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The Prototype of Chinese Immortal Cultivation Culture

Overview of Immortal Cultivation Methods

In traditional China, the concept of a material/soul dualism was almost nonexistent. Except for the Dao (the origin of all things, though not considered a thing itself in most cases), everything—from supernatural beings to mundane animals and inanimate objects, from subtle souls to stones and dust—was composed of “Qi.” Some forms of Qi were more refined, while others were cruder, but all could be further purified into a more essential form known as “Jing” (essence). Many practitioners of Daoism focused on collecting and purifying Qi and Jing.

This practice often involved “consumption”—ingesting substances rich in Qi or Jing, such as herbs, minerals (either alone or in combination), elixirs (products obtained through prolonged and repeated refinement), sexual fluids or energy from a partner, breathing itself, or even through visualization of distant essences (e.g., imagining herbs or elixirs from a certain direction and then visualizing consuming them). Key methods of Immortal Cultivation included dietary control, refining and consuming herbal or mineral components, creating and ingesting elixirs (often based on metallic minerals and various other materials), sexual practices, and controlling the distribution of Qi within the body.

Practitioners often envisioned their bodies as microcosms that mirrored the structure and processes of the macrocosm or polity. Underlying all these diverse practices was the fundamental concept of Qi; the basic principle of each method involved manipulating Qi at both the physical and spiritual levels.

Immortality, or “Xian,” was a state of eternal life and often involved extraordinary abilities. Practitioners hoped to achieve this state through two parallel paths: purifying and sanctifying their spiritual aspects to remove mundane elements, and disentangling their social identity from the celestial bureaucratic system that recorded sins and governed lifespans—a system that had long been part of Chinese cosmological imagination.

Immortals in the Bureaucratic System

Another major concept in Daoist practices was the bureaucratic system. Early on, it was widely believed that celestial deities had specific functions and titles, organized into departments. One task of this bureaucratic system was to record lifespans and govern life and death. The system registered people by name and residence, like a central government. Emissaries resided within human bodies like local gods or visited periodically. They checked and reported sins and merits to the celestial bureaucracy, which then recorded them.Therefore, some Daoist practices focused on this recording system to enable practitioners to outlive the officially designated lifespan. Many practices addressed both the management of Qi and the celestial bureaucratic system.

The Temporal Development of Immortal Cultivation

Before Daoist priests, scriptures, Buddhist sutras, and imagery emerged along the Silk Road and coastal routes, a loose tradition existed in China. This was also before the establishment of temples and Daoist monasteries. I refer to this collection of ideas and practices as “Immortal Cultivation.” Its main elements appeared by the late 3rd century BCE. They were refined by the turn of the millennium and became increasingly prevalent in texts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE and the early 4th century CE. Through esoteric spiritual practices, those who successfully cultivate become “immortals,” “transcendents,” or “ascendants.” They achieve extraordinary longevity, sometimes even immortality. They possessed god-like abilities and held divine status, with their stories preserved in oral narratives, written records, and religious sites. However, this loose tradition did not have a fixed name; later texts referred to these practices as “Xian Dao,” and the methods used were called “Xian techniques.”

The texts documenting these techniques were mostly esoteric and required solemn rituals for transmission. Recipients were sworn to secrecy. These texts often claimed divine revelation and were typically passed down through master-disciple relationships. Thus, these techniques were not experimental when presented to readers. They appeared within the context of sacred transmission. Ritual structures limited the dissemination of texts.Some early texts have survived, and we will continually reference them. In addition, hagiographies, historical records, and argumentative texts are primary sources for this study. It was believed that proper practice of these methods could lead to becoming an immortal. Immortals possessed extraordinary abilities, transcended death, lived for centuries, and often (though not always) held positions in the celestial bureaucracy. Stories of immortals frequently circulated and were preserved.

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