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Extra resources for Great clarity : Daoism and alchemy in early medieval China
If the phrase of the History of the Former Han Dynasty is read zhongdao instead of chongdao (both readings are possible), the relevant portion of the sentence can more accurately be translated as “important methods by Zou Yan for prolonging life,” again with no hint to his involvement in alchemy. Besides the above, there has been another—and possibly more consequential—reason for ascribing Zou Yan with an active role in relation to alchemy, namely his traditional image as the creator of the system of correlative cosmology.
Chemical artisans and alchemists certainly were acquainted with each others’ methods, and it is virtually certain that alchemy, in China as elsewhere, has one of its roots in the technical knowledge of the metallurgists. But interpreting Jingdi’s edict as directed against alchemy involves neglecting to take into account the alchemists’ quest of transcendence or their attempt to communicate with divine beings—in other words, the doctrinal and ritual components of alchemy. As suggested above, it is only the explicit combination of metallurgical or proto-chemical techniques with these components that deﬁnes alchemy.
As evidence of historical connections between Zou Yan and alchemy, some scholars have also referred to a passage in the History of the Former Han Dynasty that mentions techniques ascribed to him. The following is Joseph Needham’s translation of the passage: [Liu An, the Prince of] Huainan, had in his pillow (for safe-keeping) certain writings entitled Arts from the Garden of Secrets of the Great Treasure (Hongbao yuanbi shu). ” 11 However, the phrase chongdao does not occur in the alchemical literature, where the canonical terms for processes of cyclical reﬁning are zhuan (“cycling”), huan (“reverting”), or fan (“returning”).