Poems on Alchemy

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Poems on alchemy are poems about alchemical Occult Techniques ( 法門 Famen ) and activities. Alchemy was started by the Magicians ( 方士 Fangshi ) in the pre-Qin period. According to the Records of the Historian and other ancient books, tradition has it that the original activities of the refinement of the golden elixir already existed in the days of the Yellow Emperor ( 黃帝 Huangdi ). As the story goes, the Yellow Emperor cast a Cauldron ( 鼎 Ding ) on Mt. Jingshan to refine elixirs. When the elixirs were made, a heavenly dragon came. According to the book Guicang, the wife of Houyi stole and ate an elixir, thus flying to the moon. Nothing but legends as they were, these stories show that alchemy has a long history in China. The refining activities began in the early days after the foundation of Daoism. According to legend, Celestial Master Zhang ( 天師 Tianshi ) made elixirs on Mt. Longhu in Jiangxi before he came into Shu. After he succeeded in making the elixirs, a dragon and a tiger emerged. Alchemy has been an important Daoist activity ever since the Han dynasty. Many Daoists, including both Wei Boyang and Hugangzi, both Ge Hong and Tao Hongjing, devoted a large part of their energies to this activity. Traditional Daoist alchemy is classified into External Alchemy ( 外丹 Waidan ) and Inner Alchemy ( 內丹 Neidan ). External alchemy refines minerals such as mercury and cinnabar, while inner alchemy "refines" the essential vital breath in one's body in imitation of external alchemy. In the long course of this activity, Daoists constantly summed up their accumulated experiences, and wrote a lot of works on alchemy. These works are in various literary forms, such as prose and poetry. Poems on alchemy are an important part of Daoist alchemical works. They fall into shi (poetry) and ci (poetry written to certain tunes) according to types of literature. As far as a certain work is concerned, an author either uses a single type of literature or combines different types. It is also true of the style of shi or ci. An author adopts the style of shi, or the style of ci, or both of them. The literary type of the Supreme Clarity Instruction of Golden Liquids and Divine Elixirs, an early book on alchemy which is said to have been written by Perfect Sovereign ( 真君 Zhenjun ) Yin, was "qiyanshi" (a poem with seven characters to a line). The later generations elaborated it and compiled the Supreme Clarity Book of Golden Liquids and Divine Elixirs ( 太清金液神丹經 Taiqing Jinye Shendan Jing ). In the late Eastern Han dynasty, The Three Ways Unified and Normalized of the Book of Changes ( 周易參同契 Zhouyi Cantongqi ) written by Wei Boyang explained the techniques and efficacies of alchemy in the styles of poetry, fu (an intricate literary form combining elements of poetry and prose) and prose for the purpose of expressing meaning from various aspects. After the Tang dynasty, with the gradual decline of external alchemy and the rise of inner alchemy, all kinds of poems describing the techniques and state of inner alchemy appeared one after another. The most representative one is On Realizing Perfection ( 悟真篇 Wuzhen Pian ) by Zhang Boduan. The book has qiyan lüshi (an eight-line poem with seven characters to a line and a strict tonal pattern and rhyme scheme) and qiyan jueju (a four-line poem with seven charactes to a line and a strict tonal pattern and rhyme scheme) as its main body and the ci "xijiangyue" (Moon on the Western River)" as its subsidiary part. By means of merging and combining images, it constructs a splendid world of inner alchemy and contains its perfect practice methods. Zhang Boduan's successors also composed poems on inner alchemy. For instance, On Returning to the Origin ( 還源篇 Huanyuan Pian ) by Shi Tai, On Rejuvenating the Body ( 複命篇 Fuming Pian ) and The Rhythmic Formula of the Elixir Essence ( 丹髓歌 Dansui Ge ) by Xue Shi, and Works by Master Cuixu ( 翠虛篇 Cuixu Pian ) are all influential Daoist poems on alchemy. Some men of letters and refined scholars who practiced Daoism were also fond of writing poems on inner alchemy. For example, Yanbo Xing written by Huang Shang of the Northern Song dynasty uses the symbol of a boat traveling in mist-covered water as a symbol to imply the magical function of trance, the nine-cauldron technique of inner alchemy. As a special form of literature, Daoist poems on alchemy do not express meanings directly, but indicate the alchemical principles by way of figures of speech, such as symbolism, and create an artistic atmosphere for alchemy. In a sense, the images in Daoist poems on alchemy are the symbols of alchemical techniques, which accumulate the unusual energies of the alchemical art through combination and change. Reciting them time and again can achieve the efficacy of purifying one's body and mind and thereby lead one into the world of inner alchemy. This is why many poems on alchemy need to be recited.