5 minute read

Alchemy in China

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. 1288–1292), "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 (1737–1821) 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.


Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, parts 2–5. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1974–1983. 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): 239–257. 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

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adrenoceptor (adrenoreceptor; adrenergic receptor) to AmbientAlchemy in China - The Elixir In External Alchemy, Role Of Cosmology, Doctrines And Practices Of Inner Alchemy, Bibliography