The Golden Elixir Taoist Alchemy

Taoist Alchemy: Neidan and Waidan

Fabrizio Pregadio

Liu Haichan

Liu Haichan, a Taoist immortal
associated with several alchemical traditions

Taoist alchemy has a history of more than two thousand years, recorded from the 2nd century BCE to the present day. Its two main branches, known as Waidan, or External Alchemy (lit., "external elixir"), and Neidan, or Internal Alchemy (lit., "internal elixir"), partly share their doctrinal foundations but differ in the respective practices.

Waidan, which arose earlier, is based on the compounding of elixirs through the manipulation of natural substances and the heating of ingredients in a crucible. Its texts contain recipes, descriptions of ingredients, ritual rules, and passages concerned with the cosmological associations of minerals, metals, instruments, and operations.

Neidan developed, as far as we know, from the 8th century CE. It borrows a significant part of its vocabulary and imagery from Waidan, but it aims to produce the elixir within the alchemist's person, using the primary components of the cosmos and the human being as ingredients. Neidan texts cover a wider spectrum of subjects compared to Waidan; at its ends are, on the one hand, teachings on the Dao (the Absolute, and the origin of the manifested world) and, on the other, descriptions of physiological practices.

The main designations of the elixir are huandan, or Reverted Elixir, and — especially in the "internal" branch — jindan, or Golden Elixir. Gold (jin) represents the state of constancy and immutability beyond the change and transiency that characterize the cosmos. As for dan ("elixir"), this word means "essence": the reality, principle, or true nature of an entity, or its most basic and significant element, quality, or property. On the basis of this term, the authors of alchemical texts often call their tradition "Way of the Golden Elixir" (jindan zhi dao).


Innerly nourish yourself, serene and quiescent in Empty Non-Being. Going back to the fundament conceal your light, and innerly illuminate your body.

Book Icon Cantong qi
(The Seal of the Unity of the Three)

Neither alchemy as a whole, nor Waidan or Neidan individually, constitutes a "school" with a definite canonical corpus and a single line of transmission. On the contrary, each of the two main branches displays a remarkable variety of doctrinal statements and forms of practice.

However, beyond its different and almost endless formulations, the Way of the Golden Elixir is characterized by a foundation in the doctrinal principles first set out in the founding texts of Taoism — especially the Daode jing (Book of the Way and Its Virtue) — concerning the relation between the Dao and the world. The cosmos as we know it is the last stage in a series of transformations from Non-Being (wu) to Unity (yi), duality (Yin and Yang), and finally multiplicity (wanwu, the "ten thousand things"). The alchemist intends to trace this process backwards, from the "ten thousand things" to the Dao. The practice should be performed under the close supervision of a master, who provides the "oral instructions" (koujue) necessary to understand the processes that adepts perform with minerals and metals, or undergo within themselves.

See also a longer Introduction to Taoist alchemy:

1. The Elixir in External Alchemy
2. The Role of Cosmology
3. Doctrines and Practices of Internal Alchemy

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In both Waidan and Neidan, the practice is variously said to grant transcendence (a state described by such expressions as "joining with the Dao"), immortality (usually meant as a spiritual condition), longevity, healing (either in a broad sense or with regard to specific illnesses), and — especially in Waidan — communication with the gods of the celestial pantheon and protection from spirits, demons, and other malignant entities.

The Alchemical Corpus

While historical and literary sources (including poetry) provide many relevant details, the main repository of Chinese alchemical sources is the Taoist Canon (Daozang), the largest collection of Taoist works. About one fifth of its 1,500 texts are closely related to the various alchemical traditions that developed until the 15th century, when the Canon was compiled and printed. Later Neidan texts are found in the Daozang jiyao (Essentials of the Taoist Canon, compiled around 1800 and expanded in 1906), and many others have been published in smaller collections or as independent works.

Modern study of Taoist alchemy began in the 20th century, after the Canon was reprinted and made widely available in 1926. Among the main contributions in Western languages are those of Joseph Needham (1900–95), Ho Peng Yoke (1926-2014), and Nathan Sivin for Waidan; and Isabelle Robinet (1932–2000), Farzeen Baldrian-Hussein (1945–2009), and Catherine Despeux for Neidan. [See a bibliography of Taoist alchemy.]


