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Zhouyi cantong qi 周易參同契 "Token For the Agreement of the Three According to the Book of Changes"

The Zhouyi cantong qi 周易參同契 "Token for the agreement of the Three according to the Book of Changes", shortly called Cantongqi, is the most important early Daoist treatise on Inner Alchemy. It is attributed to the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220) master Wei Boyang 魏伯陽. The living dates of Wei Boyang, personal name Ao 翱, style Yunyazi 雲牙子, are not known. He is said to have hailed from Guiji 會稽 (modern Shaoxing 紹興, Zhejiang) from a noble family. He refused to enter an official career. Together with three disciples, he withdrew to a mountain lodge and cultivated the Dao. In this place, he first practised Outer Alchemy and tried producing a pill of immortality. His first pill killed a dog. The second pill killed Wei Boyang and one of the disciples. The two others did not dare to tase the pill of immortality. After they had left to buy coffins, Wei Boyang, the dog and the loyal believer woke up and had become immortals. There must have been a lot of books on Daoist alchemy (danjing 丹經), and the attempt to become immortal by eating pills was so popular that whole society structures broke down, as some Daoist writings lament. Therefore, Wei Boyang compiled his 3 juan "scrolls" long book in order to describe the right way to acheive immortality. The methods and philosophy of Wei Boyang merged three different traditions, namely that of the "Book of Changes" Yijing 易經, that of Huang-Lao thought 黄老, and that of alchemy . The lines of the Yijing hexagrams are explained by the mysterious meanings of the alchemy scriptures. The changing hexagrams symbolized emotions and character of the believer, the teachings of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi as the guidelines, and the methods of the furnace to acheive perfection. These three different traditions have all the same origin and are again united in Wei Boyang's book. Each chapter is dedicated to one of these traditions, although they can never clearly separated: The first chapter mainly deals with the "Great Change" (dayi 大易), the second with the inner cultivation of life (neiyang 内養, yangxing 養性), and the last chapter with the "fire of the furnace" (luhuo 爐火). The creation of a pill (xiudan 修丹) is similar to the creation of the universe as explained in the "Book of Changes". Lead and quicksilver are represented by the hexagrams li 離 and kan 坎, Heaven (hexagram qian 乾) and Earth (hexagram kun 坤) are symbolized by the tripod and the various tools. Other complementary pairs, like ruler and minister, father and son, husband and wife, Yin and Yang are likewise to be found in the creative process of alchemy, expressed by the arrangement of the tools, the various ingredients, the time, tempering and the chemical transformation of materials. The process of time follows the six hexagrams related to the Celestial Stem jia (na jia liu gua 納甲六卦) and the the twelve hexagrams related to the months and double-hours (shier bi gua 十二辟卦). Cultivation (xiulian 修煉) and the operation of the "inner furnace" (luding 爐鼎) have to follow nature, Heaven, Earth and Yin and Yang. Only then, immortality can be acheived, and the practioner can ascend to Heaven. Important methods to acheive this goal are the twelve rests (shier xiaoxi 十二消息) and the six voidnesses (liuxu 六虛). While most people only make use of vulgar techniques (xiaoshu 小術) like inner viewing (cunsi 存思), eating breath (shiqi 食气), the art of the bedchamber (fangzhongshu 房中術) of offerings and praying to spirits and ghosts, the advanced practicioner melts together the five metals and eight stones in a proper relation to each other in the furnace and with the right amount of heat (huohou 火候), in order to produce medicine. This is done partially by Outer Alchemy (eating the golden cinnabar, fushi jindan 服食金丹) and by Inner Alchemy (nourishing oneself by refining breath neiyang jingqi 内養精氣). The relationship between the two can be seen in the corresponding terms Wei Boyang uses to describe the alchemical processes.

operatorjing essenceqi breath
phaseshui waterhuo fire
trigramkan li
animallong dragonhu tiger
metalgong quicksilverqian lead

The error of most adherents of alchemy is that they do not understand to investigate the profoundness of the Way of nature. Instead of prolonging their life, most of such people die prematurely. Wei Boyang was afraid that bamboo or cloth would not be an appropriate material to offer the signs of Heaven. He thus only wrote down the most important and basic information (jigang 紀綱), and even these were noted down without order. A reader really interested in the true meaning would have to study the writing one and once again and to think about its content repeatedly. In the course of time, the "branches" (zhitiao 枝條) would open their true meaning automatically. In fact, the Cantongqi is written in an obscure and seemingly chaotic manner. According to tradition, Wei Boyang handed the book over to Xu Congshi 徐從事, who secretly commented and explained the writing. There is an alchemy book attributed to him, the Guwen longhu shangjing 古文龍虎上經 . It is also reported that the Cantongqi was compiled under the influence of the Guwen longhu shangjing. During the time of Emperor Huan 漢桓帝 (r. 146-167), the book was given to a certain Chunyu Shutong 淳于叔通 who was the first to make it public. Wei Boyang is also credited with the authorship of a book called Wuxianglei 五相類 and the Busai yituo 補塞遺脱. The Song period 宋 (960-1279) Daoist encyclopedia Daoshu 道樞 mentions that the Cantongqi was compiled by Lou Jing 婁敬, called Caoyizi 草衣子 "Master of the grass clothes".
The received Cantongqi is a product of revisions, and the original text can not any more be separated from commentaries. It was highly venerated among Daoist scholars, but also by Confucians, mainly because it also used ideas included in the Confucian Classic Yijing. The commentaries to it therefore all deal with different aspects, like Inner Alchemy, Outer Alchemy, or the study of "the Changes" (yixue 易學). Tang period 唐 (618-907) commentators took the book as a description of the production of the pill of immortality from quicksilver, lead, or cinnabar, and so on, but Song period commentators declared it to be a description of the symbolic creation of a pill inside the body, with the help of assembling essences (jing 精) and breath (qi 氣). Even today, it is not clear to which extent the book was meant as an Outer Alchemy text. Concerning the authenticity of the text, it might be that there was an apocryphal text during the Han period called Yiwei cantong qi 易緯參同契 that had actually nothing to do with alchemy at all. Only during the Tang period, a text called Cantongqi might have evolved as a handbook on Outer Alchemy. There are more than 40 commentaries surviving, the most important of which were written by Peng Xiao 彭曉 (Zhouyi cantong qi fenzhang tongzhen yi 周易參同契分章通真義), Zhu Xi 朱熹 (Zhouyi cantong qi kaoyi 周易參同契考異), Chen Xianwei 陳顯微 (Zhouyi cantong qi jie 周易參同契解), Yu Yan 俞琰 (Zhouyi cantong qi fahui 周易參同契發揮), Chen Zhixu 陳致虛 and Jiang Yibiao 蔣一彪. The Daoist Canon Daozang 道藏 alone includes eleven commentaries.
Literally, the Cantongqi with its four- and five-character verses belongs to the type of Southern prose poetry.

Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰 (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典, vol. 2, p. 2302. Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe.
Qing Xitai 卿希泰 (ed. 1994). Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教, vol. 2, p. NNN. Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe.

Chinese literature according to the four-category system

August 17, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail