The Secret of Everlasting Life

The Secret of Everlasting Life is the first translation of this second-century text on alchemy, the Can Tong Qi. This ancient work, the earliest on alchemy in the world,  echoes the wisdom and poetry of both the Tao Te Ching and I Ching. The CAN TONG QI is actually the ancestral text of all Qi Gong exercises in China. Click here to buy.  Or scroll down to see more goodies.

This was also the first ancient text I worked on, during the early 1980’s, whilst living on Ham Hill, Somerset, in my tent.  Later I found a house, and turned to  ‘greater things’.  In all  I was inspired by and drew on my time with Gia-fu Feng.

This translations reveals the meditation practised for thousands of years by Taoist sages. Presented here with a selection of its original commentaries, the Can Tong Qi, itself, is full of practical information and advice about human transformation and how to nurture our natural life-energy . My added commentary explains the intricacies of Chinese allegory and symbolism for all.


Baffled? Then Read Below:

“Neidan Available to All”

“No scholar pursuing his own nature, who does not make a plan for himself, concerning self-care, will ever be able to partake in any discussion of the path of nourishing life.  For this reason we take self-care as primary.”

Sun Simiao (7th Century):  opening lines   攝養枕中方 She Yang Zhen Zhong Fang

The Candong Qi is the oldest of Qigong texts (2nd Century CE). Here I expound and illustrate themes within the text, taking my new translation as source. These themes include naturalism, the contemplative, time and tide, the creation of life, the sages of old, etc.  It shows how the early alchemists advocated self-care, that is a technique to do with the cultivation of an inner Elixir (neidan). I hope to communicate the richness of the text and the availability of its inspiration to us all, as practitioners of Chinese medicine.


The Candong Qi is the grand-daddy, the first and foremost of all Qigong (or neidan) texts[1].   It remains an outlier from an alchemical tradition which flourished during the 2nd Century CE and was perpetuated into the Qing, surviving well to this day.  Of inestimable importance, as the earliest work on alchemical theory, its ideas had an overwhelming impact upon the development of physics and chemistry throughout the world.  Isaac Newton in his rooms in Cambridge performed the alchemical ‘transmutation of metals’ – whilst conceiving his universal theory of gravitation.

Qigong is a unique treasure which China has offered to the world; an empirical system of self-care, it integrates and regulates the body, mind and spirit.  In this paper I hope to expand on some of the themes of the Candong Qi – identifying the rich veins and arteries of its imaginative discourse.

I believe it is largely a text on neidan (inner alchemical) practice, properly physiological.  However the writings, as they stand, may also incorporate sections of poems describing waidan (chemical) practice ‘on the bench’ as it were.  But later Song and Yuan commentaries treated the book exclusively from a neidan point of view.  They brought with them the greater philosophical and psychological insights of Buddhist (especially Ch’an) teachers. This is especially the case with Yuyan (fl.1280 CE).  Listen to his commentary on ‘the supreme method of the Golden Elixir’…

…it is just the same, as when the cicada falls silent in cold weather or the rhinoceros gazes at the bright stars, or the old oyster which holds inside itself a moon-lit pearl, or the mere block of stone containing jade….as the butterfly straightening and bending its wings, or the glow-worm’s flickering light, or the blinking of the cat’s eyes…just the same as the twitching of  the deer’s tail, the taken-in breath of the tortoise in hibernation, the spat-out sand of the turtle…as the windsock blowing in the wind, or the drip-tile on a roof dripping water, or the a lodestone pulling at a needle, or amber attracting small particles..…all these are revelations of the Golden Elixir. 

Explicit Content of the Texts

The texts of the Candong Qi describe the procedures whereby you manufacture an internal medicine of everlasting life (or neidan) within the body.

Its explicit content may be divided into three:

  • a description of medicinal ingredients
  • a description of timings (degrees of heat)
  • instruction and exhortation to practice

There are also poetic passages showing the naturalness of conjoining Yin and Yang, the falseness of forced or deviant paths; and also passages describing the ultimate goal of transcendence and ‘fairy-hood’ (xian).

