Cantong Qi: The Seal of the Unity of the Three

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The Cantong qi is deemed to be the earliest book on alchemy in China.

The title has been variously translated 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 of the text is Zhouyi cantong qi, which can be translated as, for example, The Kinship of the Three, in Accordance with the Book of Changes.

According to the traditional view, well-established in China, the text was composed by Wei Boyang in the mid-second century CE, and 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.


The view that the Cantong qi is entirely concerned with alchemy and was entirely composed by Wei Boyang in the second 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 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“, 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, other 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 deserving attention 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, a major representative of the cosmological tradition. Suzuki Yoshijirō suggested that Yu Fan drew on the Cantong qi for his commentary on the Yijing.

Pregadio has suggested, vice versa, that 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.

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 (Chen Guofu, 1983:352-54). Pregadio’s views are even more radical in this regard:

“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 sixth 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 eighth century” (Pregadio, 2011:19-20).

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 (1930-32:8):

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

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 and elaborated on in the Zhuangzi.

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 and the Zhuangzi.

Moreover, as it has been pointed out (Pregadio 2011:26-27), 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 fourth century.

On the basis of the above evidence, Pregadio (2001:27) concludes 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.”

The “Ancient Text”

In the early sixteenth century, a new version of the Cantong qi, anachronistically called Guwen cantong qi, or Ancient Text of the Cantong qi, was created on the basis of a complete rearrangement of the scripture.

This version divides the sections in verses of 4 characters from those in verses of 5 characters, following a suggestion that was first given by Yu Yan in his commentary of 1284. Yu Yan refers to this as a sudden realization that he had after he finished to write his work:

Suddenly one evening, while I was in complete quietude, I heard something like a whisper saying: “Wei Boyang wrote the Cantong qi, and Xu Congshi made a commentary. The sequence of the bamboo slips was disrupted; this is why the portions in four-character verses, those in five-character verses, and those in prose are in disorder.” . . . I wish I could subdivide the text into three parts, respectively made of four-character verses, five-character verses, and prose, so that text and commentary are not confused, in order to facilitate the inquiries of future students. However, my book is complete, and I cannot change it.

The origins of the Ancient Text can be traced back to Du Yicheng, who came from Suzhou (like Yu Yan) and wrote a now-lost commentary on it in 1517. About three decades later, the famous literatus, Yang Shen (1488–1559), claimed to have found the work in a stone casket, and published it under his own name. Since then, the Ancient Text has been mainly associated with Yang Shen.

Several authors of commentaries to the standard version of the Cantong qi have regarded the Ancient Text as spurious, and similar criticism has also been voiced by Chinese scholars from the Qing period onward. This view has been partly influenced by the controversial personality of Yang Shen, who was known to have falsified early Chinese works (Schorr 1993).

Whether the verdict of “non-authenticity” is or is not accurate, it should be considered that the Ancient Text, despite the different arrangement, includes the whole Cantong qi, without any addition and with the omission of only a few verses; and that no one without a solid knowledge of the standard version of the Cantong qi, and of its doctrinal principles, could have fabricated a work of this nature. In the arrangement of the Ancient Text, the 4- and 5-character verses are not reproduced in the same sequence as in the standard version; and in the new arrangement, the discourse of Cantong qi reveals a much clearer pattern.

The Ancient Text gives prominence not only to the three main subjects of the Cantong qi, but also to the three authors traditionally considered to be involved in its composition. This is likely to be the main reason why several commentators, for whom Wei Boyang could only be the single author of the whole Cantong qi, and Internal Alchemy its single subject, rejected the Ancient Text altogether.

According to the new version, Wei Boyang wrote the portion entitled “Canon” (“Jing”) in verses of 4 characters; Xu Congshi—whom the Ancient Text exegetes regularly identify as Xu Jingxiu, as also did Yu Yan—contributed a “Commentary”  in verses of 5 characters; and Chunyu Shutong added a final section, entitled “The Three Categories” . In the Ancient Text, both the “Canon” and the “Commentary” are divided into three chapters, respectively devoted to cosmology, Taoism, and alchemy.


Qian, Kun, Kan, Li. The main cosmological emblems in the Cantong qi are Qian, Kun, Kan, and Li. Although these names belong to the vocabulary of the Book of Changes, in the Cantong qi they denote formless principles that serve to explicate how the Dao generates the world and manifests itself in it. The corresponding trigrams and hexagrams are symbolic forms used to represent those principles.

Qian is the active (“creative”) principle, essence, Yang, and Heaven; Kun is the passive (“receptive”) principle, substance, Yin, and Earth. Being permanently joined to one another in the precosmic domain, Qian entrusts its creative power to Kun, and Kun brings creation to accomplishment. In the everlasting instant in which Qian and Kun give birth to the cosmos, the Yang of Qian moves into Kun, and, in response, the Yin of Kun moves into Qian. In the symbolic representation by the corresponding trigrams, Qian entrusts its essence to Kun and becomes Li; Kun receives the essence of Qian and becomes Kan.

