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  • Great Clarity: Daoism and Alchemy in Early Medieval China
  • Jan De Meyer (bio)
Fabrizio Pregadio. Great Clarity: Daoism and Alchemy in Early Medieval China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006. xvii, 367 pp. Hardcover $60.00, ISBN 0–8047–5177–3.

Over the past few decades, Chinese alchemy—in its “external” (waidan) as well as its “internal” (neidan) guises—has been the subject of a steadily increasing number of studies. Yet countless facets of the history of its development remain obscure. With Great Clarity: Daoism and Alchemy in Early Medieval China, Fabrizio Pregadio, acting associate professor of religious studies at Stanford University and general editor of the Encyclopedia of Taoism, has published what in little time will achieve recognition as a key tool in our understanding of the early history of Daoist alchemy.

Great Clarity, a reference to both the heaven that spawned the revealed texts of the Taiqing canon and the texts themselves, consists of five parts. Part 1 elucidates the early history of Chinese alchemy and the position of Great Clarity within it. It also discusses the place of the heaven of Great Clarity in Daoist cosmography and the sacred scriptures that derived from it. Frequent parallels are made to the organization of the earliest Daoist canon, and the fascinating and complex mechanisms of interaction between Taiqing and later Daoist revelations are laid bare in an intelligent and highly intelligible fashion.

Part 2 focuses on the doctrinal foundations of alchemy, its ritual aspects, and its methods of compounding elixirs. Of crucial importance here is the detailed description of the ritual sequence—the ceremony of transmission, the retirement and the ritual purifications, the precepts and taboos, the talismans and seals used, the building of the laboratory, the kindling of the fire, the consecration and the ingestion of the elixir—allowing the alchemist to re-create within his crucible the state prior to the emergence of time and to the separation of yin and yang.

In part 3, the position of Taiqing alchemy among the early medieval traditions of southeastern China is examined. The author looks at the relationship between waidan and the fourth-century legacies of the Jiangnan region through the eyes of Ge Hong’s Baopuzi neipian, and explains how Taiqing alchemy, related as it was to certain exorcistic and healing methods, was able to flourish in the religious climate of the southeast. At least as important is the author’s account of what happened to Taiqing alchemy in the wake of the propagation of the Way of the Celestial Masters in Jiangnan, and of the revelations of the Shangqing and Lingbao corpus. Within that changing religious context, Taiqing lost its prominent status, and waidan doctrines and practices started to give way to ulterior developments. Readers of the Daoist canon have perhaps been struck by the image of Zhang Daoling, the first Celestial Master, as an alchemist. To the surprising [End Page 194] creation of that image, and to the intense religious competition that formed its background, the author devotes some of his most memorable pages.

Part 4 contains full translations of three Taiqing scriptures: the Scripture of the Nine Elixirs, the Scripture of the Golden Liquor, and the Scripture of the Reverted Elixir in Nine Cycles. Together with Stephen Bokenkamp’s translation of the Scripture on the Elixir of the Efflorescence of Langgan (see his Early Daoist Scriptures [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997], pp. 331–339), the core of the early Chinese alchemical literature has thus been made accessible to the Western public. Part 5, finally, assesses the importance of Great Clarity in the formation of later alchemical traditions as well as the causes of its decline.

The latter 140 pages of the book are taken up by a glossary, bibliography, and an index as well as copious notes and three appendixes, respectively devoted to the dates of texts in the waidan corpus, additional notes on Great Clarity and related texts, and additional notes on the commentary to the Scripture of the Nine Elixirs.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly for a monograph on alchemy, Great Clarity is a rather untechnical or “unchemical” book, in the sense that it is one of those very few books on...