Written by: Julia Hardy
Some individuals looked to alchemical techniques in hopes of attaining immortality. One comprehensive source about these practices, which date back into antiquity, was Ge Hong (283-343 C.E.), who was nicknamed "The Master Who Embraces Simplicity." According to his autobiography, Ge Hong's father died when he was 13, so he worked as a laborer cultivating his family's land. He described himself as shallow, poorly educated but widely read, stupid, forgetful, lazy, untalented, unsophisticated, sickly, and unattractive . . . and a prolific writer, though not a particularly good one.
Among Ge Hong's few surviving writings is his Nei pien, or Inner Chapters, which he described as belonging to the "Taoist school." Ge Hong's Nei pien recounted what he had learned about "things out of the ordinary," especially practices for extending life. While the Nei pien provides a number of detailed formulas for attaining immortality, Ge Hong stated that he was too poor to obtain all of the necessary ingredients, so he had never actually tried any of them and could not guarantee their effectiveness.
In addition to literati Taoists, and to legends and practices surrounding immortality, one other element of early Chinese culture would influence the emergence of Taoist religious organizations toward the end of the Han dynasty — the fangshi. The origin of the fangshi is uncertain; the word has been translated as "magicians," "recipe masters," or "specialists in occult prescriptions." They may have been a later form of the wu, a type of shaman who was involved in certain rituals at court during the Zhou and possibly the Shang dynasty.
More is known about the fangshi during the Qin and Han dynasties. Many fangshi came to the court of Qin Shihuang when he became ruler, as he was deeply interested in the concept of immortality. He sent expeditions to try to locate the famed Isle of the Immortals, and some think he may have died, as others had, from consuming a poisonous elixir of immortality. There were also Han emperors who were interested in immortality, particularly Han Wudi (140-87 B.C.E.), who employed numerous fangshi. He too sought the lands of the immortals, and also reinstated ancient sacrifices that he hoped would make him immortal.
The fangshi were not part of an organized school. It is likely that their knowledge, including the passing of secret texts, was transferred from master to disciple. Among the skills attributed to the fangshi were the ability to communicate with spirits, to exorcise demons, to heal illness, and to summon rain. Their self-cultivation practices included partaking of special diets and elixirs, meditative exercises, sexual techniques, and special body movements, all of which were believed to increase one's lifespan and, potentially, to lead to the immortality of one's physical body.
1. How do politics and education interact with each other in early Taoist history?
2. Elaborate on the relationship between immortality and wealth.
3. How have the fangshi contributed to the emergence of Taoism?