The Golden Elixir Taoism Articles Shangqing


Highest Clarity

The Encyclopedia of Taoism

This article is reproduced from:

Isabelle Robinet, "Shangqing

In The Encyclopedia of Taoism, vol. 2, pp. 858-66
Edited by Fabrizio Pregadio
Routledge, 2008

Chinese characters and bibliographic references to secondary studies are omitted in this online version. Asterisks (*) indicate cross-references to other entries in the book.

The Encyclopedia of Taoism

Table of Contents and List of Contributors


Sample Entries

Daode jing (Scripture of the Dao and Its Virtue)

daojia (Taoism; "Lineage[s] of the Way")

daojiao (Taoism; Taoist teaching; "Teaching[s] of the Way")

Daozang (Daoist Canon) and Subsidiary Compilations

jiao (Offering)

jindan (Golden Elixir)

Lingbao (Numinous Treasure)

Quanzhen (Completion of Authenticity)

Shangqing (Highest Clarity)

Tianshi dao (Way of the Celestial Masters)

The term Shangqing initially denoted a corpus of scriptures revealed to *Yang Xi (330-86) between 364 and 370 (see table 21). With later "apocryphal" texts, these scriptures were adopted by the southern Chinese aristocracy in the fifth and sixth centuries and were assigned the highest rank within the Three Caverns (*sandong) of the Taoist Canon. Later, the same term also designated a religious movement, whose actual founder was *Tao Hongjing (456-536), with its own patriarchs (see table 22), holy places, liturgy, and a large number of other texts.

As a body of doctrines and practices, Shangqing developed in southeastern China after the imperial court and the upper classes fled from the north, which had been invaded by non-Chinese peoples, and settled in the Jiangnan region. Here they were confronted by a local Chinese aristocracy of long standing that sought to reaffirm its own traditions over those imported from the north. Shangqing thus marked a revival of the religious legacy of southern China. Claiming to be on a higher level than its forerunners, it consists of a synthesis of the native ecstatic tradition, the late-Zhou and Han traditions of immortality seekers, and the religion of the Celestial Masters (*Tianshi dao) imported from the north. Besides a few local cults, Shangqing also incorporated — in a superficial way, but for the first time in Taoism — some features borrowed from Buddhism, and its sources show traces of the debates on *wu and you (Non-being and Being) that had engaged the *Xuanxue (Arcane Learning) thinkers. All these elements were blended into a coherent whole, imbued with reminiscences of old Chinese myths and of the literary tradition represented by the Chuci (Songs of Chu; trans. Hawkes, The Songs of the South) and by Sima Xiangru (ca. 179-117 BCE; Hervouet, Le chapitre 117 du Che-ki). This gave the Shangqing texts a remarkable poetic and literary quality, and secured them success among the Chinese intelligentsia.


The revelations received by Yang Xi were addressed to the Xu family, especially Xu Mi (303-76) and his son Xu Hui (341-ca. 370), of whom Yang Xi was a client. The Xus, who had been related for many generations to *Ge Hong's family, were based in Jurong (near Nanjing, Jiangsu). Xu Mi's grandson, Xu Huangmin (361-429), disseminated the Shangqing manuscripts when he moved further south to Zhejiang, and upon his death bequeathed them to the Ma and Du families. These events marked the first dispersion of the original manuscripts, which was to be followed by several others. In the early 5th century, Wang Lingqi and Xu Huangmin's son, Xu Rongdi (fl. 431-32), produced many forgeries.

Before Tao Hongjing, several medieval Taoists — notably *Lu Xiujing (406-77) and *Gu Huan (420/428-483/491) — tried to reassemble the original texts, but Tao's effort was by far the most successful. Also thanks to his work, the school became the foremost Taoist tradition between the sixth and tenth centuries. Emperors interested in the Shangqing scriptures bestowed their favors upon the patriarchs of the school, including *Sun Youyue (399-489), Tao Hongjing, *Wang Yuanzhi (528-635), *Pan Shizheng (585-682), *Sima Chengzhen (646-735), and *Li Hanguang (683-769). Shangqing texts were the main sources of Taoist encyclopedias of that time (especially the *Wushang biyao and the *Sandong zhunang), and served as inspiration to *Wu Yun (?-778), Li Bai (Li Bo, 701-62), and many other poets. In Song times, patriarchs like *Zhu Ziying (976-1029) and *Liu Hunkang (1035-1108) initiated emperors and their families into the Shangqing mysteries. The Taoist section of the Taiping yulan (Imperial Readings of the Taiping Xingguo Reign Period), a major encyclopedia published in 983, and the ritual collections compiled in that period, such as the Wushang xuanyuan santian Yutang dafa (Great Rites of the Jade Hall of the Three Heavens, of the Supreme Mysterious Origin; CT 220), contain significant portions of Shangqing materials. From the 13th century, the Shangqing school lost much of its authority as the Celestial Masters gained ascendancy. The Shangqing registers (*lu), however, still ranked above all others.


