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The Way of the Golden Elixir: A Historical Overview of Taoist Alchemy

The Way of the Golden Elixir: A Historical Overview of Taoist Alchemy

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Published by Golden Elixir Press
This essay outlines the stages of development of Taoist alchemy, and the doctrines and practices of its main branches and lineages.
This essay outlines the stages of development of Taoist alchemy, and the doctrines and practices of its main branches and lineages.

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Published by: Golden Elixir Press on Oct 14, 2012
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A Historical Overviewof Taoist AlchemyFabrizio Pregadio
© Golden Elixir Press 2012
This work may be freely distributed, provided that no charge is collected for the distribution.Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Li-cense. To view a copy of this license, visithttp://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/.
   G  o   l   d  e  n   E   l   i  x   i  r   O  c  c  a  s   i  o  n  a   l   P  a  p  e  r  s  —    N  o .   3
The Way of the Golden Elixir: A Historical Overview
Chinese alchemy has a history of more than two thousand years, re-corded from the 2nd century BCE to the present day. Its two mainbranches, known as Waidan, or External Alchemy, and Neidan, or In-ternal Alchemy, share in part their doctrinal foundations but differfrom one another in the respective practices.Waidan (lit., “external elixir”), which arose earlier, is based on thecompounding of elixirs through the manipulation of natural sub-stances and the heating of ingredients in a crucible. Its texts consist of recipes, along with descriptions of ingredients, ritual rules, and pas-sages concerned with the cosmological associations of minerals, met-als, instruments, and operations. Neidan (lit., “internal elixir”) borrowsa significant part of its vocabulary and imagery from its earlier coun-terpart, but aims to produce the elixir within the alchemist’s person,using the primary components of the cosmos and the human being asingredients. Neidan texts cover a wider spectrum of subjects comparedto Waidan; at its ends are, on the one hand, spiritual teachings on theDao (the Absolute, and the origin of the manifested world) and, on theother, descriptions of physiological practices.The main designations of the elixir are
, or Reverted Elixir,and — especially in the “internal” branch —
, or Golden Elixir.Gold (
) represents the state of constancy and immutability beyondthe change and transiency that characterize the cosmos. As for
“elixir,” lexical analysis shows that the semantic field of this term —which also denotes a shade of red — evolves from a root-meaning of “essence”; its connotations include the reality, principle, or true natureof an entity, or its most basic and significant element, quality, or prop-erty. On the basis of this term, the authors of alchemical texts oftencall their tradition the Way of the Golden Elixir (
 jindan zhi dao 
Basic doctrines
Neither alchemy as a whole, norWaidan or Neidan individually, con-stitutes a “school” with a definite ca-nonical corpus and a single line of transmission. On the contrary, eachof the two main branches displays aremarkable variety of doctrinalstatements and forms of practice.Beyond its different and almost end-less formulations, though, the Wayof the Golden Elixir is characterizedby a foundation in doctrinal princi-ples first set out in the foundingtexts of Taoism — especially the
Daode jing 
, or
Book of the Way and its Virtue
— concerning the relationbetween the Dao and the world. The cosmos as we know it is conceivedof as the last stage in a series of transformations that cause a sequence of simultaneous shifts from Non-Being (
) to Unity (
), duality (Yin andYang), and finally multiplicity (
, the “ten thousand things”). The al-chemist’s task is to retrace this process backwards. The practice should
Fig. 1. Chart of the Fire Times (
),showing the main sets of cosmological em-blems used in alchemy and their correspon-dences. Yu Yan (1258–1314),
Yiwai biezhuan
 (A Separate Transmission Outside the
Bookof Changes

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