External Alchemy (Waidan)


Great Clarity

Translations on this page are reproduced from:

Great Clarity: Daoism and Alchemy in Early Medieval China

Fabrizio Pregadio
Stanford UP, 2006

This is the first book to examine extensively the religious aspects of Chinese alchemy. Its main focus is the relation of alchemy to the Daoist traditions of the early medieval period (3rd to 6th centuries). It contains full translations of three important medieval texts, all of them accompanied by running commentaries. Read more on this book.

Texts on External Alchemy



Benefits of the elixirs

Related pages

Alchemical Texts

Taoist Texts

In the Taiqing tradition, compounding an elixir is part of a larger process that consists of several stages, each of which is marked by the performance of rites and ceremonies. It is this process, and not merely heating the ingredients in the crucible, that constitutes the alchemical practice. Receiving the scriptures and the oral instructions, building the laboratory, kindling the fire, and ingesting the elixirs all require offering pledges to one's master and to the gods, observing rules on seclusion and purification, performing ceremonies to establish and protect the ritual area, and making invocations to the highest deities. Instead of being seen as mere appendages to the alchemical work, these ritual acts are deemed to be as essential to achieving an elixir as are the ingredients.

Ceremony of Transmission

Rules for the transmission. Throw a golden figurine of a man weighing nine ounces and a golden figurine of a fish weighing three ounces into an east-flowing stream, and utter an oath. Both should be provided by the one who receives this Way. Before this, undertake the purification practices and perform the ablutions. On the banks of the stream, in a place unfrequented by other people, arrange a seat for the Mysterious Woman (Xuannü).(1) Burn some incense and announce to Heaven: "I wish to transmit the Way to obtain a long life to (name of the recipient)!" Lay the Book of the Elixirs on a stand, and place the seat [for the Mysterious Woman] there. When you are ready to transmit the Way, face north and do not disclose it for one [double] hour. If the sky is clear and there is no wind, the Way can be transmitted. [Master and disciple] seal their covenant by drinking together some blood of a white chicken. Transmit the oral instructions and the essentials of the compounding of the elixirs, and throw the golden figurines of the man and the fish into the stream. This is done so that the multitudes of those who are not suited for becoming a divine immortal(2) never see this Way.

(1) The Mysterious Woman is the goddess who revealed the Book of the Nine Elixirs to the Yellow Emperor. The seat is the place where the deity comes to observe the ceremony.

(2) Literally, "those who do not have the bones of a Divine Immortal," that is, do not have an inner constitution fit to obtain immortality.

Book Icon Book of the Nine Elixirs (Huangdi jiuding shendan jingjue, chapter 1). Translation published in Pregadio, Great Clarity, 161.

Retirement and Purifications

When you want to compound the Divine Elixirs you should dwell in the depths of a mountain, in a wide moorland, or in a place deserted and uninhabited for endless miles. If you compound them among other people you should stay behind thick, high walls, so that nothing can be seen between the inside and the outside. Your companions should not number more than two or three. First undertake the purification practices for seven days, and increase your purity with ablutions and the five fragrances. Do not pass by filth and dirt, or by houses where mourning is being observed, or by houses inhabited by women of the age of marriage. . . . When you compound the Divine Medicines, beware of intercourse with common and dull people. Do not let the envious, those who talk too much, and those who do not have faith in this Way hear or know about it. If they do, the compounding of the Divine Medicines would not be successful.

Book Icon Book of the Nine Elixirs (Huangdi jiuding shendan jingjue, chapter 1). Translation published in Pregadio, Great Clarity, 161-62 and 163.

Protection of Space

When you compound the great medicines, you should always stay in a quiet place in the mountain forests. Build the Chamber of the Great Medicines and hang four swords at its four sides. Then make the Pellet for Expelling the Demons and the Talisman for Expelling the Demons. You should affix and hang them [inside the Chamber]; if you do not do so, when the time comes to compound the great medicines their essence and pneuma (jingqi) would be inhaled by the demons. This is why you should protect the medicines by driving away noxious demons and spirits.

Method for making the Pellet for Expelling the Demons: Take equal quantities of cinnabar, realgar, orpiment, tortoise shell, black veratrum root, peach pits, aconite tuber collected in spring, aconite tuber collected in autumn, great bulb of pinellia tuberifera, poison ivy, sulphur, croton seed, fresh rhinoceros horn, umbrella leaf, musk, spindle tree wings, and dried centipedes. Pound these seventeen ingredients and sieve them, mix them with the juice of anise follicles, and make pellets the size of the yolk of a hen's egg. When you compound the medicines of immortality, hang one pellet within the four walls [of the Chamber]. If you burn one pellet, the hundred demons will run away. If you burn another pellet, you will kill all of them. Keep this method secret, as it is very effective!

Book Icon Book of Great Clarity (Taiqing jing tianshi koujue). Translation published in Pregadio, Great Clarity, 88.