Table 21. The Shangqing textual corpus. See Robinet, La révélation du Shangqing dans l'histoire du taoïsme, 2: 15-22 and passim. Some titles are given in abbreviated form, and some translations are tentative. The received Santian zhengfa jing (CT 1203; cf. no. 7 below) is not a Shangqing text.

1CT 5, 6, 7, 103Dadong zhenjing (Authentic Scripture of the Great Cavern)
2CT 1378Jinzhen yuguang bajing feijing (Winged Scripture of the Jade Radiance of Golden Truth and of the Eight Effulgences)
3CT 426, 1323Basu jing (Scripture of the Eight Pure Ladies)
4CT 1316Bu tiangang niexing qiyuan jing (Scripture of the Seven Primes on Pacing the Celestial Guideline and Treading the Stars)
5CT 1376, 1377Jiuzhen zhongjing (Central Scripture of the Nine Real Men)
6lostBianhua qishisi fang jing (Scripture on the Methods of the Seventy-four Transformations)
7lostSantian zhengfa jing (Scripture of the Orthodox Law of the Three Heavens)
8CT 33Huangqi yangjing sandao shunxing jing (Scripture on Following the Course of the Three Paths of the Yellow Pneuma [=Moon] and the Yang Essence [=Sun])
9CT 1373Waiguo fangpin Qingtong neiwen (Inner Script of the Azure Lad on the Distribution of the Outer Realms)
10CT 179, 255, 442, 639Lingshu ziwen (Numinous Writings in Purple Script)
11CT 1332Zidu yanguang shenyuan bian jing (Scripture on the Transformation of the Fiery Radiant Divine Origin, Written on Purple [Tablets])
12CT 1315Qingyao zishu jingen zhongjing (Collected Scriptures of the [Lord of?] Qingyao on the Golden Root, Written on Purple [Tablets])
13CT 1327Sanjiu suyu yujing zhenjue (Authentic Instructions on the Jade Scripture of the Pure Words of the Three [Primes] and the Nine [Old Lords])
14CT 354Sanyuan yujian sanyuan bujing (Scripture on the Distribution of the Three Primes, Jade Seal of the Three Primes)
15lostShijing jinguang cangjing lu [recte: lian?] xing jing (Scripture on the Essence of Stone and the Radiance of Metal for Hiding One's Shape and Refining [?] One's Form)
16CT 1359Danjing daojing yindi bashu jing (Scripture on the Effulgence of Cinnabar and the Essence of the Dao and on the Eight Arts to Conceal Onself within the Earth)
17CT 1331Shenzhou qizhuan qibian wutian jing (Scripture of the Divine Continent on the Dance in Heaven in Seven Revolutions and Seven Transformations)
18CT 1330Taidan yinshu (Concealed Writ of the Great Cinnabar [Palace])
19CT 1317Kaitian santu qixing yidu jing (Scripture on Crossing through the Three [Celestial] Passes and the Seven Stars to the Opening of Heaven)
20CT 1382Jiudan shanghua taijing zhongji (Central Records of the Essence of the Embryo and the Upper Transformation of the Ninefold Elixir)
21CT 1329Jiuchi banfu wudi nei zhenjing (Scripture of the Nine Red Bundled Talismans and the Inner Authenticity of the Five Emperors)
22CT 1334 (?)Shenhu shangfu xiaomo zhihui jing (Scripture of Wisdom on the Superior Talismans of the Divine Tigers and on [the Drugs for] Subduing the Minor Demons)
23CT 1372Gaoshang yuchen fengtai qusu shangjing (Superior Scripture of the Most Exalted Jade Dawn and the [Eight] Pure [Ladies] of the Palace of the Phoenix Terrace )
24CT 83, 1351Baihu heihe feixing yujing (Winged Scripture on Flying with the White-Winged and the Black-Feathered [Phoenixes])
25CT 84, 1391Qionggong lingfei liujia zuoyou shangfu (Superior Talismans of the Left and the Right of the Six Jia for the Numinous Flight to Exquisite Palace)
26CT 56Yupei jindang Taiji jinshu shangjing (Superior Scripture of the Jade Pendant and the Golden Ring Written on Golden [Tablets] in the Great Ultimate)
27CT 1393Jiuling taimiao Guishan xuanlu (Mysterious Register of the Turtle Mountain from the Great Wonder of [the Palace of] the Nine Numina)
28CT 1361, 1369Qisheng xuanji huitian jiuxiao jing (Scripture of the Mysterious Records of the Seven Saints for the Return to the Nine Celestial Empyreans)
29CT 1380Taishang huangsu sishisi fang jing (Most High Scripure of the Fourty-four Methods Written on Yellow Silk)
30CT 55Taixiao langshu qiongwen dizhang (Precious Writ of the Great Empyrean on the Exquisite Text of the Imperial Statement)
31CT 1357Gaoshang miemo dongjing jinxuan yuqing yinshu (Most Exalted Concealed Writ of the Jade Clarity of Cavernous Effulgence and Golden Mystery for the Extermination of Demons)
32CT 1336, 1337Taiwei tian dijun jinhu zhenfu (Authentic Talismans of the Golden Tigers of the Imperial Lord of the Heaven of Great Tenuity)
33CT 1333Taiwei tian dijun shenhu yujing zhenfu (Authentic Talismans of the Jade Scripture of the Divine Tigers of the Imperial Lord of the Heaven of Great Tenuity)
34---Taishang huangting neijing yujing Taidi neishu (Most High Jade Scripture of the Inner Effulgences of the Yellow Court, Inner Writ of the Great Emperor) [see Huangting jing]

