states of these metalsrespectively obtained from cinnabar and from native leadrepresent Yin and Yang in their original, pre-cosmic state, and their conjunction produces an elixir whose properties are said to be equivalent to Pure Yang. The central role played by cosmology in these waidan traditions is reflected in two works related to the Cantong qi, which respectively state that "compounding the Great Elixir is not a matter of ingredients, but always of the Five Agents," and even that "you do not use ingredients, you use the Five Agents."

Doctrines and Practices of Inner Alchemy

Besides a new variety of waidan, the Cantong qi also influenced the formation of neidan (Robinet, 1989, 1995), whose earliest extant texts date from the first half of the eighth century. The authors of several neidan treatises refer to their teachings as the Way of the Golden Elixir (jindan zhi dao ). Their doctrines essentially consist of a reformulation of those enunciated in the early Daoist texts, integrated with language and images drawn from the system of correlative cosmology according to the model provided by the Cantong qi. The respective functions of these two major components of the alchemical discourse are clearly distinguished in the doctrinal treatises. Their authors point out that the alchemical teachings can only be understood in the light of those of the Daode jing (which they consider to be "the origin of the Way of the Golden Elixir") and that correlative cosmology provides "images" (xiang ) that serve, as stated by Li Daochun (fl. 12881292), "to give form to the Formless by the word, and thus manifest the authentic and absolute Dao" (Zhonghe ji, chapter 3; see Robinet, 1995, p. 75). The alchemical discourse therefore has its roots in metaphysical principles; it uses the language and images of correlative cosmology to explicate the nature of the cosmos and its ultimate unity with the absolute principle that generates and regulates it. Its final purpose, however, is to transcend the cosmic domain, so that the use of images and metaphors involves explaining their relative value and temporary function.

The status attributed to doctrines and practices reflects this view. Some authors emphasize that the inner elixir is possessed by every human being and is a representation of one's own innate realized state. Liu Yiming (17371821) expresses this notion as follows:

Human beings receive this Golden Elixir from Heaven. Golden Elixir is another name for one's fundamental nature, formed out of primeval inchoateness [ huncheng, a term derived from the Daode jing ]. There is no other Golden Elixir outside one's fundamental nature. Every human being has this Golden Elixir complete in oneself: it is entirely achieved in everybody. It is neither more in a sage, nor less in an ordinary person. It is the seed of Immortals and Buddhas, and the root of worthies and sages. (Wuzhen zhizhi, chapter 1)

Borrowing terms from the Cantong qi, which in turn draws them from the Daode jing, Liu Yiming calls "superior virtue" (shangde ) the immediate realization of the original "celestial reality" (tianzhen ), which is never affected by the change and impermanence that dominate in the cosmos, and "inferior virtue" (xiade ), the performance of the alchemical process in order to "return to the Dao." He states, however, that the latter way, when it achieves fruition, "becomes a road leading to the same goal as superior virtue" (Cantong zhizhi, "Jing," chapter 2).

While the neidan practices are codified in ways that differ, sometimes noticeably, from each other, the notion of "inversion" (ni ) is common to all of them (Robinet, 1992). In the most common codification, the practice is framed as the reintegration of each of the primary components of being, namely essence, pneuma, and spirit (jing, qi, and shen ), into the one that precedes it in the ontological hierarchy, culminating in the "reversion" (huan) to the state of nonbeing (wu ) or emptiness (kong ). The typical formulation of this process is "refining essence and transmuting it into pneuma," "refining pneuma and transmuting it into spirit," and "refining spirit and returning to Emptiness." Li Daochun relates these stages to the passage of the Daode jing that states: "The Dao generates the One, the One generates the Two, the Two generate the Three, the Three generate the ten thousand things." According to this passage, the Dao first generates Oneness, which harbors the complementary principles of Yin and Yang. After Yin and Yang differentiate from each other, they rejoin and generate the "Three," which represents the One at the level of the particular entities. The "ten thousand things" are the totality of the entities produced by the continuous reiteration of this process. In Li Daochun's explication, the three stages of the neidan practice consist in reverting from the "ten thousand things" to emptiness, or the Dao. In this way, the gradual process that characterizes inner alchemy as a practice is equivalent to the instantaneous realization of the nonduality of the Absolute and the relative.

Just as waidan draws many of its basic methods from pharmacology, so neidan too shares a significant portion of its notions and methods with classical Chinese medicine and with other bodies of practices, such as meditation and the methods for "nourishing life" (yangsheng ). What distinguishes alchemy from these related traditions is its unique view of the elixir and a material or immaterial entity that represents the original state of being and the attainment of that state.

See also Alchemy: Europe and the Middle East ; Medicine: China .


Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, parts 25. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 19741983. Broad overview of the Chinese alchemical tradition, partly superseded by later studies.

Pregadio, Fabrizio. "Elixirs and Alchemy." In Daoism Handbook, edited by Livia Kohn. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2000. Surveys the history, texts, doctrines, and practices of waidan.

. Great Clarity: Daoism and Alchemy in Early Medieval China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005. Study of the Taiqing tradition of waidan and its relation to Daoism; includes translations of early sources.

Pregadio, Fabrizio, and Lowell Skar. "Inner Alchemy (Neidan )." In Daoism Handbook, edited by Livia Kohn. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2000. Survey of history, texts, doctrines, and practices.

Robinet, Isabelle. Introduction à l'alchimie intérieure taoïste: De l'unité et de la multiplicité. Avec une traduction commentée des Versets de l'éveil à la Vérité. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1995. Collection of articles reflecting the best understanding of neidan among Western-language studies; includes a translation of a major neidan text.

. "Le monde à l'envers dans l'alchimie intérieure taoïste." Revue de l'Histoire des Religions 209 (1992): 239257. On the notion of "inversion" in neidan.

. "Original Contributions of Neidan to Taoism and Chinese Thought." In Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques, edited by Livia Kohn in cooperation with Yoshinobu Sakade. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1989. Focuses on the notions and linguistic expedients used in texts of "inner alchemy" to formulate their doctrines.

Sivin, Nathan. Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968. Translation of a seventh-century text, with an extensive introduction on waidan seen as a branch of the history of Chinese science.

Sivin, Nathan. 1980. "The Theoretical Background of Elixir Alchemy." In Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, part 4, Apparatus, Theories and Gifts. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. On the role of time in waidan and the cosmic correspondences embodied in the apparatus.

Fabrizio Pregadio