Ge Hong

A great Chinese alchemist who may be the first to mention mosaic gold. He used gold for medicine and was a real innovator of gold. Besides that he wrote on nearly everything. His writing were considered Taoist canon for a long time.

Our podcast on him:

Ge Hong (Chinese: 葛洪; pinyin: Gě Hóng) lived from (283–343),

courtesy name Zhichuan (稚川), was a minor southern official during the Jìn Dynasty (263-420) of China, best known for his interest in Daoism, alchemy, and techniques of longevity.

We focused on the more religious and esoteric writings, but he wrote on tons of other stuff.

In particular, he wrote two volumes of essays and alchemical writing totaling seventy chapters, collectively entitled Baopuzi or “The Master Who Embraces Simplicity”,

In the Neipian (Inner Chapters) volume of the Baopuzi, Ge vigorously defends the attainability of divine transcendence or “immortality” through alchemy; while the outer chapters (Waipian) are more about social and literary criticism.

Wikipedia has a lot more on the Baopuzi, but we’ll get into that further down.

Father

His father, Ge Ti served in various civil and military positions, and was eventually appointed Governor of Kuaiji prefecture (in the Wu kingdom)

When the Jin took over he was eventually rewarded with a promotion, and he died while in office, serving as the Governor of Shaoling in modern Hunan province, an area of relatively modest size.

Ge was born in 283 in Jurong, just three years after the Jin conquest of Wu. He was the youngest of three sons, By his own account, Ge possessed a serious demeanor as a child, declining to play with other children or to participate in activities such as chess, gambling, or cock fighting. (As kids are wont to do)

He was uninterested in serious study,

Ge was only twelve years old when his father died in 295.

He states that he personally engaged in plowing and planting, suffering from cold and hunger. The destruction of his father’s library by soldiers due to civil strife worsened Ge’s plight and, in one colorful passage from his postface, he describes how he used his meager income earned from chopping firewood to underwrite his education… the poverty could be an exaggeration though.

Ge began his study of the canon of texts, generally associated with ru jia, often translated simply as “Confucianism”. Ge states that he began to read classics such as the “Shi jing” (Book of Odes) at fifteen, without the benefit of a tutor, and could recite from memory those books he studied and grasp their essential meaning. His extensive reading approached “ten thousand chapters”, a number meant to suggest the dizzying scope of his education. The “ten thousand things” is used often in Daoist texts to describe the vast manifestations, life forms or types of matter in the reality of the Dao.

At the age of fourteen, Ge Hong entered into the tutelage of Zheng Yin, an accomplished classical scholar who had turned to esoteric studies later in life. According to Ge’s lengthy and colorful description of his teacher, Zheng was over eighty years old but still remarkably hale. He was a master of the so-called “Five Classics” who continued to teach the Li ji (Book of Rites) and the Shu (Documents), was a teacher of the esoteric arts of longevity, divination, and astrology, and was even an accomplished musician!

Alchemy

Zheng Yin’s instruction in the esoteric arts emphasized the manufacture of the “gold elixir” or jin dan, which he considered the only truly significant means to achieve transcendence.
His influence is reflected in portions of Hong’s writings that endorse alchemy, but are critical of dietary regimens, herbs, and other popular methods of longevity.
The process of learning alchemical recipes and receiving scriptures combined rituals, oral instruction, and textual transmission.
Ge states that his master carefully limited access to these texts among his more than fifty disciples. He was only permitted to copy out a few, but lists the titles of many more in his own writings. Indeed, Ge’s “Inner Chapters” is remarkable for its extensive bibliography of alchemical scriptures, most of which exist only in fragments today.
Only to Ge did Zheng Yin transmit texts such as the Sanhuang neiwen (Esoteric Writings of the Three Sovereigns), which Zheng considered to be among the most important alchemical scriptures. Ge also received three scriptures from the Grand Purity tradition that originated in northern China, along with their accompanying esoteric, oral instructions.
These texts were relatively unknown south of the Yangtze River, and their transmission to Ge may be regarded as a rare event that owed something to Zheng Yin’s close relationship to Ge’s family. Zheng Yin was the pupil of Ge’s granduncle Ge Xuan, who was in turn the pupil of the well-known Han fangshi (occultist), Zuo Ci. Ge claims that these three texts were revealed through divine revelation to Zuo Ci, who later fled south to escape the chaos that followed the collapse of the Han dynasty.

He had a carreer as an official in the military
Then remained in the south, living as a recluse on Mount Luofu for the next eight years before returning to his native Jurong around 314.
Then became an official again
Shortly after emerging from reclusion and returning to his family home of Jurong around 314, Ge received an appointment as Clerk to the Prince of Langya, Sima Rui (276-322), who served as Prime Minister from 313 until 316.

Death

In 343, Hong died on Mt. Luofu. The account of his passing as found in his official biography is more hagiography than history. Supposedly, Ge sent a letter to Deng Yue, hinting at his approaching end. Deng rushed to Ge’s home, but found him already dead. Strangely, Ge’s body was light and supple, as if alive, and his contemporaries all supposed that he had finally achieved transcendence with the technique of shi jie, sometimes translated as “corpse liberation”.
His biography moreover follows a tradition that Ge was eighty-one when he died, an important number in Daoist numerology, but there is little doubt among modern scholars that this tradition is false, and Ge died at the age of sixty.

Science

Recent surveys of the history of Daoism in Chinese have also emphasized Ge’s importance in the history of science, based on his detailed descriptions of alchemical processes, which are frequently studied in terms of modern chemistry.

A temple dedicated to Ge stands in the hills north of West Lake (Xihu) in Hangzhou (like czech), Zhejiang Province. According the monks and nuns who live at the temple, it was on this site that Ge wrote Baopuzi, and eventually attained transcendence. Ge supposedly answers prayers from a Daoist worshipper with a healthy mind and body. Further south, near Ningbo, lies an eco-tourist destination that also claims to be the site of Ge’s alleged transcendence. Visitors are rewarded with an exceptional hike through a narrow gorge of remarkable natural beauty. These contradictory claims, together with conflicting historical sources, reflect the complexity of Ge’s legacy as a figure of continued religious, historical, and literary importance.

Baopuzi

The twenty Neipian “Inner Chapters” record arcane techniques for achieving xian “transcendence; immortality”. These techniques span two types of Chinese alchemy that Tang Dynasty scholars later differentiated into neidan “internal elixir; internal alchemy” andwaidan “external elixir; external alchemy”. The word dan “cinnabar; red; pellet; [Chinese medicine] pill” means “pill of immortality,elixir of life, Philosopher’s stone” in alchemy.

Ge Hong details his researches into the arts of transcendence and immortality. “Internal alchemy” concerns creating an “immortal body” within the corporeal body through both physiological methods (dietary, respiratory, sexual, etc.) and mental practices (meditation, visualizaiton, etc.). “External” or “laboratory alchemy” concerns compounding elixirs (esp. from minerals and metals), writing fu talismans or amulets, herbalism, and exorcism.

Many scholars have praised the Inner Chapters. Joseph Needham (1954:437), who called Ge Hong “the greatest alchemist in Chinese history”, quoted the following passage about medicines from different biological categories.

Interlocutor: Life and death are predetermined by fate and their duration is normally fixed. Life is not something any medicine can shorten or lengthen. A finger that has been cut off cannot be joined on again and expected to continue growing. Blood from a wound, though swallowed, is of no benefit. Therefore, it is most inappropriate to approve of taking such nonhuman substances as pine or thuya [cypress] to protract the brief span of life.
Ko: According to your argument, a thing is beneficial only if it belongs to the same category as that which is treated. … If we followed your suggestion and mistrusted things of a different type, we would be obliged to crush flesh and smelt bone to prepare a medicine for wounds, or to fry skin and roast hair to treat baldness. Water and soil are not of the same substance as the various plants; yet the latter rely upon them for growth. The grains are not of the same species as living men; yet living men need them in order to stay alive. Fat is not to be classed with fire, nor water with fish, yet when there is no more fat the fires dies, and when there is no more water, fish perish. (3, tr. Ware 1966:61-62)
Needham (1954:439) evaluated this passage, “Admittedly there is much in the Pao Phu Tzu which is wild, fanciful and superstitious, but here we have a discussion scientifically as sound as anything in Aristotle, and very much superior to anything which the contemporary occident could produce.”
In addition to quoting early alchemical texts, the Inner Chapters describe Ge Hong’s laboratory experiments. Wu and Davis mention theBaopuzi formula for making mosaic gold “a golden crystalline powder used as a pigment” from chiyan ?? “red crystal salt” (produced from amethyst, calcite crystal, and alum, and “limewater”.

Possibly Earliest Mention of “Mosaic Gold”

Mosaic gold exists in flakes or leaflets which have the color and the luster of gold, it does not tarnish, and is used at present for bronzing radiators, gilding picture frames and similar purposes. As Ko Hung describes the process, “tin sheets, each measuring six inches square by one and two-tenths inches thick, are covered with a one-tenth inch layer of a mud-like mixture of (Red Salt) and (potash-water, limewater),

They are then heated in a sealed earthenware pot for thirty days with horse manure (probably with a smouldering fire of dried manure). “All the tin becomes ash like and interspersed with bean-like pieces which are the yellow gold.” The large portion of the metallic tin is converted into some ash-like compound or possibly into the ash-like allotropic modification, gray tin. A small portion of the tin is converted into bean-sized aggregates of flaky stannic sulfide. The yield is poor, for the author says that “twenty ounces of gold are obtained from every twenty pounds of tin used.” (1935:232)

The authors add, “It seems likely that Ko Hung was personally experienced in the chemistry of tin, for the Chinese say that he was the first to make tin foil and that he made magic or spirit money out of it.”
For centuries, traditional scholars have revered the Baopuzi as a canonical Daoist scripture – but in recent years, modern scholars have reevaluated the text.

Traditional scholarship viewed the Baopuzi, especially the Inner Chapters, as a primary textual source for early Chinese waidan “external alchemy”. Wu and Davis described it as,
probably the widest known and highest regarded of the ancient Chinese treatises on alchemy. It has been preserved for us as part of the Taoist canon. It shows us the art matured by five or six centuries of practice, having its traditional heroes and an extensive literature, its technique and philosophy now clearly fixed, its objectives and pretentions established. This art the author examines in a hardheaded manner and expounds in language which is remarkably free from subterfuge. (1935:221)

Symbolism

He uses a certain number of secret terms, such as 金公 “metal-lord” and 河車 “river chariot”, both of which mean lead; and 河上她女 “the virgin on the river”, which means mercury … But his attitude is always that of a solidly educated layman examining claims which a narrow-minded orthodoxy had dismissed with contempt. (Sound familiar?)

Ge Hong quotes his teacher Zheng Yin explaining that poverty forces daoshi

“Daoist practitioners” seeking xian techniques to engage in the difficulties and dangers of alchemy.

Then I asked further, “Why should we not eat the gold and silver which are already in existence instead of taking the trouble to make them? What are made will not be real gold and silver but just make-believes.” Said Cheng Chun in reply, “The gold and silver which are found in the world are suitable for the purpose. But Tao-shih are all poor; witness the adage that Hsienare never stout and Tao-shih never rich. Tao-shih usually go in groups of five or ten, counting the teacher and his disciples. Poor as they are, how can they be expected to get the necessary gold and silver? Furthermore they cannot cover the great distances to gather the gold and silver which occur in nature. The only thing left for them to do is to make the metals themselves”. (16, tr. Wu and Davis 1935:260-1)

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One thought on “Ge Hong

  1. beijingyank

    Ge Hong (284–363) lives again in the research of Nobel Prize winner Tu Youyou.
    Ge Hong’s writings have led to the biggest breakthrough in the fight against malaria to date.
    Newton would have had a wonderful friend in Ge Hong. Of interest is his discourse on how to “walk on water,” and “the philosopher’s stone.”
    Hailed by some as the greatest Chinese alchemists, he is honored in both Hangzhou and Ningbo.

    Reply

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