Salvation and Immortality

As a religion, Shangqing reconciles different ideas about salvation based on a threefold conception of the human being:

1. A human being is a complex individual: immortality implies the unification of the spirits and entities that compose and animate the person.

2. A human being is linked to his ancestors whose sins and merits fall on him, and his salvation cannot be separated from theirs.

3. Salvation involves a cosmicization and is thus universal, in the sense that the adept inwardly becomes one with the universe.

In Shangqing, immortality is a private pursuit, without the intervention of human intermediaries. The ultimate goal of the adept's quest is illustrated by the image of the cosmic saint (*shengren), which is rooted in the Zhuangzi, the Liezi, and the Huainan zi, and integrates features drawn from popular imagery. Once an adept has obtained immortality, he will dwell in Emptiness and his body will emanate a supernatural radiance. He will enjoy eternal youth, have supernatural powers, and become one with the great forces of the universe. The terms used to describe this state indicate a transcendence of the dualism of life and death; for instance, the adept asks to "take his pleasure far away, where there is no round or square, deeply beyond phenomena, where Non-being and Being blend in Darkness," and to be born and die with the Void.

Immortality is no longer as evidently physical as it was in Ge Hong's tradition; if it is a bodily immortality, it involves the achievement of a spiritual body through meditation. Shangqing adepts aim at having their names written in the registers of life (shengji) held by divinities, or at unraveling the mortal knots that human beings are born with (Robinet, Taoist Meditation, 139-43). Salvation can also be obtained after death: an adept can ascend from the state of an "underworld governor" (dixia zhu, an immortal of inferior rank) to that of a celestial immortal. The Shangqing idea of rebirth as a way of salvation is very different from the Buddhist notion of reincarnation, and is an innovation that heralds *Neidan.

Human beings have three main possibilities for rebirth. One of them is based on a new view of *shijie (release from the corpse) as a stage of Taoist ascesis: when purification during life has remained incomplete, the body awaits purification in an intermediary realm such as the Great Yin (Taiyin). The adept may also be reborn in paradises where he undergoes purification by fire and is revived as an immortal. Finally, rebirth can also occur during one's lifetime, through experiencing again one's embryonic development. The latter method is called "nine transmutations" (jiuzhuan) or "ninefold elixir" (jiudan), two terms that relate rebirth to alchemy but on a purely spiritual level.

