Qian and Kun, Kan and Li

The Seal of the Unity of the Three (Cantong qi), Poem 1

Cantong qi: The Seal of the Unity of the Three

Reproduced from:

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.

Chrome bullet   This page is part of a series on the Seal of the Unity of the Three. See the complete index.


乾坤者易之門戶、衆卦之父母。坎離匡郭、運轂正軸。 5 牝牡四卦、以為橐籥。


1-4"Qian ☰ and Kun ☷ are the door and the gate of change,"
 the father and the mother of all hexagrams.
 Kan ☵ and Li ☲ are the inner and the outer walls,
 they spin the hub and align the axle.
5-6Female and male, these four trigrams
 function as a bellows and its nozzles.

Notes to Poem

Sections 1-17 of Book 1 of the Canqong qi are devoted to cosmology. The constant conjunction of Qian and Kun, the active and the passive principles, gives birth to all phenomena in the world of change. Therefore Qian and Kun are "the door and the gate" through which change arises, and "the father and the mother" of all emblems that represent change. As they join with one another, Qian ☰ entrusts his generative potential to Kun and, in doing so, becomes Li ☲; Kun ☷ receives the essence of Qian to bring it to fruition and, in doing so, becomes Kan ☵. Since Kan and Li embrace Qian and Kun, represented by the respective inner lines, they provide "inner and outer walls" to Qian and Kun: the Yin principle (☵) harbors True Yang (solid line), and the Yang principle (☲) harbors True Yin (broken line).

The two sets of walls shaped as joined semicircles

If the two sets of walls are shaped as joined semicircles, they form a wheel (see the picture). The central hub is the emptiness from which existence comes forth; the axle passing through the hub is Qian and Kun, which hold the wheels in position; and the wheels with their spokes are the compass of space and the cycles of time governed by Kan and Li. The Daode jing (Book of the Way and its Virtue) uses the same images to illustrate the operation (or "function," yong) of emptiness at the center of the cosmos: "Thirty spokes share one hub: wherein there is nothing lies the function of a carriage. . . . Therefore in what is there lies the benefit; in what is not there lies the function" (Daode jing, 11).

Qian, Kun, Kan, and Li are also compared to a bellows and its nozzles. The bellows (Qian and Kun) is empty, but sends forth its breath through the nozzles (Kan and Li). This image too alludes to a passage in the Daode jing, which refers to the empty center that brings about existence saying: "The space between Heaven and Earth — is it not like a bellows? As empty, it is never exhausted; as it moves, it continues to pour" (Daode jing, 5).

Notes to Verses

1. "Qian and Kun are the door and the gate of change." This sentence is an almost literal quotation from the "Appended Sayings" of the Book of Changes: "Qian and Kun are indeed the door and the gate of change!" (B.5; see Wilhelm, The Book of Changes, 343).

2. The father and the mother of all hexagrams. Compare Book of Changes, "Explanation of the Trigrams": "Qian is Heaven, therefore he is called the father. Kun is Earth, therefore she is called the mother" (sec. 9; see Wilhelm, 274). See also the "Commentary on the Judgement" on the hexagrams Qian (no. 1) and Kun (no. 2): "Great indeed is Qian, the Origin! The ten thousand things owe their beginning to him . . . Perfect indeed is Kun, the Origin! The ten thousand things owe their birth to her" (see Wilhelm, 370 and 386).

3. Kan and Li are the inner and the outer walls. In the trigrams Kan ☵ and Li ☲, the lower lines are the "inner wall," and the upper lines are the "outer wall." The central lines respectively belong to Qian ☰ and Kun ☷.