External and Internal in Ge Hong's Alchemy
by Evgueny A. Tortchinov
St. Petersburg State University, Russia
The problem of shift from external alchemy (wai dan) to internal alchemy
(nei dan) is one of the most important for understanding of the history
of Daoism as well as for elucidation of some crucial questions of the
history of science in China. Briefly speaking it can be summarized that
the practices of the inner alchemy (such as visualization, breathing control,
different types of contemplation, etc.) much older than the techniques
of the laboratory alchemy (and moreover, they compose the very core of
the mainstream of the Daoist practical methods and techniques). Nevertheless,
those techniques and methods obtained their systematic unity of a coherent
whole only borrowing the technical language, terminology and theoretical
background of the external alchemy.
The Six Dynasties (Liu chao) period is of extreme importance here. First
of all, it was a time of the maturity of the external alchemy when it
flourished among the Daoists of all branches and trends. Secondly, in
this epoch there appeared the first signs of the beginning of the formation
of the inner alchemical tradition in the midst of the laboratory alchemy
of wai dan.
This aim of this paper is to present some evidences of the process of
transition from the external to internal alchemy on the materials of Ge
Hong's "Baopuzi nei pian". It is interesting that this classical and well
known work is mostly treated as purely dedicated to the external alchemy.
It is certainly true but only to some extent. And it is moreover interesting
and demonstrative that even in such practical and experience oriented
work as Baopuzi nei pian (henceforth, BPZNP)
the sprouts of the inner alchemical attitudes and approaches found their
way of expression.
The most interesting for our purpose part of BPZNP is, certainly, its
Chapter 18 Di zhen, or "Earthly Truth".
The contents of this chapter may be summarized as following:
1. Metaphysics of the Dao.
Dao (the Way as the first cosmological and / or ontological principle)
was described here not only as Xuan yi, the hidden and unrevealed substance
(analogical functionally to Deus Absconditus of the theistic apophatic
mysticism) but also as the self revealing principle of Zhen yi, immanent
to the very nature of the given empirically existing things. If the Hidden
Mysterious Dao has no form, or image, the manifested Dao of the True One
has image of its own. It can be supposed (though Ge Hong does not write
it implicitly) that signs of the presence of the True One can be found
in every thing and being as "signatures" of Dao (probably, the specific
presence of the True One in some substances making them to be spiritualized,
ling, or shen; this spirituality in its turn makes such substances to
be suitable for the preparing of different elixirs. Briefly speaking,
it is but a kind of especially subtle pnuema, qi.
Nevertheless, Ge Hong speaks in details about the manifestation of the
True One within the human body where the mystical signatures of Dao are
cinnabar fields (dan tian). Probably, Ge Hong is the first writer speaking
about three cinnabar fields (earlier texts mentioned only one dan tian,
the centre in the lowest part of abdomen, beneath the navel). Ge Hong
describes cinnabar fields in metaphoric language. Here Ge Hong uses the
term shou yi (literally: "preservation of the One") which was the earliest
designation of different Daoist meditative and contemplative practices
directly connected with the background of the inner alchemy (the practices
of shou yi are rather well known from such comparatively early texts as
the Classic of the Great Equanimity Taipingjing).
3. Ge Hong enumerates the following aims of
the shou yi practices: protection from demoniac attacks and influences,
protection from armed enemies, protection from ilness and infections.
Therefore, it can be supposed that the function of these practices is
purely protective. But some passages from chapter 18 of BPZNP relate the
contemplative techniques of the Preservation of the One to the leading
theme of Ge Hong's discourse (i.e., obtaining of longevity and immortality).
"The only method of the prolongation of life and attainment of the state
of immortal is but the way of Gold and Cinnabar; the only method to preserve
one’s body and to cut off the evil influences is [contemplation] of the
True One. Therefore the ancients extremely seriously treated such affairs."
This passage describes the shou yi practices as complimentary to the "Great
Work" of the way of the external alchemy.
Some fragments of the second part of this chapter are even more interesting
not only by their contents but by their composition and structure as well.
Semantical beginning of this part of the examined chapter is Ge Hong's
statement regarding the metaphysical relations between the manifested
Dao of the True One and the hidden Dao of the Mysterious, or the Mysterious
One (xuan yi). Ge Hong proclaims the equal importance of purely meditative
practices connected with the realization of the Mysterious One (described
in the opening chapter of BPZNP) and inner magic of the True One. Nevertheless,
he states that the True One practices are simpler than the Mysterious
One practices. Moreover, the preservation of the True One (shou zhen yi)
is the most simple way to preserve, or keep the Mysterious One as well
because of their ontological unity (the manifested Dao is an "eye" through
which the hidden Dao "contemplates" the Universe).
The practices of the preservation of the One are the methods of obtaining
different supernatural powers (such as multiplication of the bodily form
or contemplation of the hun-po souls within one’s body).