Gods and Spirits

In their relationships with divine beings, adepts strive to become one with them, sometimes with a touch of chaste love. Divinities are intercessors who appear to the believer and help him on his way to salvation, giving him the keys to celestial palaces, revealing their names and toponymy to him, and nourishing him with cosmic or celestial effluvia. The gods descend into the adept and guide him to the celestial kingdoms, hand in hand, where they share their pastimes with him. This relationship is remarkably different from the one described in the scriptures of the Celestial Masters. It is expressed in numerous hymns blending bliss, exaltation, and mystical joy that appear for the first time in a Taoist movement.

The various gods are all different forms of the Primordial Beginning, and can take many appearances. Among the highest are the Celestial King of Original Commencement (Yuanshi tianwang, see *sanqing); the Most High Lord of the Dao (Taishang daojun); the Imperial Lord (Dijun); the Imperial Lord of the Golden Portal (*Jinque dijun), who is also known as the Saint of the Latter Age (*housheng) and is identified with *Li Hong (Laozi's appellation as the messiah); the Queen Mother of the West (*Xiwang mu); and her companion *Qingtong (Azure Lad). Their primary role is to serve as mediators, and they are at the source of major revealed texts.

Shangqing inherits the Taoist vision of humanity as embodying many spirits, which is first found in the Han "weft texts" or weishu (see *Taoism and the apocrypha; the names of several spirits are the same or similar in both corpora). Cosmic deities, including the gods of the stars, the planets, and the five sectors of space, play a fundamental role in visualizations. They descend into the believer's body to make it luminous. Many live simultaneously in the heavens and within the human being, regularly inspecting the lives of adepts and updating the registers of life and death. Shangqing also maintains the earlier notions of the three ☞ Cinnabar Fields (*dantian) and the Three Corpses (sanshi; see *sanshi and jiuchong). In contrast to the Three Palaces of earlier times, however, Shangqing texts imagine that the brain is divided into Nine Palaces (*jiugong), which became a standard feature of Taoist subtle physiology. In addition, twenty-four effulgent gods dwell in the body, divided into three groups of eight known as the *bajing (Eight Effulgences), each of which is governed by one of the Three Pure Ladies (Sansu). These spirits play a key role in unraveling the mortal knots of the body. The Five Gods (wushen) of the registers of life, who live in the brain, lungs, liver, heart, and lower abdomen, are directed by the Great One (*Taiyi) in the brain (see *Taidan yinshu).


Table 22. The forty-five Shangqing patriarchs. Source: Maoshan zhi (Monograph of Mount Mao; CT 304), j. 11-12.

1Wei Huacun (251-334)24Mao Fengrou
2Yang Xi (330-86)25Liu Hunkang (1035-1108)
3Xu Mi (303-76)26Da Jingzhi (1068-1113)
4Xu Hui (341-ca. 370)27Xu Xihe (?-1127)
5Ma Lang28Jiang Jingche (?-1146)
6Ma Han29Li Jinghe (?-1150)
7Lu Xiujing (406-77)30Li Jingying (?-1164)
8Sun Youyue (399-489)31Xu Shoujing (?-1195)
9Tao Hongijng (456-536)32Qin Ruda (?-1195)
10Wang Yuanzhi (528-635)33Xing Rujia (?-1209)
11Pan Shizheng (585-682)34Xue Ruji (?-1214)
12Sima Chengzhen (647-735)35Ren Yuanfu (1176-1239)
13Li Hanguang (683-769)36Bao Zhizhen (?-1251)
14Wei Jingzhao (694-785)37Tang Zhidao (?-1258)
15Huang Dongyuan (698-792)38Jiang Zongying (?-1281)
16Sun Zhiqing39Jing Yuanfan
17Wu Fatong (825-907)40Liu Zongchang
18Liu Dechang41Wang Zhixin (?-1273)
19Wang Qixia (882-943)42Zhai Zhiying (?-1276)
20Cheng Yanzhao (912-90)43Xu Daoqi (1236-1291)
21Jiang Yuanji (?-998)44Wang Daomeng (1242-1314)
22Wan Baochong45Liu Dabin (fl. 1317-28)
23Zhu Ziying (976-1029)

Cosmology and Cosmography

Shangqing cosmology follows the traditional Chinese pattern based on the numbers 3 and 5 (see *sanwu): a vertical threefold division into Heaven, Earth, and Humanity corresponds to a horizontal fivefold division into the *wuxing. There are Nine Great Primordial Heavens created from pure cosmic pneuma, each of which in turn gives rise to three heavens for a total of thirty-six heavens (*sanshiliu tian). Another series is formed by eight heavens arranged horizontally. The Heavens of the Three Clarities (*sanqingpictures) are superior stages in the adept's progress. Other paradises are the stations of the sun, moon, and other astral bodies (planets, constellations, and the Northern Dipper or *beidou), as well as the far ends of the earth, sometimes designated after ancient myths. The Southern Paradise is a place of purification and rebirth.

