University of Hawai'i Press
  • The Neijing tu and the Twenty-four Calendar Divisions

The organizers of the 13th International Conference on Daoist Studies, held in Los Angeles in 2019 with a focus on notions and practices of time, could not have chose a better opening day: the day of the summer solstice. The time corresponds to the fullness of yang and the trigram Qian 乾 (heaven), the point where the annual cycle reaches its zenith.

The start of Daoist cultivation practice is just at the opposite end of the spectrum, the winter solstice—at the height of yin symbolized by the trigram Kun 坤(earth)—when creation begins to unfold. In the overall sequence of time, this is the period when the yang potency of time and space is completely exhausted and the world enters a state of complete yin. However, from here the vital energy of the cosmos starts anew with the growth of yang, moving step by step in the order of the twelve waxing and waning hexagrams. They begin with the hexagram Fu 復 (Turning Point), which consists of five yin lines and one yang line, and move all the way through Qian (all yang) to Kun (all yin) to begin again. This is shown in Figure 1, the Neijing tu 內經圖(Chart of Internal Passageways) overlaid by a diviner's compass showing the yin-yang symbol, the eight trigrams, and the sixty-four hexagrams of the yin-yang cycle of the year.

Cosmic body charts in Daoist cultivation are maps of the internal universe within the human being, merging natural and cultural symbols into an integrated whole. Stars and landscapes, spirits and gods, passageways and palaces reveal the mysteries of the cosmos, the inner secrets of Dao, and the way to health and long life. [End Page 137]

Fig 1. The period of the trigram Kun, the height of yin at the winter solstice, when energy moves from all-yin to a gradual increase of yang.
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Fig 1.

The period of the trigram Kun, the height of yin at the winter solstice, when energy moves from all-yin to a gradual increase of yang.

They show the mysterious structure of the cosmos through visual images that have cosmic correspondences, depicting the human body as the universe and thus encouraging a more cosmic-centered way of being, a transformation of self and world. They represent different dimensions, working with vital energy or qi, information, and power, thereby allowing adepts to adjust their situation and attain healing of all diseases.

Building on this cosmological schema, Daoist charts of internal passageways not only present an image of the processes of the harmonization of body and mind and the systematic creation of the cinnabar elixir through internal refinement and the cultivation of perfection. They also contain—albeit deeply hidden—the stages and systems of healing exercises and energy guiding, cleverly storing the core information of heaven and earth and the rhythm of the sun and the moon. [End Page 138]

The core concept underlying the charts is the notion of the ultimate oneness, the complete unity of heaven and humanity. Daoism thus presents an integrated vision of body and mind, health and cultivation, working systematically to establish the harmony of yin and yang and the refinement of the three treasures (essence, energy, and spirit). Eventually spirit and physical form are joined in oneness, both inner nature and life-destiny are fully cultivated, and Dao and virtue are whole and complete—the most fundamental goal of the complete realization of inner nature and life-destiny is fully attained (Li 2009). All this happens through quiet sitting and inner observation, meditation and visualization of the internal landscape, as well as the harmonization of qi and the refinement of spirit. To get a better understanding of this process, the body charts are essential as is the proper understanding of time.

Cultivation Processes

A key set of charts in this context is the matching pair of the Great Ultimate (taiji 太極) and the Non-Ultimate (wuji 無極), one showing cosmogonic progression, the other outlining the progress of the Daoist cultivator matching cosmogonic regression (see Fig. 2). That is to say, both charts are the same, showing pure Dao at creation as an empty circle at the top, then presenting the interaction of yin and yang as black and white semi-circles, and center on the five phases connected by dynamic lines. The two lower circles on the left bear the inscription, "The way of Qian creates males; the way of Kun creates females," while the last one signifies the myriad beings, the fullness of creation.

