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Science and magic in Ge Hong's "Baopu-zi nei pian

A paper by Evgueni A. Tortchinov (St. Petersburg State University, Russia) from The 8th International Conference on the History of Science in China. Berlin, August 23 - 27, 1998.

Science and magic
in Ge Hong's "Baopu-zi nei pian

by Evgueni A. Tortchinov
St. Petersburg State University, Russia)

This paper is dedicated to the problem of the attitudes of the great Chinese alchemist Ge Hong (284-363 or 283-343 CE) towards science within the frame of his Daoist world view. It is well known that Ge Hong was a representative of the so called Southern branch of the tradition of the Chinese Daoist occultism (or the lineage of the Three August Ones - san huang wen). This lineage was closely related to the heritage of the Han Daoism with its beliefs in the immortals (xian) and corporeal immortality attainable through the esoteric practices of alchemy and magic. Ge Hong was well known not only as alchemist and the Daoist master or Confucian moralist and social thinker (see his "Baopu-zi wai pian") but as physician and pharmacist as well. It is quite understandable because the Chinese Daoist alchemy with its iatrochemical character may be treated as a part of the Chinese medical tradition (see N. Sivin's works). So, in Ge Hong's works (and first of all, in his "Baopu-zi nei pian"; below -- BPZNP) we meet with rather strange mixture of the beliefs in physical immortality, magical rites and ceremonies, astrology, medicine and pharmacology. But even more interesting is the fact that these elements of alchemical occultism are combined in Ge Hong's writings with the strong and distinctively articulated inclinations to skepticism and free-thinking rationalism. He laughs at the folk beliefs and superstitions, he ardently criticizes the Confucian scholasticism and common people's prejudices, etc. Bellow I will give some examples of such skepticism with their brief analysis and some preliminary conclusions.

Firstly Ge Hong rejects the opinion that only herbal drugs are beneficial for health as well as for the prolongation of life.

In chapter 4th (Jin dan) of the BPZNP he states that drugs made from minerals and metallic substances are much more useful than the herbal ones. The herbal drugs are weak and the strong heat destroys them but minerals and metals are strong and stable: for example, the heat can not destroy cinnabar which changes itself into the "water silver", or mercury. After this statement, Ge Hong notes that ordinary people do not know even such simple things as the origin of the cinnabar (Hg S) in the mercury. They say that cinnabar is red and the mercury is white and so, it is impossible that the white substance produces the red one.

The second aspect of this passage is more interesting. Ge Hong declares that the common people ("worldly people", or shi ren ) are ignorant even of such things as the nature of the cinnabar and so, it is not surprising that they do not believe in such subtle things as the way of immortality. I think that this Ge Hong's statement has crucial character for understanding of his attitude towards the connections between the Daoist "mystics" of immortality and the "positive" knowledge: for him the Daoist teachings about the immortals and the practices of the obtaining of immortality and supernatural powers have no mystical, or irrational characters at all. They have no less "positive" nature than medicine or chemical knowledge about the composition of cinnabar and other substances. And if it is true, this knowledge is very different (and even opposite in nature) from the superstitious beliefs in popular gods and spirits with their shamanistic bloody and expensive rites and the ways of worship. And Ge Hong can not do without laughing at these cults and beliefs, criticizing them with sharp humor and the real sarcasm (see chapter 9th Dao yi of the BPZNP).

The same idea can be found in the 5th (Zhi li) chapter of BPZNP. Here Ge Hong describes the healing qualities of different plants and herbs. But, as he states, the common people do not want to use them and prefer the superstitious religious methods of healing (such as prayers, sacrifices, fortune-telling, etc.). They do not believe in the art of the famous physicians but rely on shamans and sorcerers. And if it is so, it is very naturally that they do not believe that because of the eating of the golden and cinnabar elixirs immortality can be obtained. Moreover, they reject even the usefulness of mushrooms and flowers for the prolongation of life. How can we hope that they will recognize the truthfulness of the way of immortals?