In Waidan, among a large variety of methods, two stand out for their importance. The first is based on mercury and lead, which respectively represent the Yin and Yang principles. These two substances are refined and joined in a compound whose properties are compared to the state of original Unity. The second main method is centered on cinnabar (Yang). The mercury contained within cinnabar (representing the True Yin contained within Yang) is extracted and newly added to sulphur (Yang). This process, typically performed nine times, finally yields an elixir embodying the luminous qualities of Pure Yang. This Yang is not the complementary opposite of Yin, but, again, represents the Unity before its separation into the two complementary principles.


Compounding the Golden Liquor (jinye).
Qing-dynasty manuscript copy of an earlier text of Neidan (Internal Alchemy).

In its earliest period, documented by the Book of the Nine Elixirs (Huangdi jiuding shendan jing) and other texts, Waidan requires the performance of rituals at each stage of the practice, from the transmission of the texts to the ingestion of the elixir. Important details on the early stages of Taoist alchemy are also found in some parts of the Baopu zi neipian, written by Ge Hong around 320 CE. Its descriptions of processes that can be compared with extant sources are, however, often abridged and sometimes inaccurate.

During the Tang dynasty (7th-9th centuries), the Waidan tradition reached one of its peaks with Chen Shaowei (early 8th century), whose work describes the preparation of an elixir obtained by refining cinnabar. Among other representative texts of this period are several collections of recipes, of which one of the most important was compiled by Sun Simo. The first half of the Tang dynasty also marked the climax of contacts between China and the Arabic world. These exchanges may be at the origin of the European mediaeval word alchymia, one of whose suggested etymologies is from middle Chinese kiem-yak (the approximate pronunciation of present-day jinye, or "Golden Liquor") with the addition of the Arabic prefix al-.

While the Tang period has been called the "golden age" of Waidan, it also marked the stage of transition to Neidan. Among the forerunners of Neidan is the Shangqing (Highest Clarity) tradition of Taoism. Based on revelations of the late 4th century, this school attributed particular importance to meditation, but also included the compounding of elixirs among its practices. Its scriptures display the earliest traces of the interiorizazion of alchemy. Among the texts used in this school is the Huangting jing (Scripture of the Yellow Court), a meditation manual often quoted in later Neidan texts.

The way of alchemy entirely consists of images. It takes Lead and Mercury as substances, but one must know that the Essence of Lead and the Marrow of Mercury are nothing but metaphors. It is based on the terms Li ☲ and Kan ☵, but one must know that the Kan Boy and the Li Girl are nothing but empty terms.

Book Icon Xiao Yanzhi (mid-13th century)

The shift from Waidan to Neidan, sometimes deemed to be due only to the multiplication of cases of elixir poisoning or to the influence of Buddhism, requires further study to be properly understood. In Neidan, the practitioner's person performs the role that natural substances and instruments play in Waidan. In doing so, Neidan avails itself — in ways and degrees that vary among different subtraditions — of traditional Chinese doctrines about the analogy between macrocosm and microcosm and of earlier practices of meditation on the inner gods, adapted to the new purposes (and involving, in fact, the virtual disappearance of the inner gods themselves). The text that played the main role in the shift from Waidan to Neidan is the Cantong qi (The Seal of the Unity the Three), traditionally dated to the 2nd century CE but actually written in its present form at least three centuries later, and possibly more.

In Song and Yuan times (ca. late 10th-14th centuries), the history of Neidan identifies itself with the lines of transmission known as Nanzong (Southern Lineage) and Beizong (Northern Lineage). The beginner of Nanzong was Zhang Boduan (11th century), and the beginner of Beizong was Wang Chongyang (1112-1170). The textual foundation of the Southern Lineage was provided by the Wuzhen pian (Awakening to Reality), a work in poetry by Zhang Boduan. Both lineages placed emphasis on the cultivation of xing and ming, which constitute two central notions of Internal Alchemy. Xing refers to one's original Nature, deemed to be innately awakened but obscured by the functioning of the mind in the conditioned state. Ming denotes the "imprint" that each individual entity receives upon being generated, and which may or may not be actualized in life due to one's interaction with the world through the body and the senses. The Northern and Southern lineages were distinguished by the relative priority given to either xing or ming in the context of their "conjoined cultivation" (shuangxiu).

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Neidan tradition divided itself into several schools. One of the greatest masters of this time was Liu Yiming (1734-1815), who in his works propounded an entirely spiritual interpretation of his tradition.