The big contrast is in the numbering: the left chart counts one to five from top to bottom, the one on the right moves in the opposite direction, going against the cosmogonic evolution inverting the natural flow of things, and reversing entropy, moving from birth to immortality rather than death. The stages here begin with "attaining orifices"—that is, being born and having sensory openings—followed by "refining the self," "harmony and fusion" of the five phases as manifest in the inner organs—liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys. From here, adepts "attain the medicine" by concocting the internal elixir, to eventually "pursue immortality" and "deliverance from the womb," that is, liberation from rebirth and all human constraints. [End Page 139]

Fig 2. Taiji tu and Wuji tu, from Shangyangzi jindan dayao tu 上陽子金丹大要圖 (Shangyangzi's Charts of the Great Essentials of the Golden Elixir, DZ 1068), 3a.
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Fig 2.

Taiji tu and Wuji tu, from Shangyangzi jindan dayao tu 上陽子金丹大要圖 (Shangyangzi's Charts of the Great Essentials of the Golden Elixir, DZ 1068), 3a.

Just as energy flows from the undifferentiated oneness of the cosmos through yin and yang and the five phases into various life forms, so in the human body, qi moves downward, transforms into essence—sperm or menstrual blood—and leaves the body as part of the reproductive cycles. Going against the current, inverting the natural pattern, Daoist adepts reverse that: with various methods of cultivation. For example, the Dadong zhenjing 大洞真經 (Scripture of Great Pervasion, DZ 6), a key text of the leading medieval school of Highest Clarity says:

Visualize the Ruler of Destiny in the midst of the sun, then see three pure strands of qi flowing from him into your body through the Niwan [at the [End Page 140] top of the head]. Inhale it as a spirit cloud through your mouth, then swallow it with the saliva three times. In this manner, the qi transforms into a spirit within, shaped just like the sun.


Similarly focus on the Peach Lord in the midst of the moon, then imagine qi of lunar radiance flowing from him into your body through the Niwan. Inhale it as a spirit cloud through your mouth, then swallow it with the saliva three times. In this manner, the qi transforms into a spirit within, shaped just like the moon.


In the passage, the text also notes that, to activate the Ruler of Destiny in the sun, one should use the left hand to pass over the main orifices of the body, then visualize his energy flowing through the left side of the body along with the breath. It enters from the top of the head, circulates through the organs, then rises up along the spine and moves into the left cheek, shoulder arm, and hand. The same practice with the right hand and the right side of the body activates the Peach Lord of the moon. Systematically breathing and visualizing, adepts guide the energy through the organs and elixir fields, following the route of the meridians of Chinese medicine. Eventually the two deities—representatives of the pure potency of yin and yang—radiate throughout the entire body, covering both sides, shining brilliantly through the eyes, and merging into oneness in the head.

The text documents the active integration of Chinese medicine and ancient cosmology with Daoist cultivation in the early middle ages, lined with a vibrant pantheon and activated in ritual and meditation. The adepts of Highest Clarity creatively standardized the symbolic images and associated features of the divine powers and deities, providing practitioners with a structured path and systematic techniques of internal cultivation. They further worked closely with the daily, monthly, and annual rhythm of yin and yang, matching their practice to various traditional divisions of time.

Internal Alchemy

Since the Song dynasty, most lineages of internal alchemy have focused on the cultivation of the three treasures essence (jing 精), energy (qi 氣), and spirit (shen 神), closely related to the three elixir fields in the abdomen, chest, and head. The alchemical process involves the systematic [End Page 141] transformation of one into the other—from essence through energy to spirit—leading to ever greater subtlety. The deity associated with the middle elixir field in the Highest Clarity system, the Red Child (chizi 赤 子) at the time evolved into the immortal embryo (xiantai 仙胎), while cultivation, in addition to going along and matching the cosmic cycles, began to work increasingly with the reversal of the natural flow, emphasizing the inversion of inherent patterns.

That is to say, rather than allowing cosmic energy from the celestial bodies to flow into their body through the top of the head, would gather qi in the lower elixir field, then systematically moved it to the perineum at the base of the spine and from there guided it upward all the way to the upper elixir field, the Niwan Palace 泥丸宮 in the head. Essence, the sexual and most tangible form of vital energy, in this manner no longer created an external new life in the normal way, but rose in the body to create an immortal embryo, a golden child.

