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Persons in Chinese History - Ge Hong 葛洪

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Ge Hong 葛洪 (283-343 or 363), courtesy name Ge Zhichuan 葛稚川, style Baopuzi 抱朴子 (抱樸子), was a famous Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) Daoist master and physician. He was the first scholar who wrote about the practice of alchemy (liandan 煉丹) among Daoist circles. He came from an aristocratic family in Gourong 句容, Jiangsu, and was a great-grandson of the Three Kingdoms period 三國 (220-280) Daoist master Ge Xuan 葛玄. Ge Hong was therefore called Xiao Xianweng 小仙翁 (Ge Xuan was called Taiji Ge Xianweng 太極葛仙翁 "Old Immortal Ge of the Utmost Extreme"). As the youngest of three brothers Ge Hong had little chance to obtain a state office, all the more as after the death of his father, the financial situation of the family was very critical. As a teen Ge Hong worked on the fields and sold firewood to earn the little money for brush, ink and paper. Even then he often had not sufficient money to purchase the paper dearly necessary for his education.
With the age of 16 sui he began studying the Confucian Classics Xiaojing 孝經, Lunyu 論語, Shijing 詩經 and Yijing 易經. Yet he was much more interested into the methods of nourishing one's body in such a way that immortality might be achieved. Often enough laughed at by his friends, he finally became a student of the magician Zheng Yin 鄭隱, a master of the art of alchemy, whose disciple he was for more than fifteen years. According to his own words, Ge Hong was the only student who was allowed to read the "Classic of the Golden Cinnabar" (Jindan zhi jing 金丹之經) and the books Sanhuang neiwen 三皇内文 and Zhenzhong wuxing ji 枕中五行記. In 302 Zheng Yin prognosticated terrible political turmoils in the southern parts of the Jin empire and withdrew with his disciples to Mt. Huo 霍山. Only Ge Hong remained in Danyang 丹陽. A year later, when Zhang Chang 張昌 and Shi Bing 石冰 rose in rebellion, Ge Hong was appointed commander-in-chief (jiangbing duwei 將兵都尉), and successfully put down the uprising. He was rewarded with the title of General of Appeasing the Waves (fubo jiangjun 伏波將軍), but soon gave up his military career and planned to travel to the capital Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan), where he tried finding books on immortals. The political situation under the rebellion of the Eight Princes made it highly insecure to travel to the north. Southern China was also disturbed by a new uprising under Chen Min 陳敏. Fortunately enough, Ge Hong's friend Xi Han 稀含 was regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of Guangzhou 廣州 and had him appointed assistant commander (canjiang 參軍). Xin Han was soon killed by Guo Li 郭勵, but Ge Hong remained for several years in the south. These experiences led him to the decision to give up worldly life and to do his best to become a Daoist immortal. He would adhere to a strict diet, nourish his character (fu shi yang xing 服食養性), and cultivate his self in the mysterious tranquility (xiu xi xuan jing 修習玄静). His new teacher was Bao Jing 鮑靚. In 316 he returned to the north and settled down in Sangzi 桑梓. At the beginning of the Eastern Jin period the court remembered his former credits and was enfeoffed as a Marquis Within the Pass (guanneihou 關內侯), with an income of 200 villages. Although Ge Hong was recommended several times for high offices, once by Minister of Education (situ 司徒, see Three Dukes) Wang Dao 王導, and once by Gan Bao 干寶, he first refused to take over any government post but then became administrative advisor (ziyi canjun 諮議參軍). When he heard that cinnabar (dansha 丹砂) had been discovered in Jiaozhi 交趾 (northern Vietnam), he asked to be appointed magistrate (ling 令) of Goulou 句漏, Guangxi. Together with his nephew he traveled to the south and reached Guangzhou, where he was received by regional inspector Deng Yue 鄧岳. Deng persuaded him to settle down on Mt. Luofu 羅浮, where he could undergo his studies in alchemy. Ge Hong remained there until his death. Some sources say he died in 363, with the age of 81, but according to other statements, he died twenty years earlier.
Ge Hong was the first writer who systematically described the theories of immortality and the history of the Daoist believe in methods to prolong one's life. The most important methods of becoming immortal were preserving the unity (shou yi 守一), circulate energy (xing qi 行氣), gymnastics (daoyin 導引), and the art of the bedchamber (fangzhongshu 房中術). In his explanations to the cultivation of the self, Confucian influence can clearly be seen. A precondition for the search for immortality was a conduct of loyalty (zhong 忠), filial piety (xiao 孝), kindheartedness (ren 仁) and trustworthiness (xin 信). Without these moral preconditions, the search for immortality would be in vain. The Daoist adept would have to be kind to all things, benevolent to his fellow human beings, kindhearted to small animals, and he would have to enjoy the happiness of others, to regret the suffering of his neighbours, he would have to support and to help others, not hurt any life, and not curse any other person. He would feel happy for the success of others, and pity their loss as if it was his own failure. A real Daoist would not highly esteem himself, and refrain from self-praise. He would not eny others, nor be trapped by sycophants. In this way a Daoist will be able to exhibit a moral conduct of life, be blessed by Heaven, have success in his aspirations, and become a winged immortal.