The whole text is a mish-mash of the systematic and the non-systematic.  The systematic involves Yin and Yang, the Two Bows, Five Elements, Eight Trigrams, Qian and Kun, Kan and Li, Sixty Hexagrams, Twelve pitch-pipes, Moon-Phases, Celestial Steams and Earthly Branches.  Also may be mentioned the Son and Daughter, Dawn and Dusk.  The non-systematic involves such  terms as Mild-Maiden mercury, Yellow Shoot, Tiger and Dragon, Pleiades, the Two Soils, Water and Fire, the Golden Flower, the Golden Grain, the Dark Female, the Great Void, the Nine Cauldrons, the Persian Powder, etc.


Implicit Content of Texts

The implicit content instructs the reader in the cultivation of an Elixir (dan, described in the book as…’luminous and shining, the Restored Elixir is made!”[2]); this is a medicine which will ensure our transcendence of the world and entry into the ‘realms of the immortals’..   This is the implicit content.  It tells directly of the eye, ear and mouth, these three jewels[3], and exhorts us to nourish ourselves thus within[4], more poetically to act as a charioteer guiding his horses[5].  More practically it describes the various states through which any neidan practitioner may pass during his practice – the twelve states of the pitch-pipes (the months of the year seen as sounding out a musical pitch, depicting the season[6]); there is much discussion of the Zhen-thunder (the first-born son…the Christian parallels here are too obvious to be neglected, especially when he is seen to be reborn on the third day[7]).  The writings also describe for the first time the physiological effects of autonomic relaxation “…as trickling juices like melting ice…”[8].


The Inspiration of the Book

I remember the evening I first opened the Chinese text to the Candong qi and read its opening lines – “Qian and Kun are the door and gateway to Change” .  One thing became immediately apparent:  here was the obvious extension of the philosophy of the Yi Jing into personal development and self-care.  Because of the dating of the text – very early, (during the construction of the Classical Canon) – its preservation was a wonder. I could immediately see the book was written with a purpose.  It read like a meditation-manual or guidebook for the aspiring Daoist neophyte or disciple.

Pretty soon I was immersed in its vivid imagery and characteristic diagrams and symbols.  At first one enjoys the poetry, imagery and symbols for their own sake – then reading the commentators and later neidan texts one begins to see where they are tending.  As Zhuangzi[9] famously comments – when you have the hare you forget the tracks, when you have the fish, you can forget the trap!


Why the Evocative Imagery?

The Chinese world of the Han is not the world of literate Northern Europe and the US.  Because of its use of ideographs in the written language there is a greater sense of immediacy to Chinese thought.  Professor Cheng Chung-ying in his book Understanding the Chinese Mind said:

The separation of the sensible from the non-sensible can become an inherent tendency in the use of a phonetic language just as the cohesion of the sensible with the non-sensible can become a fundamental feature of the use of an image-language.

In communicating Chinese ideas, evocative imagery is important.  Chinese neidan and waidan, internal alchemy and external laboratory chemistry paralleled each other – meditative practice was possibly involved in both.  Identical terms were often used for separate activities; in addition separate terms were used for identical activities.  It can get confusing!  But ambiguity was not always discouraged – indeed it is sometimes necessary to impress on the student the complexity of the task he or she faces.  The imagery emphasise the multi-faceted nature of the Dao, and the grade scale of the task confronting them.



By naturalism is meant the naturalism (ziran 自然) of Huang and Lao.  In Wei Boyang’s own postface we find the verse:

Guided within, thus nourish your nature

On the naturalism of Huang and Lao.

Holding your power solidly within,

Return it back to the root, back to source.[10]

Throughout the text we meet observations of nature, the mating of animals, the use of dyes, the passing of the constellations, weather and seasons.  This is observing the naturalism of Huangdi (the legendary Yellow Emperor) and Laozi (author of the Dao-de Jing).  In the Dao-de Jing we meet “….man is modelled on earth, earth is modelled on heaven, heaven is modelled on Dao, dao is modelled on what is natural “[11].

