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.

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2. Date

The view that the Cantong qi is entirely concerned with alchemy and was entirely composed by Wei Boyang in the 2nd century CE is virtually impervious to historical analysis. The view that the Cantong qi is concerned with three related subjects, instead, leaves more room to inquiries into the dates and the authorship of the respective textual portions.

(1) Cosmology

The cosmological views of the Cantong qi are rooted in the system of the Yijing, or Book of Changes. Moreover, commentators and scholars have suggested that the Cantong qi is also related to the so-called "apocrypha" (weishu), a Han-dynasty corpus of cosmological and divinatory texts that is now almost entirely lost. While this relation has often been taken as evidence of a Han date of the Cantong qi, some scholars have suggested that a work entitled Cantong qi may have existed during the Han period, but if it did exist, it was not the same as the present-day text.

One further point to be noted in this context is the fact that two passages of the Cantong qi are similar to passages found in the Yijing commentary written by Yu Fan (164-233), a major representative of the cosmological tradition. While Yu Fan may have drawn on the Cantong qi for his commentary on the Yijing, it appears more likely that, vice versa, the Cantong qi presents a poetical rendition of Yu Fan's passages. If this suggestion is correct, the cosmological portions of the Cantong qi were composed, or at least were completed, after the end of the Han period. (For more details on the "cosmological" portions of the Cantong qi, see Part 4 below.)

(2) Alchemy

Among the large number of Chinese scholars who have expressed their views about the date of the Cantong qi, the opinions of Chen Guofu (who was for several decades the main Chinese expert in this field) are especially worthy of attention. As he pointed out, no extant alchemical work dating from the Han period is based on the doctrinal principles of the Cantong qi, or uses its cosmological model and its language. In fact, the scope of Chen Guofu's remark may be broadened: First, neither the Cantong qi nor its cosmological and alchemical models play any visible influence on extant Waidan texts dating not only from the Han period, but also from the whole Six Dynasties (i.e., until the 6th century inclusive). Second, the same can be said with even more confidence about Neidan, since no text belonging to this branch of Chinese alchemy has existed — or has left traces of its existence — until the 8th century.

The earliest explicit mention of the Cantong qi in relation to alchemy was pointed out by Arthur Waley in the early 1930s. It is found in a piece by the poet Jiang Yan (444-505), who mentions the Cantong qi in a poem devoted to an immortal named Qin Gao. The relevant lines of the poem read, in Arthur Waley's translation:

He proved the truth of the Cantong qi;
in a golden furnace he melted the Holy Drug.

(For more details on the "alchemical" portions of the Cantong qi, see Part 5 below.)

(3) Taoism

The "Taoist" portions of the Cantong qi make a distinction between the paths of "superior virtue" (shangde) and "inferior virtue" (xiade) — i.e., the paths of non-doing (wuwei) and of alchemy. This distinction is drawn from the perspective of the former path, and conforms to principles set forth in the Daode jing. If this point is taken into account, it appears evident that those who gave the Cantong qi its present shape could only be the nameless representatives of the Taoist traditions of Jiangnan, who had essential ties to the doctrines of the Daode jing.

Enfolding and encompassing the Way of Yin and Yang is like being an artisan and a charioteer who level the marking-cord and the plumb-line, hold the bit and the bridle, align the compass and the square, and follow the tracks and the ruts.

Book Icon Cantong qi (The Seal of the Unity of the Three)

Moreover, the Taoist portions of the Cantong qi contain passages that criticize the Taoist methods of meditation on the inner deities. Despite this, the Cantong qi draws some of its terminology from texts pertaining to Taoist meditation, and in particular from the "Inner" version of the Scripture of the Yellow Court (Huangting jing), a work belonging to the Shangqing revelations of 364-70. Since the shared terms are evenly distributed among the different parts of the Cantong qi, it seems clear that an anonymous "hand" — the collective hand of the southern Taoist traditions — revised the text, probably after the end of the 4th century. (For more details on the "Taoist" portions of the Cantong qi, see Part 6 below.)

On the basis of the above evidence, it may be concluded that "the Cantong qi was composed in different stages, perhaps from the Han period onward, and did not reach a form substantially similar to the present one before ca. 450, and possibly one or even two centuries later."

Back: 1. Authorship

Next: 3. Composition