Kan and Li, therefore, replace Qian and Kun in the cosmic domain. Since they harbor the Yang of Qian and the Yin of Kun, respectively, as their own inner essences, they enable the Yin and Yang of the precosmic domain to operate in the cosmic domain. The main images of Qian and Kun are Heaven and Earth, which are immutably joined to one another. The main images of Kan and Li are the Moon and the Sun, which alternate in their growth and decline during the longer or shorter time cycles.

The five agents (wuxing) are Wood, Fire, Soil, Metal, and Water. They are generated in the first place by the division of original Unity into Yin and Yang, and by the further subdivision of Yin and Yang into four states. In the Cantong qi, Water and Fire are the Yin and Yang of the postcelestial state, and Wood and Metal are True Yin and True Yang of the precelestial state. Soil, the fifth agent, has both a Yang and a Yin aspect. Being at the center, it stands for the source from which the other four agents derive.

Time Cycles. The cosmological portions of the Cantong qi give emphasis to three emblematic time cycles: the day, the month, and the year. These cycles manifest the presence of the One Breath of the Dao in the cosmos. All of them became models of the “fire times” in alchemy, which determine the process needed to heat the Elixir.


“Superior Virtue”, “Inferior Virtue”. A passage of the Cantong qi states:

Superior virtue has no doing:
it does not use examining and seeking.
Inferior virtue does:
its operation does not rest.

These verses are directly based on a passage of the Daode jing (sec. 38):

Superior virtue has no doing:
there is nothing whereby it does.
Inferior virtue does:
there is something whereby it does.

In both the Daode jing and the Cantong qi, the subject of these verses is the distinction between non-doing (wuwei) and doing (youwei), referred to as the ways of “superior virtue” and “inferior virtue“, respectively.

In the way of “superior virtue“, the state prior to the separation of the One into the two is spontaneously attained. The distinction between “one” and “two” does not even arise, and the unity of the precelestial and the postcelestial domains is immediately realized. There is no need to seek the One Breath, and therefore no support is necessary to find it. This is the way of the True Man (zhenren).

“Inferior virtue”, instead, focuses on seeking; its unceasing search of the One Breath needs supports, and the postcelestial domain is “used” to find the precelestial state hidden within it. This is the way of alchemy. Performing a practice—either “internal” or “external”—is a form of “doing”: the alchemical process is conducted in order to attain the realized state. Its purpose is to prepare one to enter the state of “non doing,” and is fulfilled only when this happens. This process—which is gradual, and differs in this respect from immediate realization, the prerogative of “superior virtue”—is at the core of alchemy, in all of its forms.

Criticism of Other Practices. The Cantong qi devotes much attention to practices deemed to be inadequate for true realization. These practices are of two kinds. The first consists of non-alchemical practices, including breathing, meditation on the inner gods, sexual practices, and worship of spirits and minor deities:

This is not the method of passing through the viscera,
of inner contemplation and having a point of concentration;
of treading the Dipper and pacing the asterisms,
using the six jia as markers of time;
of sating yourself with the nine-and-one in the Way of Yin,
meddling and tampering with the original womb;
of ingesting breath till it chirps in your stomach,
exhaling the pure and inhaling the evil without.

This “treading the Dipper and pacing the asterisms” refers to yubu and bugang. All these practices and methods were current during the Later Han period and the Six Dynasties (1st-6th centuries CE).

The second kind of criticism is addressed to alchemical practices that are not based on the principle of “being of the same kind“. Only Lead and Mercury, according to the Cantong qi, are of the “same kind” as Qian and Kun, and can represent and enable their conjunction.


The alchemical discourse of the Cantong qi revolves around Lead and Mercury. Its basic principles proceed directly from its views on the relation between the Dao and the “ten thousand things“.

As in the whole of Taoism, this relation is explained by means of a sequence of stages. The absolute principle (Dao) establishes itself as Unity, which divides itself into the active and the passive principles—namely, Qian and Kun, respectively equivalent to original Yang and Yin, or True Yang and True Yin. The re-conjunction of these principles gives birth to all entities and phenomena in the world. All these “stages” occur simultaneously.

The alchemical process consists in tracing the stages of this process in a reverse sequence, in order to recover the hidden One Breath and return to it. In alchemical language, True Lead and True Mercury respectively represent True Yang and True Yin. The Yin and Yang entities that respectively contain these authentic principles are represented by “black lead” and cinnabar. In the strict sense of the term, alchemy consists in extracting True Lead from “black lead” and True Mercury from cinnabar, and in joining them to one another.

When the five agents (wuxing) are used to represent the alchemical process, the basic configuration is the same. “Black lead” and cinnabar are Water and Fire, and True Lead and True Mercury are Metal and Wood. In the alchemical process, where the “generation sequence” of the agents is inverted, Water (“black lead”) generates Metal (True Lead), and Fire (cinnabar) generates Wood (True Mercury).

Soil, the fifth agent, allows the entire alchemical process to unfold, and also represent its completion. Positioned at the center of the other agents, it is emblematic of Unity containing True Yin and True Yang. Being found within both ingredients of the Elixir, Soil stands for their fundamental unity, and enables them to conjoin.

*This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Cantong qi, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 3.0 (view authors).

By |2020-07-24T03:36:41+03:00July 24th, 2020|Categories: Culture|Tags: , , , , , |0 Comments

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