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.

7. Commentaries

Chrome bullet On this subject, see also The Seal of the Unity of the Three: Commentaries and Editions

With the exception of the Daode jing and the Zhuangzi, few Taoist texts have enjoyed an exegetical tradition as voluminous and diversified as the Cantong qi. More than three dozen traditional commentaries are extant, written between ca. 700 and the final years of the Qing dynasty. Different sources — in particular, bibliographies and premodern library catalogues — yield information on about twice as many lost commentaries and closely related works.

Commentaries in the Taoist Canon

The Taoist Canon (Daozang) of 1445 contains the following commentaries to the standard text:

(1) Zhouyi cantong qi zhu (Commentary to the Cantong qi). Anonymous, dating from ca. 700, containing the only surviving explication of the Cantong qi as a work concerned with Waidan. Only the portion corresponding to part 1 is extant.

(2) Zhouyi cantong qi. Attributed to a venerable Taoist immortal, Yin Changsheng, also dating from ca. 700.

(3) Zhouyi cantong qi fenzhang tong zhenyi (True Meaning of the Cantong qi, with a Subdivision into Sections). Peng Xiao (?-955), dating from 947.

(4) Zhouyi cantong qi kaoyi (Investigation of Discrepancies in the Cantong qi). Zhu Xi (1130-1200), dating from 1197.

(5) Zhouyi cantong qi. Chu Yong (also known as Chu Huagu, fl. ca. 1230), dating from ca. 1230.

(6) Zhouyi cantong qi jie (Explication of the Cantong qi). Chen Xianwei (?-after 1254), dating from 1234.

(7) Zhouyi cantong qi fahui (Elucidation of the Cantong qi). Yu Yan (1258-1314), dating from 1284.

(8) Zhouyi cantong qi zhu (Commentary to the Cantong qi). Anonymous Neidan commentary, dating from after 1208.

The first two commentaries present a somewhat unrefined state of the text, not divided into sections, with several sentences not yet normalized into 4- or 5-character verses, and — a significant detail — with more explicit allusions to Waidan compared to the later redactions (where certain sentences appear in slightly modified forms). In the mid-10th century, Peng Xiao revised the text and produced the version that is, directly or indirectly, at the basis of most later commentaries. His work, which is divided into 90 sections, has not reached us in its original form; there is clear evidence that it was altered in the early 13th century with the incorporation of several dozen readings drawn from Zhu Xi's text. The revised version of Peng Xiao's text is faithfully followed by the anonymous Neidan commentary. The first text to be based on a comparison of earlier editions was established by Zhu Xi, but his work was deprived of most of its critical notes by the mid-14th century. Zhu Xi's text in turn served as a model to Chu Yong. The two remaining commentaries in the Taoist Canon are those by Chen Xianwei, whose text derives from Peng Xiao; and by Yu Yan, who based his work on Zhu Xi's text. Yu Yan's learned commentary contains quotations from about one hundred different texts, and is accompanied by philological notes on variants found in earlier editions.

Other Commentaries

All the later scriptures on the Elixir and all the later books of the masters were written on the basis of The Unity of the Three. Therefore The Unity of the Three is the king of the scriptures on the Elixir of all times.

Book Icon Liu Yiming, Commentary to The Seal of the Unity of the Three (1799)

The Neidan commentary by Chen Zhixu (1290-ca. 1368) is entitled Zhouyi cantong qi zhujie (Commentary and Explication of the Cantong qi) and dates from ca. 1330. His text is ultimately based on Peng Xiao's redaction, but contains about four dozen readings that are not documented in earlier extant works.

With the exception of Zhu Xi's work, all extant commentaries to the Cantong qi written through the Yuan period (1279-1368) are related to the Taoist alchemical traditions. During the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, the Cantong qi continued to exert its prestige on Neidan, but its influence also extended to other fields. Zhu Xi's commentary, in particular, inspired many literati to read the text and write about it. The commentaries by Xu Wei (ca. 1570) and Wang Wenlu (1582) during the Ming period, and those by Li Guangdi (ca. 1700), Wang Fu (ca. 1750), and Li Shixu (1823) during the Qing period, are representative of this trend.

The redaction by Chen Zhixu was, either on its own or in a substantial way, at the basis of the commentaries by Xu Wei, Wang Wenlu, Li Guangdi, and Wang Fu, as well as those by Zhang Wenlong (1566), Zhen Shu (1636), and Dong Dening (1787). Other commentators, including Lu Xixing (1569, revised in 1573) and Zhu Yuanyu (1669), based their texts on other redactions.

Commentaries to the "Ancient Text"

Ten commentaries to the Ancient Text version of the Cantong qi are extant, including those by Wang Jiachun (1591?), Peng Haogu (1599), Qiu Zhao'ao (1704), and Liu Yiming (1799), whose authors were affiliated with different Ming and Qing lineages of Neidan.

Back: 6. Alchemy