It is significant that Ge Hong treats the Daoist alchemy with its super mundane aims in the same terms as the traditional medicine and pharmacology. Thus, alchemy and the "arts of immortals" for Ge Hong are not of supernatural, or religious nature; they are "positive" and "scientific" in the same way as medicine and pharmacology are. The rejection of these arts certifies the ignorance of the common people preferring the "superstitious" religious ways to the means of medicine and the Daoist arts which have the same character as medicine. And this character is quite opposed to the superstitious nature of purely religious practices. One of the arguments of Ge Hong in defense of the Daoist alchemical methods is the principle of the verification of the relevant precepts of the Daoist writings:

"Their teachings can be called the highest words but the common people do not believe them treating them as the empty writings. But if they were only the empty writings, how was it possible to fulfill nine transformations and nine changes just for that numbers of days which is given in the precepts? The truths which were obtained by the perfect persons is not understandable for the primitive thinking of the common people" (BPZNP, chapter 4). And here again Ge Hong not only demonstrates the contrast between the "scientific" knowledge of the sages and the ignorance of the ordinary people but uses the "positive", or "experimental" contents of the Daoist texts for support of his Daoist approaches. And here once again the critical approach of the ordinary people to the Daoist aims becomes the testimony of their ignorance, and Ge Hong's beliefs in immortality and alchemy obtain their "scientific" ground in the empirical and positive sides of the Daoist classics (jing) becoming the proven results of the real verified knowledge. Thus, knowledge and experience (not faith, or intuition) were the basis of Ge Hong's beliefs in the immortals and in the Daoist methods of the attainment of their exalted state.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that BPZNP is full of the information about magical and supernatural events which are for the external observer quite identical with the contents of the beliefs of the Ge Hong's opponents. But for Ge Hong himself they are very different: for him the Daoist beliefs, the ardent proponent of which he was, had a scientific and positive nature based on the experimental data and positive knowledge of the sages (being of the same kind as the data of medicine, etc.), and the beliefs of his opponents were devoid of such basis, being superstitious and ignorant. It is possible to note that there were two kinds of Ge Hong's opponents and interlocutors: the representatives of the so called Confucian rationalism and the "superstitious" followers of the folk religious cults.

Certainly, Confucians were rationalistic, but their rationalism was limited with the scholastic analysis of their scriptural authorities and the field of the investigations of nature was absolutely alien to them. In this field their rationalism represented only manifestation of the common sense without any special approach. They were ignorant of the significance of experience and the Daoist alchemy and another "arts" of those kind were for them only the examples of the empty and useless practices. Therefore, it can be said that the experiential skepticism of Ge Hong was of another nature than the so called Confucian rationalism. The beliefs of the common people were also alien to his approach as fruits of faith and ignorance. In this case there appears a problem of the criteria used by Ge Hong for the distinguishing of the real knowledge from the superstitious beliefs of the profanes.

It is substantial for Ge Hong to have authoritative sources of information recognized by the Daoist tradition (the knowledge of the lineage of the holders of the text is also important). Such sources are called by Ge Hong "The classics of immortals" (xian jing). From the autobiography of Ge Hong and the 19th chapter of BPZNP it is known that such texts were rarities and the Daoists spent much time and energy to obtain them. Ge Hong himself traveled to the North to seek these classics but failed. It is known that sometimes he protested against the high authority of one or another classic on the basis of its non authenticity. Thus, in chapter 4th of BPZNP he speaks about the popularity of "The classic of the mechanism of Dao" (Dao ji jing) which was considered by many Daoist to be the work of the legendary disciple of Lao-zi, Yin Xi. It was dedicated to the practice of the "regulation of the pneumata" (xing qi) and had no information about the great elixirs of the Daoist alchemy. Ge Hong rejected this text as the contemporary book written by general Wang Tu and only falsely attributed to the sage of antiquity.

Not only the origin in the Daoist classics was the testimony of the validity of the information about the immortals and immortality for Ge Hong. He also evaluated greatly the witnesses of the Chinese authoritative texts of the Confucian and historiographical tradition. The notes of such great historians as Ban Gu and Sima Qian about the techniques of immortality and the magical activities of the Daoist sages were of the great importance for Ge Hong. He definitely prefers Sima Qian to Ban Gu because of his Daoist sympathies completely alien to the author of "Han shu". He even severely criticizes Ban Gu for his orthodox Confucian approach to the Daoist doctrine in which Ge Hong recognizes the ignorance of the "common people" (su ren; shi ren). Nevertheless he does not lose the opportunity to cite "The Han History" if its materials support Ge Hong's point of view.

It can be said that Ge Hong recognizes the following criteria of the validity of the beliefs and different kinds of opinions related to the subjects of science and religion: 1. The experience; 2. The testimonies of the Daoist classics and of the well known and highly estimated by the Chinese tradition non-Daoist texts. The practices and beliefs which had no such scriptural support (as in the case of the folk beliefs and cults) were rejected by Ge Hong as superstitious and excessive. Thus, Ge Hong tries to represent his techniques of immortality and his alchemical and occult ideas as an integral part of the "great tradition" of the Chinese culture. For him they are not only equal to the ideas of the Confucian sages but even higher and more exalted than the Confucian doctrines (according to Ge Hong's position Confucianism is the branch and Daoism is its root).