The process is vividly illustrated in the Xiuzhen tu 修真圖 (Chart of the Cultivation of Perfection), found on a stele of the late Qing (see Despeux 2019). It shows the relevance of the natural cycles by presenting the thirty lunar stations in the course of the month in a chain of globes around the torso and the twenty-four solar nodes of the year along the vertebrae of the spine, The latter are a set of two-week or fifteen-day periods that are named after equinoxes, solstices, and seasonal changes. In addition, it notes on the right and left sides of the very center of the figure, "Moving with the natural flow means ordinary life; going against it leads to sagehood," emphasizing the importance of reversal (see Fig. 3).

Textual sources supplement this with descriptions of the "small heavenly circuit" or "microcosmic orbit" (xiao xhoutian 小周天), more comprehensively described as "yin and yang completing a full loop around the universe." Practitioners close their eyes and sit quietly, inhaling pure qi through the nose then guiding it into the abdomen to reach the lower elixir field, then sink it further to the base of the spine. [End Page 142]

Fig 3. The Xiuzhen tu
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Fig 3.

The Xiuzhen tu

From there, they move it upward, first passing the lower barrier known as the Tail Gate (weilü 尾閭), then pushing through the middle barrier called the Narrow Strait (jiaji 夹脊) and the upper barrier, the Jade Pillow (yuzhen 玉枕) at the back of the head. Eventually the qi reaches the top of the head, marked by a point called Hundred Meeting (baihui 百会) or, in Daoist parlance, the Heavenly Pass (tianguan 天關).

Next, adepts guide the qi into the Niwan Palace or upper elixir field, then allow it to sink down to pass across the face and the tongue to flow [End Page 143] through the esophagus and along the front of the torso first to the middle, then again to the lower elixir field. This completes one round or cycle.

Practitioners adjust the tempo and intensity of the energy circulation in accordance with their specific physical condition and level of health, always working toward strengthening the body, eliminating disease, and prolonging life. On a more advanced level, in order to create an immortal embryo, they expand the circulation to include the entire body and follow the paths of the meridians, matching the rhythm of yin and yang in their annual circuit and working with the twenty-four solar nodes.

The same process, with somewhat different visuals, is also depicted in the Neijing tu (see Fig. 4; Komjathy 2009). It shows the upper elixir field in the head as the celestial paradise of Mount Kunlun, the eyes as the sun and the moon, and the Buddha and Laozi as spiritual leaders.

The throat is a twelve-storied tower, the middle elixir field a spiral of whirling energies, the belly a field to be plowed, and the lower elixir field a ring of yin-yang globes. Along the spine, there are the three major barriers, here represented as gates, while two youngsters operate the river chariot or waterwheel, the powerful current of energy reversal.

Fig 4. The Neijing tu
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Fig 4.

The Neijing tu

[End Page 144]

The Heart

The heart is of central importance. Closely linked to the central elixir field and the seat of the mind, it is the master of the human body and leads all other forces. "Wherever the heart-and-mind goes, essence, energy, and spirit follow." For example, if you think about something in your mind, the essence in your body will respond to that object and produce "essence clusters." "Whenever essence is stimulated, the spirit must attend to it, and both features are determined by the heart." Therefore, it is necessary to cultivate essence, energy, and spirit through internal cultivation. The Nejing tu shows the heart as a child, reaching out to a chain of rocks representing the seven starts of the Northern Dipper: this shows how the human heart matches the heart of heaven.

Fig 5. The image of the heart in the Neijing tu with the hexagrams marking the transition from yin to yang at the winter solstice in the annual cycle.
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Fig 5.

The image of the heart in the Neijing tu with the hexagrams marking the transition from yin to yang at the winter solstice in the annual cycle.

At the same time, the heart is also the starting point of the entire circuit of heaven earth running throughout the year. Matching the winter solstice among the twenty-four nodes, it is the junction point between the Qian and Fu hexagrams in the ongoing cycle of time and space, symbolizing the birth of a yang. At this time, the energy of heaven and earth [End Page 145] is transformed by that energy of the heart, the great cycle begins again, and the reversal of the flow of essence is mobilized (see Fig. 5). The early Taiping jing 太平經 (Scripture of Great Peace) says:

The essential spirit of the four seasons and five phases centers in the gods of the five organs: it issues from the four seasons and five phases. When it is close to human beings, it appears as the deities of the five virtues, similar to the gods of the five organs. When it is away from humans, it matches are yin and yang, the infantry and cavalry of the four seasons that slay all evil that move along with the rise and decline of the energy of the four seasons.

(ch. 72; Wang 1997, 293)

This outlines the close connection of the human body to the cycles of time and emphasizes the central role of the inner organs.

The name of the deity of the heart in the Neijing tu, moreover, goes back to the Huangting neijing jing 黃庭內景經 (Scripture of Inner Luminants of the Yellow Court, DZ 401, 402; trl. Saso 1995; Archangelis and Lanying 2010). It says,

The heart is like a verdant lotus blossom. Its deity is called Danyuan 丹元 (Cinnabar Prime) or Shouling 守靈 (Life Force Guard). He has his residence in its lower part. He wears a flying robe of cinnabar brocade and a skirt of jade-like gauze, a golden bell pendant hanging from his vermilion sash. He controls all heat and cold as well as protective and nutritive energies, regulates the blood and manages people's destiny, keeping their bodies from decaying. Communicating outside through the mouth and tongue, he should be invoked constantly to enable flight into the empyrean.

The deity is also known as the Grandmaster Ruler of Destiny of the Center, the Perfect Oneness in the Heart, and the Prime Lord of Central Oneness. The text call him the ruler of all deities and human functions and compares him to the sun in the sky. All the other gods and organs of the body are his ministers, assistants, and servants.

The Solar Nodes

Below the heart, the Neijing tu shows a platform with radiantly blossoming trees and a lady engaged in weaving (see Fig. 6). They symbolize perfect [End Page 146] inner nature and primordial feeling that reside in the liver and the lungs.

Fig 6. The representation of the liver and beginning of spring.
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Fig 6.

The representation of the liver and beginning of spring.

The blossoming tree, a spring willow, indicates the new emergence of vegetation after a long winter, the new rise of yang energy, the fertility of clouds and rain, and the overall renewal of energy. At this time, the hexagrams Tun 屯 (Difficulty at the Beginning) and Zhen 震 (Arousing) come to the fore, signaling the new beginning of the annual and agricultural cycle. They lead up to the hexagram Wuwang 无妄(No Error), which matches the Spring Festival (lichun 立春) or Chinese New Year among the twenty-four nodes, when "yang is in harmony, insects arise, and all things are springing forth." This is how things should be, when the energy of the annual cycle is in its proper mode—happy growth and new potency on the rise.

The lady engaged in weaving, on the other hand, symbolizes the core inner nature of an infant, its most primitive essence, activated during practice in extremely soft, long, and deep breathing, pure energy moving in and out of the body and rising through the body to the Niwan Palace in the head. The weaving of the breath in the right manner and at the right time opens the infinite sequence of time and space, and activates the meridians to prepare for the ultimate transformation of energy. [End Page 147]

After the Spring Festival, the world sees an increasing balance of yin and yang, water and fire, as well as more agricultural activities, leading to the solar nodes Rain Water, Excited Insects, and Spring Equinox. The Neijing tu depicts this with the images of an ox pulling a plow, two youngsters running a waterwheel for irrigation, and the reversal of the water flow (see Fig. 7). These are not only images of spring planting activities, but also match the hexagrams Jiji 既濟 (After Completion), Feng 豐 (Abundance), and Tongren 同人 (Human Community).

Fig 7. The various spring planting and irrigation activities in the Neijing tu.
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Fig 7.

The various spring planting and irrigation activities in the Neijing tu.