The book strictly abjures the, chemical (waidan) path, in the production of the Elixir.   To try and achieve immortality by external means (swallowing pills, etc) is quite laughable:

Abroad in the world there are many scholars,

Subtle-minded men full of outstanding qualities;

Suddenly they meet with the unforeseen,

Destruction by fire, loss of wealth and property.

Relying on a veneer of words,

Wildly and wilfully they work away,

Drawing out loose ends without any connection,

And with all degree and deliberation cast away.


They pound down hard gall-stones,

Mica and magnetic alum;

Heat yellow sulphur until it flares up,

With soft mercury to help in the smelting,

And case the drum with five stones of copper

To support and hold it beneath.

But things of varying natures differ –

How can they want to join them together!

A thousand attempts must mean ten-thousand failures,

Wanting to be clever you only develop an addiction,

And then luck and fortune both give out,

For only the sage knows their whereabouts.

From early youth until their hair turns white,

They have worked amidst doubt and suspicion,

Turned their back upon the method to keep up the deception,

And left the correct path to come upon evil byways.

With tunnel-vision a broad view is impossible,

And trouble arises as they guess at where to go.[12]


Stressing the importance of natural means, the verse continues:


If you want to perform the method of inner cultivation,

It is best to use things of the same kind:

In planting crops one should sow grain,

In breeding chickens one uses their eggs.

Take the same kind of things that help naturally,

That are easily formed and moulded into shape.

How could fish’s eyes be taken for pearls?

Tea cannot be made from the wild raspberry!

The same kinds of things comply with one another,

Forcing them to serve each other is worthless.

And so the mountain-finch does not produce peacocks,

Nor foxes and rabbits suckle horses![13]


This is a clear condemnation of the false or perverted path, ridiculing people ‘full of themselves’ who do not see what is in front of them.


Again in a later chapter comes:

Like blind men not using a staff,

Or the deaf hearing the sounds of music,

They hunt under water for birds and rabbits,

And climb the hills in search of fish and dragons.

They plant wheat expecting to harvest millet,

Or turn a pair of compasses in order to draw a square –

If you waste your strength and weary your spirit,

By the end of your life you will see no result.[14]

The emphasis is on naturalism in everything.


The dog will catch the rat,

Small birds fear the hawk;

Each of them acts as it can,

How dare they lay claim to greatness![15]



The Contemplative


Wei Boyang’s own description of how he wrote the work is informative:

In the state of Kuai, a common man,

Alone in a valley barely existing,

Clasps to his bosom rough simplicity,

And pleasures in neither circumstance nor honour.

In rude habit he spends his time,

Careless for either fame or profit,

Grasping onto the quiet and solitude,

Those rare times, so tranquil and still.

There, dwelling in idleness and ease,

There I composed this work,


He advocates a retreat from the ills of the world, to follow the path of transformation into immortality.


Abandon the world; flee from its hurts,

And follow your mission to the hills.

There you may roam solitary and alone,

Neighbour only to sprites and pixies.

You transform your body to become immortal…

And become engulfed, silent, and unknown.[16]


Later we have the clearest expression of the contemplative approach, denying the ‘crooked and winding’ input of the senses:


The ear, eye and mouth – these three jewels,

Block and stop them up, do not let them gape…

Sight and hearing are both crooked and winding,

They function entirely together

As the pivot and lynchpin of the self….

Bank up and guard the sight within,

Do not employ the ears in hearing,

Close the mouth to chattering…

To be with a relaxed body, resting in an empty room,

Abandon the will and return to the void,

And without thinking thus find constancy.[17]


The key is to be ‘with a relaxed body, resting in an empty room’.  A strict injunction to sensory withdrawl and meditation. And later, we read “it is best to practice quietening the self, and to conceal away the body”[18]These extracts show the Cantong Qi to be a valuable piece of early contemplative world literature.


Time and Tide

The Candong Qi depends for much of its symbolism on the Yi Jing, most especially expressing the ‘timing of the firing’ (huohou) of the Elixir in the movement of the trigrams, hexagrams and lines.