It is rather clear that Ge Hong greatly evaluates experience and laboratory alchemical operations. But these operations as such have direct relations to magic and ritual behaviour. It is impossible to divide technical, magical and ritualistic aspects of the scientific approaches of Ge Hong. He denies the idea of the automatic, or mechanical effect of the elixirs, combining the technical and chemical procedures with fasting, prayers and purification. The passages from the 4th chapter of BPZNP are extremely eloquent on this point:

"First of all, it is impossible to permit the unbelieving ordinary people to laugh at the elixirs and blaspheme them. Otherwise there will be no success. Master Zheng (i.e. Zheng Yin) told that the preparation of this great elixir must be followed by the sacrifices. The sacrifices must be served to the Great Unity, to Primordial Lady - Yuan-jun, to Lao-jun and the Mysterious Maiden. These divinities will come to observe the activities of the adept. If the person who prepares the drugs did not leave the mundane life for hermitage and solicitude giving an opportunity for the profanes to obtain the Daoist classics or to observe the process of the alchemical work then the spirits execute the alchemist. If he does not follow the restrictions of the Daoist classics permitting the evil doers to blaspheme the Dao, then the spirits can not help such a person. Then the malevolent pneuma will enter the substance of the drug and it can not be completed". Thus, it can be said that practical character of Ge Hong's alchemy does not prevent him from the declaration of highly ritualized nature of the alchemical doings. Therefore, it bears remarkable (to the mind of a contemporary Westerner, of course) contradiction between science and magic. And this magic permeates the very core of Ge Hong's understanding of alchemy and medicine. But this magic is of quite another nature than the superstitious beliefs of the common people: it has its roots in the Daoist stratum of the great tradition of the Chinese culture being to Ge Hong's mind supported by the experience of the sages of old who transmitted their knowledge and methods to the contemporary Daoists throw the unbreakable lineage from one mater to another. Moreover, this experience of the ancient sages must not be only a subject of the so called "blind faith": it can be verified by the alchemist throw his own laboratory doings. Ge Hong does not admire the antiquity as such. Like ancient Legalists and his predecessor in the field of skepticism and empiricism Wang Chong, Ge Hong looks at the antiquity like on the trace of a giant: the giant has gone away and his trace is not he himself. Therefore, the ancient witnesses for Ge Hong have their value only within the frame of the Daoist experimental approach. If Ge Hong was only a mystic it could be waited for his interest in the intuitive insights into the hidden nature of the reality underlying the transitory phenomena. But we can not find such an interest. The passages dedicated to the meditative practices for metaphysical understanding are very rare in BPZNP. The only exception is the beginning of the 18th chapter of this work (Di zhen) dedicated to the contemplation of the True One (zhen yi) which is the manifestation of the Mysterious Dao (xuan) in the things and in the physiological structures of the Daoist "subtle body" ("the fields of cinnabar", dantian). But even this passage relates mostly to the practices of the "preservation of the One" (shou yi) and not to the insight type meditations. The aids of these kind of contemplation are protection from the enemies and illness, the obtaining of super powers throw multiplication of the body, etc.

The metaphysical side of the work of Ge Hong is rather weak. The first chapter of BPZNP (Chang xuan) represents by itself a replica to the opening chapter of "Huainan-zi" ; its stylistics, vocabulary and images have their origin just in that great compendium of Liu An and his clients (ke). The first passages in the 9th chapter (Dao yi) also are not the fruits of independent metaphysical thinking being the poetical reproduction of the common places of the Daoist descriptions of the highest principle of the Way. The practical sides of Daoism (the preparation of the great elixir of immortality and supporting methods) and corresponding to them the doctrines of the immortals - xian are the principle subjects of Ge Hong's interests which directly correlate to his scientific and experiential approaches. To my mind, Ge Hong was not a mystic or a seeker of intuitive insights but an investigator, researcher of nature with pragmatic attitude (the obtaining of physical immortality), and experimental and skeptical thinker. The abundance of magic in his writings was a result of an essential character of the traditional science which included in itself magic and magical attitudes (e.g. the idea of the universal sympathies, Chinese "tong lei") not only in China but throughout the world until the time of Newton, Galileo Galilei and Descartes.