The Golden Elixir Taoist Alchemy

Taoist Alchemy

Fabrizio Pregadio


Liu Haichan

Liu Haichan, a Taoist immortal
associated with several alchemical traditions

Taoist alchemy aims to afford an understanding of how the cosmos and the human being are related to the highest principle, the Dao. Practitioners rise through the hierarchy of the constituents of being by "fulfilling" (Chin. jin or liao, two words also denoting "thorough knowledge") the nature and properties of each stage. They overcome the limits of individual existence, and ascend to higher states of being; they becomes, to use the Chinese term, zhenren or realized persons.

Historical and literary sources (including poetry) provide many important details on Taoist alchemy, but the majority of sources is found in the Taoist Canon (Daozang), the largest collection of Taoist texts. One fifth of its about 1,500 texts are closely related to the various alchemical traditions that developed until the fifteenth century, when the extant Canon was compiled and printed. Later texts are included in the Daozang jiyao (Essentials of the Taoist Canon) and in many other smaller collections.

Modern study of Taoist alchemy began in the twentieth century, after the Canon was reprinted and made widely available. Among the most important contributions in Western languages are those of Joseph Needham, Nathan Sivin, Ho Peng Yoke, Farzeen Baldrian-Hussein, Isabelle Robinet, and Catherine Despeux. [See a bibliography of Chinese alchemy.]

Related materials

● A more detailed Introduction to Taoist alchemy
The Way of the Golden Elixir: A Historical Overview of Taoist Alchemy (free PDF)
● Essays on Neidan
● Texts on Waidan and Neidan

Although the underlying doctrines remained unchanged, Chinese alchemy went through a complex and not yet entirely understood development along its twenty centuries of documented history. The two main traditions are conventionally known as Waidan, or External Alchemy, and Neidan, or Internal Alchemy. Waidan, which arose earlier, is based on the compounding of elixirs through the manipulation of natural substances. Its texts consist of recipes, along with descriptions of the ingredients, the ritual rules, and the cosmological associations of minerals and metals, instruments, and technical operations. Neidan — which is often called the Way of the Golden Elixir (jindan zhi dao) — developed as an independent discipline around the end of the Six Dynasties (third-sixth centuries). Neidan borrows part of its vocabulary from Waidan, but aims to produce the elixir within the alchemist's person.

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

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

Chinese alchemy has always been closely related to teachings that find expressed in the early texts of Taoism, especially the Laozi (Daode jing) and the Zhuangzi. The cosmos as we know it is conceived of as the final stage in a series of spontaneous transmutations stemming from original Non-being. This process — which occurs in a timeless "now" — entails the apparent separation of original Unity into the two complementary principles, Yin and Yang. Their re-union gives birth to the cosmos. When the process is completed, the cosmos is subject to the laws of cosmology.

The practitioner's task is to retrace this process backwards. Alchemy, whether "external" or "internal," provides a support to do this, leading one to the point when, as some texts put it, "Heaven spontaneously reveals its secrets." Its practice must be performed under the close supervision of a master, who provides "oral instructions" (koujue) necessary to understand the processes that practitioners performs with minerals and metals, or undergo within themselves.


To transcend space and time — the two main features of the cosmos — alchemists should take care of their correspondences to the work they perform. In Waidan, space is delimited and protected by talismans (fu), and the laboratory (danwu, lit. "chamber of the elixirs") and instruments are properly oriented. According to some texts, moreover, the heating of the elixir must conform to minutely defined time cycles. This system, known as "fire phases" (huohou), allows an adept to perform in a relatively short time the same work that Nature would achieve in thousands of years — in other words, to reproduce and accelerate the rhythms of Nature. Bringing time to its end, or tracing it back to its beginning, is equivalent. In either case time is transcended, and the alchemist gains access to timelessness. The same is with space: its centre is a point devoid of dimension. From this spaceless and timeless point and adept is able to move along the axis that connects the higher and lower levels of being.


