Tao Hongjing

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Life of Tao Hongjing

The peak is so high as to tower to the skies, while the stream is so clear that the bottom can be seen." This is a famous sentence in Response to Zhongshu Xie ( 答謝中書 De Xie Zhongshu ), an official in charge of transmitting imperial orders, by Tao Hongjing, a celebrated Daoist adept during the Qi and Liang periods of the Southern dynasties. It can also be taken to epitomize Tao Hongjing's moral character throughout his life. Tao Hongjing, an alchemist, medical expert, writer and scholar, was born in AD 456 and died in AD 536. He styled himself 'Tongming', and called himself the 'Huayang Hermit' ( 華陽隱居 Huayang Yinju ), and he was given the posthumous title of 'Pure and Faithful Gentleman' ( 貞白先生 Zhenbai Xiansheng ). Tao Hongjing was a native of Moling, Danyang (near present-day Nanjing, Jiangsu).

A Prime Minister in the Mountains

Tao Hongjing was born in a family of officials during the Southern dynasties. He received a fairly good education from childhood and was extraordinarily intelligent. He read the Biographies of the Immortals ( 神仙傳 Shenxian Zhuan ) at the age of ten and wrote Record of Visits to the Mountains ( 尋山志 Xunshan Zhi ) at the age of fifteen, and he showed a strong ambition to lead the life of a recluse. When he was twenty years old, he was recommended to be a tutor to the royal family, studying with the youths of the kings' families and being their young teacher. When he was about thirty years old, Tao Hongjing became a student of the Daoist priest Sun Youyue of Dongyong, and learned from him Talismanic Charts ( 符圖 Futu ), Scriptural Skills ( 經法 Jingfa ), and Oral Formulas ( 誥訣 Gaojue ). Moreover, he began to travel to famous mountains and collect medical books. At the age of 36, Tao Hongjing resigned his post of royal tutor and led a secluded life on Gouqu Mountain in Gourong (Mt. Mao). After emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty ascended the throne in the first year of Tianjian of the Liang regime (AD 502), he sent for Tao Hongjing many times but was refused. Yet he kept up a regular correspondence with Tao Hongjing, who came to be known as 'The Prime Minister in the Mountains" ( 山中宰相 Shanzhong Zaixiang ) in history.

Founding of a Daoist sect

Tao Hongjing sorted out the historical materials about the missionary work of Yang Xi, Xu Mi and so on, and compiled the book Declarations of the Perfected ( 真誥 Zhenggao ), which made a systematic exposition of the history of the Highest Clarity sect ( 上清派 shangqing Pai ). Tao Hongjing became the real founder of the Highest Clarity sect ( 茅山派 Maoshan Pai ); besides, he worked on Mt. Mao for many years, setting up Daoist temples and receiving followers widely, and founded the Mt. Mao sect. In view of the actual situation of Daoist development and changes, and the theogonic confusion since the Wei and Jin dynasties, Tao Hongjing compiled the Illustrated Ranking of the Immortals ( 真靈位業圖 Zhenling Weiye Tu ), which became the first work about theogony in the Chinese Daoist history.

Works on Nourishing Life

Tao Hongjing was proficient in the art of healing and wrote the Collected Commentaries on Materia Medica ( 本草集注 Bencao Jizhu ), Hermit Tao's Materia Medica ( 陶隱居本草 Tao Yinju Bencao ), the General Medicinal Formulae ( 藥總訣 Yao Zongjue ), and so on. His book Extracts on Nourishing Spiritual Nature and Prolonging Bodily Life ( 養生延命錄 Yangsheng Yanming Lu ) is still an important classic on Nourishing Life today. The classification of medicine he created in the Collected Commentaries on Materia Medica continues to be used nowadays. Thanks to the support from emperor Wu of Liang, Tao Hongjing also made many researches on external alchemy on Mt. Mao.


The Daoist Canon now contains many of Tao Hongjing's works, such as the Declarations of the Perfected, Hermit Tao's Huayang Writings ( 華陽陶隱居集 Huayang Tao Yinju Ji ), Extracts on Nourishing Spiritual Nature and Prolonging Bodily Life ( 養性延命錄 Yangxing Yanming Lu ), and the like.