In The Overall Ordering of Great Change[19] we are instructed how the hexagrams correspond and match with the year, “…….the sixty hexagrams about them, spread out, expanded like a carriage”….; and  told how “our destiny lies in the rule of the calendar”[20].  Indeed the great scholar Zhuxi commented on this passage “…it illustrates how man’s heart may be ruled through Yin and Yang…for our destiny occurs in later sections of the text as the timing of the firing (huohou) of the sixty hexagrams”[21].

The text continues.…

Day and night each hexagram is applied in turn

Until reaching the end with Already Over, and Not Yet Over[22]

The whole returns back to the beginning.

Thus the hexagrams correspond and match the seasons. While a general respondence in human world is seen within the lines   “…reward and punishment echo spring and autumn, confusion and understanding arise as heat and cold…”[23]

Similarly the movement of the trigrams matches the moon-phases: matched to rise with the Yang – and depicted in the trigrams….’the use of the dragon nines flying to and fro is like square and compasses to the path’[24].


The Creation of Life

The creation of new life is sought in the Candong Qi.  So “when the dark of the moon meets the new moon’s light….Zhen arrives and its token is received… ‘[25]Zhen is the trigram of thunder, and new beginnings.  The mixing of Yin and Yang, the copulation of the male and female, which produces a child is also described:

Heaven and earth lie together,

Sun and moon grope for each other,

Cocky Yang sows on the dark bestowing earth,

And henny Yin transformed by yellow covering.[26]


The Sages of Old

The ‘secret refinery’ of the sages is described, as they fashioned their bodies into Immortals.

Those wise saints and sages of old

Cherished the mystery and treasured the truth,

They secretly refined at Nine Cauldrons,

Covered their traces and were lost to the world.

Filled with vitality, they nourished the spirit,

Understanding the power of the sun, moon and stars,

They moistened their skin and flesh,

Softened and strengthened their tendons and bones.

All sickness cast out and eliminated,

Their health constantly preserved;

Until accumulating over a long time

They transformed their bodies and became Immortals.[27]


Wei Boyang explains how records of the sages’ work and the failed attempts of others motivated him to write the Candong Qi and to expound their legacy:

They(the sages) revealed the twigs and branches,

Whilst keeping the real roots hidden;

Entrusting them with a host of names,

But defeating them through a mass of writings.

Those learned scholars may have gained something,

But still they ended up encased in a coffin,

Sons carried out their father’s instruction,

Grandsons walked the way of their forebears.

They bequeathed to all doubt and confusion,

Until finally nothing was understood.

This being so, officials left their posts,

Farmers abandoned their fields,

And merchants cast away their wares,

All determined men who ruined their families.

I was so much affected by these affairs,

I decided to put this down in writing,

Keeping the text easy to understand,

And the work brief and uncomplicated.

I separated apart the twigs and branches

That the kernel of the fruit might be seen,

Divided them by due weight and number

That the whole might make sense.[28]


The Health-Giving Elixir

The texts also contain an early description of autonomic change, much like the ‘relaxation response’ described by Benson[29] (first published in the Scientific American in 1972).  This passage outlines the physical sensations of enhanced peripheral circulation, heightened skin sensitivity, and deep muscular and organic relaxation (which of course leads to heightened organ functioning and better regulatory health).

Practice this cultivation without interruption,

And a mass of energy forms like clouds and showers,

Overflowing feelings come like spring rains,

Trickling juices like melting ice.

Flowing through from head to toe,

Finally rising up back above,

Coming and going they reach into nothingness,

Disturbing and stirring all throughout[30].


Yuyan comments here:

Filling gently like mountains mists riding up into an empty space, driven hard like rich rains covering flat fields, overflowing like spring flood-waters seeping into the marshes, trickling through like river-ice about to melt and flow freely, the energies come and go, proceeding throughout the body, and all its vessels are merged into one.  This pervades throughout, extending right out into the limbs. The heart beats strongly, you feel joyful and young again, as if you were slightly drunk on wine.


