The Golden Elixir Taoist Alchemy Articles

The Alchemical Model of the Cantong qi

Cantong qi: The Seal of the Unity of the Three

Based on the Introduction of:

The Seal of the Unity of the Three: A Study and Translation of the Cantong qi, the Source of the Way of the Golden Elixir

Fabrizio Pregadio
Golden Elixir Press, 2011
Paperback ● Hardcover ● PDF (abridged)

Under an allusive poetical language and thick layers of images and symbols, the Cantong qi hides the exposition of the teaching that gave origin to Taoist Internal Alchemy (Neidan). In addition to a complete translation, this book contains a detailed introduction to the history and teachings of the Cantong qi, explanations of each of its sections, and notes on its verses.


The alchemical discourse of the Cantong qi revolves around Lead and Mercury. Its basic principles are simple and straightforward, and proceed directly from its views on the relation between the Dao and the "ten thousand things" (wanwu).

Qian and Kun, Kan and Li

As in the whole of Taoism, this relation is explained by means of a sequence of stages. The absolute principle establishes itself as Unity, which divides itself into the active and the passive principles — namely, Qian and Kun, respectively equivalent to original Yang and Yin, or True Yang and True Yin. The re-conjunction of these principles gives birth to all entities and phenomena in the world. All these "stages" occur simultaneously.

From its own perspective, dominated by duality, the cosmos is a reflection of the absolute principle; and like all reflections, it is an inverted image of that principle. In the cosmos, True Yang is concealed within Yin, and True Yin is concealed within Yang. Each Yang entity, therefore, harbors True Yin, and vice versa. In the terminology of the Book of Changes, the Yang and Yin prior to the generation of the world correspond to Qian and Kun, and the Yin and Yang posterior to the generation of the cosmos correspond to Kan and Li, respectively. The trigrams of the Book of Changes clearly represent this configuration: Qian ☰ (True Yang) is the solid line within Kan ☵ (Yin), and Kun ☷ (True Yin) is the broken line within Li ☲ (Yang).(*)

(*) True Yin is also called "Yin within Yang," and True Yang, "Yang within Yin." Kan ☵ and Li ☲ are equivalent to the black and white halves of the well-known Yin-Yang emblem: the black half contains a white dot (equal to the inner line within Kan ☵, "Yang within Yin"), and the white half contains a black dot (equal to the inner line within Li ☲ , "Yin within Yang").

Alchemical Emblems

First and foremost among the entities that reflect the absolute principle is the cosmos itself. The world is Yin in relation to the Dao, but conceals its One Breath, which is True Yang. The alchemical process, therefore, consists in tracing the stages of the generative process of the cosmos in a reverse sequence, in order to recover the hidden One Breath and return to it. In alchemical language, True Lead (☰) and True Mercury (☷) respectively represent True Yang and True Yin. The Yin and Yang entities that respectively contain these authentic principles are represented by "black lead" (i.e., native lead ☵) and cinnabar (☲). In the strict sense of the term, alchemy consists in extracting True Lead from "black lead" and True Mercury from cinnabar, and in joining them to one another.

A crucial point to consider, which directly derives from the principles outlined above, is that True Yang is the counterpart of True Yin, but — being the One Breath of the Dao — it is also the state of Unity prior to its subdivision into Yin and Yang. (This aspect of True Yang is often referred to as Pure Yang, chunyang). This explains the priority given to True Yang in the alchemical process.(*)

(*) This, too, ultimately reflects the perspectives of the relative domain, which is the starting point of alchemy. As long as it may be named, the pure, absolute, undifferentiated state of Non-Being is Pure Yin. Alchemically, this state is Mercury; but few authors of alchemical texts are inclined to provide details on this point. The Wuzhen pian (Awakening to Reality) refers to it saying: "When you use Lead, you should not use ordinary lead — but even True Lead is discarded after you have used it. These are the wondrous instructions on using Lead. Use Lead and do not use Lead: these are trustworthy words" ("Jueju," poem 9).

As a consequence, "Lead" has three meanings in alchemy. From the higher to the lower one, these meanings are:

(1) The state of Unity before its separation into Yin and Yang

(2) The True Yang of the precelestial state (True Lead), which is a counterpart of True Yin (True Mercury)

(3) The Yin of the postcelestial state ("black lead"), which is a counterpart of postcelestial Yang (cinnabar)

Five Agents

When the five agents (wuxing) are used to represent the alchemical process, the basic configuration is equivalent to the one seen above. "Black lead" and cinnabar are Water and Fire, and True Lead and True Mercury are Metal and Wood. As we saw earlier, in the inverted sequence of the five agents, which is one of those active in the alchemical process, Water ("black lead") generates Metal (True Lead), and Fire (cinnabar) generates Wood (True Mercury).

Soil, the fifth agent, allows the entire alchemical process to unfold, and also represents its completion. Positioned at the center of the other agents, Soil is emblematic of Unity containing True Yin and True Yang. Its Yang half corresponds to the inner line of Kan ☵ (True Lead), and is typically represented by the celestial stem wu 戊. Its Yin half corresponds to the inner line of Li ☲ (True Mercury), and is represented by the celestial stem ji 己. Being found within both ingredients of the Elixir, Soil stands for their fundamental unity, and enables them to conjoin.