Introduction to
The Seal of the Unity of the Three (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.

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

1. Authorship

The Cantong qi is the most important Chinese text on alchemy. The title has been variously rendered as Kinship of the Three, Akinness of the Three, Triplex Unity, The Seal of the Unity of the Three, and in several other ways. The full title is Zhouyi cantong qi, which can be translated as The Seal of the Unity of the Three, in Accordance with the Book of Changes.

According to most widespread traditional view, the Cantong qi deals entirely with alchemy — in particular, with Neidan, or Internal Alchemy. Besides this one, there has been, within the Taoist tradition, a second way of reading the text: in agreement with its title, the Cantong qi is concerned not with one, but with three major subjects, namely Cosmology (the system of the Book of Changes), Taoism (the way of "non-doing"), and Alchemy, and joins them to one another into a single doctrine.

For about a millennium, the authorship of the Cantong qi has been attributed to Wei Boyang, who is said to be a southern alchemist and to come from the Shangyu district of Kuaiji, in the region of Jiangnan (his birthplace would correspond to present-day Fenghui in Shangyu, about 80 km east of Hangzhou).

The best-known account of Wei Boyang is found in the Shenxian zhuan (Biographies of the Divine Immortals), a work attributed to Ge Hong (283-243). According to this record (see a translation), Wei Boyang was the son of a high-ranking family. He and three disciples retired to a mountain and compounded an elixir. When they tested it on a dog, the dog died. Despite this, Wei Boyang and one of his disciples decided to ingest the compound, and they also died. After the two other disciples had left, Wei Boyang came to life again. He poured some of the elixir into the mouths of the dead disciple and the dog, and they also revived. Thus Wei Boyang and his faithful disciple attained immortality. With an abrupt change in tone and language, the account ends with a final paragraph, which mentions Wei Boyang's authorship of the Cantong qi and of another work entitled The Five Categories (Wu xianglei), criticizing at the same time those who read the Cantong qi as a work concerned with cosmology instead of alchemy.

He cultivated the truth in secret and silence, and nourished his mind in Empty Non-being. . . . Calm and tranquil, he guarded simplicity and followed nothing but the Dao. He always looked upon ceremonial garments as things of no value.

Book Icon Peng Xiao (?-955), Biography of Wei Boyang

Several centuries later, Peng Xiao (?-955) gives a different portrait of Wei Boyang in his commentary, dating from 947 CE (see a translation). With Peng Xiao, Wei Boyang becomes a learned master who is competent in prose and poetry, is versed in the esoteric texts, cultivates the Dao "in secret and silence," and nourishes himself "in Empty Non-being." At the end of his account, moreover, Peng Xiao gives further details on the early history of the text, saying:

Wei Boyang secretly disclosed his book to Xu Congshi, a native of Qingzhou, who wrote a commentary on it keeping his name hidden. At the time of Emperor Huan of the Later Han (r. 146-167), the Master again transmitted it to Chunyu Shutong. Since then, [the Cantong qi] has circulated in the world.

Elsewhere in his work, moreover, Peng Xiao reveals a different view on the authorship of the Cantong qi:

Some texts on the Dao say that the Cantong qi is in three parts (pian), and that Master Wei [Boyang], Xu Congshi, and Chunyu Shutong each wrote one part.

While Wei Boyang was a southern alchemist, Xu Congshi and Chunyu Shutong were representatives of the cosmological traditions of northern China. Xu was a native of Qingzhou, in the present-day region of Shandong. His disciple, Chunyu, was a "master of the methods" (fangshi) specialized in cosmology, prognostication, and the related sciences.

Sources prior to Peng Xiao show that Xu Congshi and Chunyu Shutong were originally believed to be the main authors of the Cantong qi. To give one example, an anonymous commentary to the Cantong qi, dating from ca. 700, is explicit about the roles played by Xu Congshi, Chunyu Shutong, and Wei Boyang in the creation of the text, saying:

Xu Congshi transmitted it to Master Chunyu Shutong . . . who wrote another part entitled The Five Categories . . . Chunyu was the first to transmit the whole text to Master Wei Boyang.

Elsewhere, the same commentary ascribes the Cantong qi to Xu Congshi alone. For example, the notes on the verse, "He contemplates on high the manifest signs of Heaven" (11:8), state: "The True Man Xu Congshi looked above and contemplated the images of the trigrams; thus he determined Yin and Yang."

The passages quoted above reflect contrasting views on the authorship of the Cantong qi, between those who maintained that the text pertained in the first place to the northern cosmological traditions, and those who saw it as a product of the southern alchemical traditions. Taking this point into account, the final paragraph in the Shenxian zhuan's account may have been added at a later time to further the second view.

With the possible exception of Ge Hong, the first author known to have attributed the composition of the whole Cantong qi to Wei Boyang is Liu Zhigu, a Taoist priest and alchemical practitioner who was received at court by Emperor Xuanzong around 750 CE. Two centuries later, another alchemist, Peng Xiao, cites and praises Liu Zhigu's discussion, and becomes the first major author to promote the same view. With the development of the Neidan traditions, this view became established. Since then, there has been virtually unanimous consent that the Cantong qi was not only transmitted, but also entirely composed, within the context of the alchemical tradition.

Next: 2. Date