Besides the traditional Five Peaks (*wuyue), Shangqing cosmography includes other sacred mountains corresponding to the Grotto-Heavens and the Blissful Lands (*dongtian and fudi). The axis of the world is Mount *Kunlun, also called Xigui shan (Turtle Mountain of the West) or Longshan (Dragon Mountain). Other mountains, such as the Renniao shan (Mountain of the Bird-Men), play an analogous role.

The underworld is a counterpart of the Dipper. Located in the mountain-city of *Fengdu, its administration is governed by the Northern Emperor (*Beidi) and is organized into six courts that judge the dead (six is a Yin number, related to obscurity and death). The end of the world, often evoked in Shangqing scriptures, is described in the Santian zhengfa jing (Scripture of the Orthodox Law of the Three Heavens; CT 1203; Ozaki Masaharu, "Taijō santen seihō kyō seiritsu kō"), in a way reminiscent of ideas already found in the Hanshu (History of the Former Han). The end of a cosmic cycle comes when the Yin and Yang pneumas reach their point of exhaustion. A lesser cycle ends after 3,600 celestial Yang or 3,300 terrestrial Yin revolutions, while a greater cycle ends after 9,900 celestial Yang or 9,300 terrestrial Yin revolutions. The Mother of Water (Shuimu), a "celestial horse" (tianma), a "great bird" (daniao), and Li Hong are the judges who, at that time, descend to earth to judge humanity.


Unlike the communal rites of the Celestial Masters, the Shangqing practices are individual and emphasize *meditation and visualization. The bureaucratic and theurgic aspects of the Celestial Masters' relationship to their gods are ignored: the celestial beings are not summoned with petitions but are invoked with prayers or chants, and there are no warlike struggles with demonic spirits. Physiological techniques and the ingestion of drugs and herbs are considered as minor; sexual practices are condemned or are interiorized and sublimated. The ritual aspect of the practices is flexible, and one is not impelled to observe the formal rules if it is impossible to do so.

The great variety of Shangqing practices can be categorized as follows:

1. Charms, recitations (*songjing), and hymns, usually accompanied by visualizations (*cun), whose purpose is to exterminate demons, summon spirits, or obtain salvation.

2. Visualization of spirits, some celestial and some corporeal (often both), who come to animate and spiritualize the body (see *Huangting jing and *Dadong zhenjing). The adept blends them all into one, and unites himself with them. Often at the end of these visualizations everything in the world and outside of it becomes effulgent. This group also includes the method of the Three Ones (*sanyi) described in the *Ciyi jing, the *Suling jing, and the *Jiuzhen zhongjing.

3. Ecstatic metamorphoses (see *bianhua).

4. Methods aiming at having one's name inscribed in the "registers of life" (Ciyi jing, *Basu jing, and Taidan yinshu).

5. Methods for loosening the mortal knots of the embryo (Basu jing, Jiuzhen zhongjing, and Taidan yinshu).

6. Ecstatic excursions (*yuanyou) and absorption of astral efflorescences (Basu jing and Jiuzhen zhongjing).

Interiorization is the major innovative feature of Shangqing, and its main legacy for Taoism. It consists of actualizing (cun), i.e., giving existence to entities pertaining to an imaginative and mystical world that lies between spiritual and physical existence (see *xiang). The adept has direct access to the sacred: the role of intermediary is not played by priests or other ritual officiants but by the scriptures themselves, which organize and codify relations between humanity and the gods, and between ordinary and sacred life. The importance of the written texts is emphasized to such a degree that the master's role consists only in certifying their legitimate transmission. The Shangqing scriptures are divine and precosmic, a token bestowed by the deities that promises salvation.

Isabelle ROBINET