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Center for Cultural Studies on Science and Technology in ChinaThe Background and Transmission of Alchemy in Jiangnan from the Early Six Dynasties to the Mid-Tang

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Research Project


The Background and Transmission of Alchemy in Jiangnan from the Early Six Dynasties to the Mid-Tang


Fabrizio Pregadio

Funded by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange

This research project concerns the history of alchemy from the 4th to the 8th centuries. Its purpose is to analyze the different ideas, texts, and lineages that transformed alchemy from a religious and ritual practice mainly concerned with supernatural beings into a form of philosophical speculation on the abstract principles that govern the cosmos. This shift is the main underlying reason of the transition from waidan or "external alchemy" to neidan or "inner alchemy."

Between the 4th and the 8th centuries, alchemy was closely related to the religious and intellectual background of the Jiangnan region of southeastern China. Within the Taiqing (Great Clarity) tradition of waidan, one of whose representatives is Ge Hong (283-343), elixir compounding aimed to enable the alchemist to obtain long life and immortality, receive protection from divinities, send off demons and other harmful entities, and acquire magical powers. The Taiqing tradition developed on the background of earlier and contemporary local traditions in Jiangnan, as shown by sources of the early Sanhuang (Three Augusts) and Lingbao (Sacred Jewel) schools of Daoism. About fifty years after Ge Hong, Shangqing (Supreme Clarity) Daoism--which also developed in Jiangnan--incorporated some Taiqing texts, but performed the waidan process mainly as a meditation practice. In this way, Shangqing provides the first clear evidence of the interiorization of the alchemical process that is typical of later neidan.

From the late 5th century onward, there is evidence that the Zhouyi cantong qi (Token for the Agreement of the Three according to the Scripture of Changes) circulated in Jiangnan. The original Han version of this scripture was related to the lore of the Yijing (Book of Changes) and the weishu (apocrypha). The received version describes the alchemical process in a radically different way compared to the Taiqing tradition. Based on the system of correlative cosmology, it uses various patterns of emblems (xiang) to establish parallels between the alchemical process and the cosmological process. Two cosmological patterns used in the Cantong qi are ascribed to the Late Han cosmologist, Yu Fan (AD 164-233), whom two independent sources also attribute with a commentary to the Cantong qi. It is likely that Yu Fan's lineage, also based in Jiangnan, transmitted the Cantong qi in southwestern China during the Six Dynasties until the text came in touch with the alchemical and Daoist traditions of that area.

In Jiangnan, the original Han text of the Cantong qi was rewritten into an alchemical scripture, and began to play an unparalleled influence on the development of both both waidan and neidan. The alchemical lineage associated with Hugang zi was related to the Cantong qi, as shown from a commentary to the Cantong qi dating from ca. 700 AD and other sources. At the same time, parallel passages in the Cantong qi and a major Shangqing text, the Huangting jing (Scripture of the Yellow Court), show that the rewriting of the Cantong qi into an alchemical scripture took place in close proximity to the Shangqing school.

Various ritual, religious, and intellectual trends, therefore, influenced the development of alchemy between the Six Dynasties and the mid-Tang. This project aims to provide a detailed view of how they interacted.



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