In terms of internal cultivation, they indicate the reversal of essence, the transformation of kidney water toward heart fire, the increasing momentum of the microcosmic orbit. The ox plowing the land symbolizes the process of "emptying the heart and filling the belly" (Daode jing 3), of planting the seeds of new wealth, which involves specific abdominal breathing methods. The two youngsters running the waterwheel indicate the reversal of essence and its impending transformation into energy as well as the coordination of the three forms of internal fire: the ruling or royal (jun 君) fire of spirit in the heart, the subordinate or minister (chen 臣) fire of the organs in the kidneys, and the common or people (min 民) fire of sexual essence in the bladder. The process here is just starting, there is still the danger of leaking essence through the lower orifices. The [End Page 148] activation of the waterwheel, therefore, is an essential step on the way to internal refinement.

Modes of Attainment

From here on, the internal map shows the process of the ongoing reversal of energy flowing up through the Governing Vessel along the spine. It marks it with the three barriers, shown as gates in the Neijing tu, which must be carefully navigated (see Fig. 8). In terms of the annual cycle, this means moving on to the Clear and Bright (Qingming 清明) festival in the 4th lunar month, followed by Nurturing Rain (guyu 谷雨) and Summer Beginning (lixia 立夏). A time of more regulated human activities during, these are marked by the hexagrams Jie 節 (Regulations), Guimei 歸妹 (Marrying Maiden), and Lü 履 (Wanderer).

As adepts move through the three barriers and these nodes of time, they activate the elixir field, their Gate of Life, and the Mysterious Pass.

Fig 8. The three gates and four key cultivation areas in the Neijing tu.
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Fig 8.

The three gates and four key cultivation areas in the Neijing tu.

The latter is described in the practice manual Xingming guizhi as an energy vortex hidden deep in the meridians, connecting to the middle elixir field at the heart, the Yellow Court in the mid-belly, and the Ocean of Qi in the abdomen through three openings. It is the key area of internal [End Page 149] cultivation, so that practitioners can revert the five phases or four images (yin-yang in various combinations) to the two forces (yin-yang in their primary state) to the Great Ultimate, the empty circle of Dao at the beginning of all, the root of the endless process of life. Here the organs—liver, heart, lungs, kidneys, and spleen—come together in a new dimension to stimulate vitality and enhance all the different life functions: the autonomic nervous system, the endocrine system, the metabolism, and the immune system.

Fig 9. The celestial regions in the Neijing tu.
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Fig 9.

The celestial regions in the Neijing tu.

The upper part of the Neijing tu is the celestial realm of spirit and the gods. There are many images here, and they all have their own functions, indicating advanced stages of cultivation. The globe on the left side of the Jade Pillow, the upper barrier at the back of the head, matches the location of the brain stem as well as the pituitary and pineal glands, closely related to human metabolism, growth, development, and reproductive health. The opening to the massive mountain range symbolizes the road to immortality and the key location of the transformation of essence to spirit.

The high peaks with the billowing river below show the realm of the immortals on the world mountain of Kunlun—associated with the head already in early medieval meditation manuals. The realm governed by the Queen Mother of the West, it is the seat of the central administration [End Page 150] of heaven, where essence, energy, and spirit transform into pure yang power. The Hundred Meeting point, shown as the highest peak, is also the Heavenly Pass, where the embryo exits to commence its immortal life. Below the peaks, moreover, is the Niwan Palace, the upper elixir field, the residence of the highest gods of the cosmos, the place of the Non-Ultimate, and also the core location of the golden elixir.

In terms of time, this part connects to the fullness of yang, from the Summer Solstice to Minor Heat, the time where the alchemical fire burns highest and transformation is most potent. The hexagrams here are Qian, consisting of all-yang lines, followed by Gou 姤 (Coming to Meet) with a single yin line and Daguo 大過 (Great Passage) with two yin lines at the top and bottom. They indicate a change in the flow of time and space, the rise of abundant energy both in nature and the practitioner, as well as the impending reversal back toward more yin, which nature undergoes but adepts don't. The time of minor heat subtly guides and reminds adepts that, after they complete the work of moving energy up the Governing Vessel, the intuition of their physical form and inherent power of spirit is increasingly restored and reaches fullness and abundance.

Li Juntao

Li Juntao received his PhD from the Institute of Daoism and Comparative Religion at Sichuan University. His research focuses on Daoist philosophy and iconography, also applying the latter to modern art creation. Email:


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