Human figure surrounded by
emblems representing
Yin and Yang and the five agents

Among a variety of procedures that the sources describe in an often allusive way, and in a language rich in metaphors and secret names, two stand out for their recurrence and importance. The first is based on True Lead (Yang) and True Mercury (Yin). In Waidan, these two substances are refined and joined in a compound whose properties are compared to the condition of original Oneness. In Neidan, True Lead refers to the knowledge of the Dao with which each being is fundamentally endowed, but is obscured in the conditioned state. Mercury, on the other hand, represents the pure, uncontaminated individual mind.

The second most important method, which pertains only to Waidan, is centered on cinnabar (Yang). The mercury contained within cinnabar (representing the True Yin principle 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 One before its separation into the two complementary principles.

The final object of Waidan and Neidan is represented as the compounding of an elixir often defined as huandan (lit., "Reverted Elixir"). This expression originally denotes an elixir obtained by bringing the ingredients back to their original condition through repeated cyclical operations — an operation comparable to the process that adepts performs within themselves with the support of the alchemical practice. The word dan ("elixir") also denotes cinnabar, suggesting that the process begins and ends on two corresponding points along an ascensional spiral.

In Neidan, the central role of cinnabar is taken up by True Lead, which represents original Oneness, and in this sense is a synonym of "gold" (jin).


External Alchemy. The extant Waidan sources suggest that the two main methods outlined above acquired progressive importance in the history of the discipline. In the Book of the Nine Elixirs (Huangdi jiuding shendan jing) and other texts dating from the first centuries CE, cinnabar is never the main ingredient of an elixir, and the lead-mercury compound either is used only to make a mud that is spread on the crucible to prevent it from breaking when it is heated, or is placed at the bottom of the crucible together with other ingredients. In the methods of the Nine Elixirs, the ingredients undergo cycles of refining in a hermetically sealed crucible. This process consists in a backward re-enactment of cosmogony that brings the ingredients back to a state of prima materia.

. . . What I said above is a general approximation of the Golden Elixir. Just look at it, and you will trust that the great undertaking is not on piece of paper.

Li Daochun, Zhonghe ji
(The Harmony of the Center: An Anthology, ca. 1290)

Important details on the early phase of Chinese alchemy are also found in portions 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, the Waidan tradition reached one of its peaks with Chen Shaowei (early eighth century), whose work describes the preparation of an elixir obtained by refining cinnabar. Each cycle yields a "gold" that can be ingested, or used as an ingredient in the next cycle. In the second part of the process, the final product of the first part is used as an ingredient of a "reverted elixir." 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 mediaeval word alchymia, one of whose suggested etymologies is from middle Chinese kiem-yak (the approximate pronunciation of mod. jinye, or "Golden Liquor") with the addition of the Arabic prefix al-.

Internal Alchemy. While the Tang period is sometimes defined as 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 fourth century, this school attributed particular importance to meditation, but also included the compounding of elixirs among its practices. The relevant sources exhibit the earliest traces of the interiorizazion of alchemy. Among the texts used in this school is the Huangting jing (Book of the Yellow Court), a meditation manual often quoted in later Neidan texts.

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 evaluated. In Neidan, the adept's entire 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, of earlier native contemplative and meditative disciplines, and of notions shared with Buddhism.

In Song and Yuan times, the history of Neidan identifies itself with the lines of transmission known as Southern Lineage (Nanzong) and Northern Lineage (Beizong, usually known as Quanzhen). The respective initiators were Zhang Boduan (eleventh century) and Wang Chongyang (1112-1170). 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, whose properties, transcending individuality, are identical to those of Emptiness and Non-being. Ming denotes the "imprint," as it is, that each individual entity receives upon being generated, and which may or may not be actualized in life (this word also means "destiny" or "life," but neither translation covers all the implications in a Neidan context). The Northern and Southern lineages, and subtraditions within them, were distinguished by the relative priority given to either xing or ming. The textual foundation of the Southern Lineage was provided by the Cantong qi (The Seal of the Unity the Three), a poetical work attributed to Wei Boyang, and by the Wuzhen pian (Awakening to Reality), a work also in poetry by Zhang Boduan. [See a translation of the Cantong qi and a translation of the Wuzhen pian.]

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Neidan tradition is known to have divided into several schools. One of the last greatest known masters was Liu Yiming (1734-1815), who in his works propounded an entirely spiritual interpretation of the scriptural sources of his tradition.