Building the Laboratory

Build the Chamber of the Divine Stove near an east-flowing stream. The Chamber should be forty feet long, twenty feet wide, and its foundation should be four feet from the ground. First dig the earth for a few feet; if you do not find an old well or a tomb, you can raise the foundation there. The Chamber should have three doors, facing south, east, and west. Place the stove in the center, with the mouth facing west. Arrange an iron stand inside the stove and set the crucible on it, so that it is nine inches from the walls of the stove. Cover the stove with bricks plastered with fine clay.

Book Icon Book of the Reverted Elixirs in Nine Cycles (Jiuzhuan huandan jing yaojue). Translation published in Pregadio, Great Clarity, 95-96.

Choice of Time

To prepare the Medicines, the fifth day of the fifth month is most auspicious, followed by the seventh day of the seventh month. It is good to start on a jiazi or a dingsi day, or on a day of Opening (kai) or Removal (chu).(1) The next best are the jiashen, yisi, or yimao days. The days on which the preparation of the Medicines is forbidden are:

     in spring, wuchen and jisi;
     in summer, dingsi, wushen, renchen, and jiwei;
     in autumn, wuxu, xinhai, and gengzi;
     in winter, wuyin, jiwei, guimao, and guiyou.

The day of the Killer of the Month (yuesha), the days in which the Branch (zhi) and the Stem (gan) are in opposition, the day of Receiving (shou) as well as the renwu, bingxu, guihai, and xinsi days in the first, second, and third month of each season, the day of the Establishment (yuejian), and those of new and full moon, are all inauspicious and cannot be used for starting the fire.(2)

(1) In the jianchu (Establishment and Removal) hemerological system, the days of Opening and Removal are the second and the eleventh, respectively, in the twelve-day cycle that begins on a day of Establishment. The day of Establishment is marked by the same Earthly Branch as the current month.

(2) For the sentence on the Branches of Earth and the Stems of Heaven (tiangan) I follow the reading of the corresponding passage in Taiqing jinye shendan jing, 1.4a-b. The Killer of the Month is a calendrical demon active on different days according to the current month. In the eleventh month (zi) he is on the Branch wei, in the twelfth month (chou) he is on chen, in the first month (yin) he is on chou, and so forth. A day of Receiving is the tenth in the twelve-day cycle that begins on a day of Establishment.

Book Icon Book of the Nine Elixirs (Huangdi jiuding shendan jingjue, chapter 1). Translation published in Pregadio, Great Clarity, 162-63.

Kindling the Fire

When you start the fire you should perform a ceremony beside the crucible. Take five pints of good quality white liquor, three pounds of dried ox meat, the same amount of dried mutton, two pints of yellow millet and rice, three pints of large dates, one peck of pears, thirty cooked chicken's eggs, and three carp, each weighing three pounds. Place them on three stands, and on each stand burn incense in two cups. Pay obeisance twice, and utter the following invocation:

"This petty man, (name of the officiant), verily and entirely devotes his thoughts to the Great Lord of the Dao (Da Daojun), Lord Lao (Laojun), and the Lord of the Great Harmony (Taihe jun). Alas, this petty man, (name of the officiant), covets the Medicines of Life! Lead him so that the Medicines will not volatilize and be lost, but rather be fixed by fire! Let the Medicines be good and efficacious, let the transmutations take place without hesitation, and let the Yellow and the White be entirely fixed! When he ingests the Medicines, let him fly as an immortal, have audience at the Purple Palace (Zigong), live an unending life, and become an accomplished man (zhiren)!"(1)

Offer the liquor, rise, and pay obeisance two more times. Finally offer kaya nuts, mandarins and pomelos. After that, the fire may be started according to the method.

(1) The Purple Palace is in the constellation of the Northern Dipper, at the center of the cosmos.

Book Icon Book of the Nine Elixirs (Huangdi jiuding shendan jingjue, chapter 1). Translation published in Pregadio, Great Clarity, 163-64.

Consecrating the Elixir

After you achieve gold, take one hundred pounds of it and arrange a major ceremony. For the procedure there is a separate scroll, but this is not the same ceremony as the one performed for compounding [the elixirs of] the Nine Tripods. For this ceremony you separately weigh and arrange different quantities of gold.

You offer:

twenty pounds to Heaven
five pounds to the Sun and the Moon
eight pounds to the Northern Dipper
eight pounds to the Great One (Taiyi)
five pounds to the god of the well
five pounds to the god of the stove
twelve pounds to the Count of the River (Hebo)
five pounds to the god of the soil
five pounds each to the spirits and the divinities of the doors, of the house, of the village, and to the Lord of Clarity (Qingjun)

This makes eighty-eight pounds altogether. With the remaining twelve pounds, fill a beautiful leather bag, and on an auspicious day silently leave it in a very crowded spot of the city market, in the peak hour. Then leave without turning back.

Book Icon Baopu zi, chapter 4. Translation published in Pregadio, Great Clarity, 98.

Ingesting the Elixir

When you want to ingest the Medicine, undertake the purification practices, observe the precepts, and perform the ablutions for five times seven days. At dawn, burning some incense, kneel down and pay obeisance facing east. Ingest the Medicine in pills the size of large grains of millet, or of small beans.

Book Icon Book of the Nine Elixirs (Huangdi jiuding shendan jingjue, chapter 1). Translation published in Pregadio, Great Clarity, 169.