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Liu, "In search of immortality: Daoist inner alchemy in early twentieth-century China," 2001

USC Dissertation in Religion.
August 24, 2009

Xun Liu, Ph.D.

Abstract (Summary)
Amidst the early 20th century advance of nationalism, science, gender revolution and modern print media, how did China's ancient Daoism fare? I argue that this religious tradition did not decline, as some have claimed, but evolved and flourished. To show its transformation, I examine the life and work of Chen Yingning (1880-1969) and his Shanghai-based followers from 1920s to early 1940s.

Led by Chen, the movement to promote "Immortals' Learning" (xian xue) proved pivotal in shaping the modern contours of ancient Daoist practice. It redefined Daoism as centered on inner alchemy (neidan), the Daoist meditative techniques evolved during the Tang-Song period. Consistent with their nationalist vision, Chen claimed Daoism as the source of the Chinese cultural essence by locating its origin in the Yellow Emperor legend. Further, Chen and others rejected the Buddhist Mind-centered body construction in favor of a robustly physical alchemic body shaped by two factors. First, their education and careers in modern medicine, business and science conditioned their spiritual outlook, leading them to appropriate concepts of physics, biology and psychology to reinterpret the traditional Daoist cosmology and practices. Second, because physical health became linked to national renewal in early twentieth century, a physically constructed alchemic body consecrated the flesh body as a legitimate venue for pursuing national salvation through personal self-cultivation practice.

Also responsive to the emerging gender revolution, Chen and his associates valorized the gender-neutral energies of the Spirit (shen) and qi as the core of the alchemic body while downplaying the male-centered vitality of Essence (jing) which had dominated the traditional neidan discourse since the Song dynasty.

Finally, publications on neidan by the Yi Hua Tang publishing house created an imagined community where fellowship rather than discipleship among practitioners became widespread; and access to Daoist knowledge and adepts was also rendered public and equal to both sexes through journals, lectures and published correspondence. This culminated in an unprecedented revival of Daoist learning and practice whose influence endures in today's qigong and other self-cultivation pursuits in China.

Advisor: Furth, Charlotte