At the end of this section the text concludes:

As gold-dust it enters the five organs,

Scattering like mist or windborne rain,

Its fragrance wafts to all four limbs,

And the face turns back glossy and young.

White hair changes back to dark,

Fallen teeth reappear in their former places,

Old men restore their male vigour,

And old women regain their shapely youth;

Changing to escape the toil of this world,

Then they may be named – ‘realised people’![31]

The Candong Qi is a key text for all involved in Chinese health-care. I hope these selections show its richness:  its genius in emphasising naturalness, contemplation, a mix of Yin and Yang (time and tide) in all things, and the peace which lies latent in our bodies; available, daily, to us all.




Main Text for Translation

Zhongjiao Guwen Can Tong Qi   A Reprinting of the Ancient Guwen Can Tong Qi with original Yang Shen 1546 preface.

My edition is from 1839, with introduction by Zhu Am.

Main Source for Commentaries

Zhuxi      Examining Differences in the Zhouyi Can Tong Qi (1197)

Yuyan     Expounding on the Zhouyi Can Tong Qi (1284)

Shangyang Zi     Commentary and Explanation of Zhouyi Can Tong Qi (1330)

These three are in a compendium issued by Tiangjin Guji Publishing House (1988)


Subsidiary Texts

Lu Guangrong   Zhongguo Qigong Cidian (A Dictionary of Chinese Qigong)  People’s Health Publishing House, 1989,

Qi Gong (Qi Gong Journal)   Zhejiang Science and Technology Publishing House, China.  Especially 1985 (1), pp.35 ff; 1984 (6), pp.273ff; 1986 (2), pp.77ff.

Xiao Tingjin, Jindan Da Cheng (Golden Elixir Compendium) Song, TT/260 (Weiger).

Chou Yi Ts’an Tung Ch’i (Kinship of the Three According to the Book of Changes), trans. Zhou Shiyi. MSS in the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge, Accessed 1987)

Giafu Feng Tian Xian Zheng Li (The Truth about Fairies), unpublished draft.

Lao Tzu Tao-te Ching  Giafu Feng and Jane English, Wildwood London 1972,

Needham, J  Science and Civilisation in China, Cambridge University Press, various dates.

Wu, Lu Ch’iang and Davies, T.L. An Ancient Chinese Treatise on Alchemy Entitled the Ts’an T’ung Ch’i, by Wei Po-yang   Isis:55 (1932), pp.210-89

[1] I use the term neidan (“inner elixir”) rather than qigong to stress the internal aspect of the exercise.  Without inner experience of the reality of qi and dan. understanding is impossible. The text is dated 142 C.E.

[2] Ch.31

[3] Ch.25 The Three Jewels, the Real Crux

[4] Ch.11

[5] Ch.,1 (Wei Boyang) and Ch.19 (Xu Congshi).  The horses are a common image of bodily vigor. Cf. Yi Jing (Hex.26 Great Cultivation and Hex.59 Dispersion) and Heshang |Gong commentary to the Daode Jing.

[6] Ch.5 The Function of the Shifting Lines

[7] cf. “on the third day he rose again”, from the Nicene Creed

[8] Ch.25  See later section for full quotation.

[9] Daoist philosopher, c. 400 BCE

[10] Ch.18

[11] Daode Jing Ch.25

[12] Ch.27

[13] Ch.27

[14] Ch.30

[15] Ch.14 A clear warning against going astray or ‘chasing rainbows’ as we say in the West.


[16] Ch.18

[17] Ch.25

[18] Ch.4

[19] Ch.19

[20] Ch.19, p.159

[21] Ch.19, p.161

[22] Hexagrams 63 and 64.

[23] Ch.19

[24] Ch.4

[25] Ch.21

[26] Ch.21

[27] Ch.12

[28] Ch.12

[29] Benson, Herbert. 1975 The Relaxation Response HarperTorch and on Meditation in Scientific American (226, 1972).

[30] Ch.25

[31] Ch.32