The following passage seems as being irrelevant to the themes of the preceding
section. Here Ge Hong in rather eloquent manner speaks about the art of
alchemy (making the Great Medicine da yao or Golden Cinnabar jin dan)
as hard work demanding great efforts and laborious behavior. But in reality
it is but introduction to a new evaluation of the practices of preservation
of the One: the alchemical work leading to immortality is hard, it takes
plenty of time to fulfill it. Therefore, the adept must do his best to
keep his body in a good health being protected against sickness as well
as against demoniac attacks and malevolent influences of the evil spirits
and ghosts. Here Ge Hong mentions the shou yi practices together with
the contemplation of the inner spirits of the body (si shen) which also
must to protect body against all destructive forces.
Next theme of chapter 18 is the parallel between human body and state.
In the first part of the chapter Ge Hong already gave a highly symbolical
description of the human body with its subtle energetic centres (here
the body obtained an image of the sacred mount of Kunlun with its palaces
and chambers of immortals; astral imaginary of constellations was also
important for this passage). At the concluding part of the chapter Ge
Hong simply in a rather traditional way gives analogies between parts
of the body and functions of the state. His conclusion: to master one’s
own body is the same as to master the state; pneumata (qi) of the body
is the same as common people (min) in the state. The Daoist practitioner
must nourish the pneumata like lord of the state who must take care of
his subjects. Here Ge Hong states that the presence of the True One in
the body as a result of the cultivation of pneuma gives piece and stability
to "three and seven", that is souls of hun and po. It will lead to the
prolongation of life (nian ming yan) and the elimination of all evil (bai
hai que). The shou yi practices are extremely helpful (even in a greater
degree than the amulets and charms described in chapter 17 of BPZNP) for
exorcisms in the wilderness of remote mountains and forests where the
Daoists prefer to cultivate their alchemical skill.
Therefore, it can be said that Ge Hong evaluates the inner practices of
shou yi as having only subsidiary character. They are necessary for providing
the practitioner of external alchemy (the principal method) with safety
and ease. Nevertheless, they are necessary for the alchemical adept, and
only fools are able to ignore them: "If only three gates of four are locked,
the robbers can enter the building. And what can be done if all four gates
are opened!" It is substantial that Ge Hong looks for a kind of harmony
between external and internal methods of the Daoist cultivation. The leading
role of the external methods still exists but the function of the inner
cultivation becomes a very important, too.
Here it looks reasonable to examine the elements of the inner cultivation
within the frames of the external laboratory alchemy as such.
It is impossible to divide technical, magical and ritualistic aspects
of the alchemical approaches of Ge Hong. He denies the idea of the automatic,
or mechanical effect of the elixirs, combining the technical and chemical
procedures with fasting, prayers and purification (chapter 4 jin dan pian).
Everywhere in BPZNP Ge Hong stresses the importance of such practices
as gymnastics (dao yin), control over pneumata (xing qi) and sexual techniques
(fang zhong zhi shu) all of which were closely related to the formation
of the system of inner alchemy. Certainly, Ge Hong was sure that all those
methods could not lead the adept to his final goal, that is, immortality
but nevertheless, he believed that all of them were extremely valuable,
helpful and even necessary as subsidiary and additional means to prolong
adept's life or to protect him from evil and harmful influences.
In another words, Ge Hong was a master of external alchemy which was thought
of him to be the highest way to immortality but 1) this external alchemy
included in itself some elements of the inner doing (purifications, sacral
bathing, fasting, prayer, meditation, etc.) and 2) he believed in the
great efficacy of the inner practices as subsidiary means of macrobiotic
and protective character.
Besides chapter 18 the term shou yi is occurred two times in chapters
3 and 5 of BPZNP.
The first case (chapter 3) is a verse from unknown classic of immortals
(xian jing): "Those who eat medicines and keep / preserve the One (shou
yi) can obtain the longevity of Heaven; those who practice returning of
semen (huan jing) and embryonic breath (tai xi) can prolong their life
making it unlimited (wu ji)."
The second case (chapter 5) is the following: "The cause of death is a
deficiency: old age, harm derived from illness or inner venoms or the
influences of the bad pneuma or cold and wind. Because of this there exist
means and methods of gymnastics, control over pneumata, returning of semen
to nourish the brain, diet regulations as well as principles of rest and
action, eating of the medicines, contemplation of spirits (si shen) and
preservation of the One..."
It is obvious that here shou yi is mentioned in the list of other inner
practices of subsidiary kind and palliative importance however useful
and effective they are. Therefore, it can be said that BPZNP has a room
for the inner practices but all of them are allowed to play only secondary
Nevertheless, it is important to note that Ge Hong's treatise is one of
the earliest examples of the beginning of the shift from purely external
to combined and even purely internal alchemy. In more radical terms, it
is possible to suppose that the element of the inner practices was included
in the laboratory alchemy from its very beginning but the religious and
cultural situation of the Six Dynasties period produced some important
conditions for actualization of the hidden internal elements, their development
and gradual formation of the system known to us as the "inner alchemy"
(nei dan). And Ge Hong's classic stands at the beginning of this process
which became of crucial importance for the subsequent history of the Daoist
by Evgueny A. Tortchinov
St. Petersburg State University, Russia
This page last updated: 14-Mar-2015