22 Following


Currently reading

Scholar Warrior: An Introduction to the Tao in Everyday Life
Ming-Dao Deng, Ming-Dao Deng
Great Expectations
Charles Dickens
Saknes un pēdas.
Eriksen, Thomas Hylland
William Gibson
The Pity of War: Explaining World War I
Niall Ferguson
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The Real Frank Zappa Book
Frank Zappa
The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Betty Edwards
Fun with Chinese Characters
Huoping Chen
Baltijas Valstu vēsture
Zigmantas Kiaupa, Ain Mäesalu, Ago Pajur, Gvido Straube

The Seal of the Unity of the Three: A Study and Translation of the Cantong qi, the Source of the Taoist Way of the Golden Elixir

The Seal of the Unity of the Three: A Study and Translation of the Cantong qi, the Source of the Taoist Way of the Golden Elixir - Fabrizio Pregadio [Note: Spoilers are used as footnote substitutes]

Having written an undergraduate thesis on the "The Seal of the Unity of the Three's" chapter on Fire Phases (huohou 火候) in 2011, I was instantly intrigued at the prospect of an exhaustive study of the said treatise. Would've been potentially more so if the book's publication date wouldn't have so narrowly (well, a few months after graduation anyway) disabled me to peruse it for my own purposes, but, frivolous excursions in solipsism aside, there is much to commend in the academic detective work done here to make the alleged first text of alchemy more approachable, or - at the very least - less obscure.

About the Book

"The Seal of the Unity of the Three" could be summed up as a treatise on the philosophy of alchemy, how it relates to its contemporaneous Daoist traditions, and Chinese cosmology at large (with alchemy, Daoism and cosmology being the titular 'three' [*] Heaven, Earth and Man being another option mentioned in the book and other scholarly work on the text, but I digress...). Its significance lies in the attempted synthesis of the three, being influential in both - the actual alchemical traditions of Outer Alchemy (Waidan 外丹) and the meditative practices of Inner Alchemy (Neidan 內丹) - and, maybe less remarkably, for coining the four-character Chinese expression yü mu hun zhu 魚目混珠 - pass off fish eyes for pearls as from the below quote from Chapter 35:7 (p. 85) [*] The transition from a line in the text to a cheng-yü 成語 might not be as straightforward as I make it here; but it might be worth to make a more in-depth inquiry at a more leisurely time.
魚目豈為珠 __ Could a fish eye ever turn into a pearl?
The sixty page introduction covers the issues of dating of the text, historicity of the traditionally attributed author Wei Boyang 魏伯陽, the text's origins, frequently used symbols and terminology, and other issues - often contrasting ongoing scholarly research with the traditional assumptions.

I wouldn't spoil anything by revealing as much that the traditional view doesn't quite offer a full picture; so it's interesting to learn that the text might originally have not been on alchemy at all, that Wei Boyang (who's not even attributed as the author in some cases!) is more of a stand-in for an anonymous group of authors, rather than an actual historical figure, and various other relevant information that make the treatise less of an enigma.

The Translation

The translation is lucid in its language and never feels forced. The author's remarks make patterns and parallel themes in the text apparent, and clearly distinguish verses that are citations from other works. The new translation of the title is also less of a mouthful compared to the author's previous way of rendering it ("The Token of the Agreement of the Tree in Accordance with the Book of Changes").

I imagine there is a certain accepted standard on how a multi-layered translation is to be arranged and presented, so me preferring to read all information relevant to the chapters in one place didn't mesh well with the layout offered here - where the Chinese text, its translation, commentaries on the text, and textual notes are separate parts of the book. This is the closest I'd come to actual criticism for the book, but I suppose the layout doesn't make my approach to reading impossible, only somewhat more cumbersome.


Without diminishing the above praise in the least, one has to admit, that what makes it hard to appreciate the extraordinary work done here is the text itself. Conceived to be nigh impenetrable by the uninitiated mind, it still is a bit of a head-scratcher to wrap your mind around, even if you, like me, don't feel entirely green to the subject.

This in no way is a failure of the book itself, as it never purports to be a dummy's guide to the subject matter, but it pays to warn the casual reader that if you are not already familiar with the "Book of Changes" 易經 [Yi Jing], the "Dao De Jing" 道德經 (and maybe some "Zhuangzi" 莊子 and "Scripture of the Yellow Court" 黃庭經 [Huang ting jing] for good measure), the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches system 天干地支 [Tian gan Di zhi], and some basic understanding of the principles of Chinese alchemy (i.e. why lead and mercury are significant), to just name some of the basic prerequisites - it might be hard to fully appreciate the book's merits, much less peruse it for any pleasure reading.

The Wei Boyang Code

While pleasure reading might seem counter-intuitive, and require too much effort to find anything pleasurable about the read on account of the whole text essentially being one big insider joke, some passages can be delectable and witty if you happen to be in on the joke. To take a look at some of my favourite passages from the chapter I studied for my thesis - Ch 51:55-58 (p. 99)
剝爛肢體 __ Bo ䷖ (Splitting Apart) tears its limbs and trunk,
消滅其形 __ extinguishing its form.
化氣旣竭 __ The vital Breath is drained,
亡失至神 __ the supreme Spirit is forgotten and is lost.
The above is one stanza of a series depicting the yearly cycle, this one clearly alluding to the end of the year (when the 'life-giving force' gives out). The suggestive language aside, each stanza also hides in itself an earthly branch and pitch pipe signifier that corresponds to the hexagram in question.

There is an interesting visual 'pun' where the hexagram Bo itself looks 'torn apart' but also makes you play hide and seek with the corresponding earthly branch xu 戌 - with it eventually being found by 'destroying' the similar looking mie 滅 in your mind.

This code, if you will, is present for the remaining 11 sovereign hexagrams bigua 辟卦, along with allusions to other significant markers - and whilst similar explanations are available in the book - this should be demonstrative how difficult it is to fully comprehend the text, much less find some witty quote for the 'uninitiated.'

In Conclusion

I guess the closest you can come to find something quotable in the text that doesn't require getting an additional degree, would be either a stanza in Ch 67:1-4 (p. 107) that has a nice, poetic quality to it, while still staying true to Daoist imagery of interdependent opposites:
立竿見影 __ Stand a pole upon the earth and a shadow appears;
呼谷傳響 __ shout into a valley and an echo comes forth.
豈不靈哉 __ Is this not numinous?
天地至象 __ This is the perfect image of Heaven and Earth.
.. or Wei Boyang's retelling of the journey he underwent to become a transcendent being xian 仙 in Ch 88:1-6 (p. 126), which I found inexplicably attractive, and I suppose so did the author by reiterating the quote on the book's back cover:
委時去害 __ Forsaking the times, avoiding harm,
依託丘山 __ I have entrusted myself to mountains and hills.
循遊寥廓 __ I have wandered and roamed through the Unbounded,
與鬼為鄰 __ with demons as my neighbors.
化形而仙 __ Transmuting my form, transcending the world,
淪寂無聲 __ I have entered the depths of the Inaudible.
While I'm still to get my hands on Vol. 2, this particular volume, while much better appreciated if the reader is already steeped into the subject at least a little bit, does an excellent job of covering all the basic questions about the text and provides a very readable English translation.