It can be seen that the public conduct of a Daoist was in Ge Hong's eyes not much different from that of a Confucian scholar. According to the experience he had personally made, Ge Hong even supported the legalist method of harsh punishment to bring order into society. The ruler was for him similar to Heaven. Ge Hong therefore also criticized the "pure conversations" (qingtan 清谈) that were very popular among the literati of his time who refused to serve the government and instead drowned their self-pity in jars of wine. In Ge Hong's opinion literature was to be combined with moral virtues and an appropriate education. On the other side, a successful ruler will reign with the help of non-activity (wuwei 無為) His standpoint towards Confucianism and Daoism is therefore somewhat contradicting. Sometimes he prefers the teachings of Confucius, and in other places clearly favours Daoism.
As a Daoist writer, Ge Hong also created a systematic image of the philosophical Daoist theories that were popular in his times. The ancestor of all beings is the "mystery" (xuan 玄) of the voidness (xu 虛, wu 無), but above all stands the universal "unity" (yi 一) that embraces all things in the universe. The Daoist adept has therefore to reflect on the unity (si yi 思一) and to preserve the mysterious unity (shou yi, shou xuan yi 守玄一). This meditation is called the skill to divide one’s body (fen shen shu 分身術, fen xing zhi dao 分形之道) into individuals that are identical to the self. The aim of this division is to understand all persons, things and objects, where the unity is hidden, and to extend one's spirit (tong shen 通神) wherever nature is. The creation of the three "beclouded/Yin souls" and the seven "luminous/Yang souls" (san hun qi po 三魂七魄) in the self will enable the Daoist to gain a vision of the numinosity of Heaven and the spirituality of the earth (tian ling di zhi 天靈地祇), and to make the deities of the mountains and rivers serve oneself. This kind of supernatural status is part of immortality. The latter can be achieved with the help of preserving the essence (bao jing 保精) and consuming certain herbs (fu yao 服藥), but it is also dependent on the moral performance in a former life. Like in Buddhism, the results (yinguo 因果) of earlier behaviour can be seen in a kind of response (baoying 報應) in the present life. In case of a less good performance, moral virtues as known in Confucianism may give support.
Ge Hong was a highly experienced master in alchemy (liandan) who experimented a lot with different drugs and minerals. In the chapters Jindan 金丹 and Huangbai 黄白 in the Inner Chapters (neipian 内篇) of his book Baopuzi 抱朴子 he gives an overview of the history of alchemy and concretely describes the method of "alloying the cinnabar". He quotes from a lot of ancient recipes and "cinnabar methods" that can be seen as the first sprouts of chemistry in ancient China. His book had a deep influence on the Daoist school of Outer Alchemy (waidan 外丹) that flourished during the Tang period.
His book Baopuzi also includes information on medicine and pharmacology. The Daoists of his times were not only philosophers, but also physicians and botanists. This fact has to do with the importance of Daoist masters as healers for the masses, and not only with the attempt to obtain immortality by physical health. His book Zhouhou beiji fang 肘后備急方 quotes from ancient sources on Chinese medicine and drug recipes that are long since lost. It is the oldest Chinese book mentioning smallpox (tianhuabing 天花病). His medical treatises Zhouhou jiuzu fang 肘后救卒方 and Yuhanfang 玉函方 are lost. Information about medical herbs is also to be found in the chapter Xianyao 仙藥 in the Inner Chapters of the Baopuzi.
Ge Hong has written a vast treasure of literature. More than 60 titles are known. According to his own word, the Inner Chapters of the Baopuzi comprised 20 juan "scrolls", the Outer Chapters 50 juan. He had written stone inscriptions, odes, poems and rhapsodies with a volume of 100 juan, military texts, proclamations, manifestos, memorial, memoranda and notes with a length of 30 juan, furthermore the biographic collections Shenxianzhuan 神仙傳 and Yixianzhuan 隱逸傳 with a length of 10 juan each. Never published writings included interpretations and comments to the Confucian Classics, the histories and the various masters, with a size of 310 juan, as well as the pharmacopoeia Jingui yaofang 金匱藥方 (100 juan), and the 4 juan long medical encyclopedia Zhouhou beiji fang. Most of these texts are lost. The Daoist Canon Daozang 道藏 from the Zhengtong reign 正統 (1436-1449) and its supplement Xu Daozang 續道藏 from the Wanli reign 萬曆 (1573-1619) include 13 texts attributed to Ge Hong, yet it must be assumed the many authors used the name of the famous Ge Hong for marketing purposes.


Sources: Qing Xitai 卿希泰 (1994), Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 1, pp. 236-238. ● Gao Riguang 高日光 (1996), "Ge Hong 葛洪", in Feng Kezheng 馮克正, Fu Qingsheng 傅慶升 (ed.), Zhuzi baijia da cidian 諸子百家大辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), p. 87.

February 20, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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