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Daoist Views of the Human Body

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In Daoism, the human body is mainly conceived in terms of its relationship to the external world and as being a complete universe in and of itself. Contrasting the anatomical focus of modern Western medicine, Daoist conceptions emphasize the body’s complex relationship to the Dao. Consequently, various Daoist traditions prescribe highly meticulous practices, such as meditation techniques, which are meant to lead the body back to the undifferentiated, primordial state at the beginning of creation.[1] The human body itself is often portrayed through deeply symbolic and metaphorical models that are largely oriented around its xing 形, or its abstract form, rather than its ti 體, meaning physical structure, or shen 身, referring to the entire personalized body.[2] The body not only has a direct connection to geographical and celestial elements, but it also comprises its own miniature cosmos with clearly delineated spaces, sacred landforms, structures, pantheons of internal gods, and parasites. These features are conceptually integrated with both real and non-existent components of human physiology. Although the physical body is impermanent, a practitioner must actively engage with this intricate bodily universe in order to attain longevity and, ultimately, eternal life in convergence with the Dao. Just as there is no single experience or school of Daoism, there is no single definitive Daoist conception of the human body. However, this article will explain several views as expressed in prominent Daoist scriptures of China’s early medieval period.

The Basic Structure of the Body[edit]

Before discussing specific models of the human body, this section will briefly introduce Daoism’s foundational understanding of the body’s structure and components. At the most basic level, the Daoist view is deeply influenced by the precepts of traditional Chinese medicine as articulated in Han Dynasty literature. The most influential notion is that of the Five Agents—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water—which serves as a framework for explaining natural and cosmological phenomena. In the context of the body, the Five Agents are manifested by five orbs, which correspond to five real human organs: the liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys. Collectively, these orbs serve as the receptacles for qi 氣,the vital life force of all creation pervading all human bodies. However, they also each have their own functions in regulating specific bodily processes. To cite two examples from the Huangdi neijing suwen (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, Simple Questions), the heart is the root of all life and spirit transformations, whereas the liver renews the blood and energy.[3] Aside from their respective functions within the body, these orbs are also intimately tied to many aspects of the outer world.

Despite their considerable variation, Daoist conceptions of the human body are ultimately based on this traditional Chinese framework. At the same time, Daoism in the early medieval period also introduced major conceptual innovations and ways of interpreting the body and its purposes.

The Cosmological Model of the Body[edit]

According to early Daoist traditions such as Tianshi (Way of the Celestial Masters) and the Taiping (Great Peace), the human body is modelled after the cosmos, constituting a world in and of itself. Scriptures in the early Daoist canon explicitly delineate this microcosmic correspondence. A quintessential example is found in the sixth century text Xiaodao lun (Laughing at the Dao), where the cosmic body of Laozi creates the entire universe through his death:

“Lao Tzu transformed his body. His left eye became the sun; his right eye, the moon; his head became mount K’un-lun; his beard, the planets and constellations; his bones, dragons; his flesh, four-footed creatures; his intestines, snakes; his stomach, the sea; his fingers, the Five Peaks; his hair, trees and grasses; his heart, the Flowery Dias; as to his two kidneys, they were united and became one, the Real and True Father and Mother.”[4]

Despite the primacy of Laozi in this passage, other Daoist texts contain variations of this creation myth featuring other primeval figures. For example, in the fifth-century text Shu yiji (Tales of Marvel), a very similar process of universe formation emerges from the corpse of Pan Gu, a primordial giant in south China.[5] The essential theme in this mythology is the Daoist identification of the body with the cosmos, which is inclusive of the natural and human realms on earth. Moreover, while the universe is born from the death of the First Being, life and death are not fundamentally distinct in Daoism. As Kristofer Schipper points out, the alteration between creation and chaos, and between life and death, is a self-perpetuating process of the Dao. In other words, the body instigates the initial differentiation of the world’s energies, but it is also bound to ultimately return to the undifferentiated state of the beginning of things.[6]

Conversely, Daoism also sees the body as the receiver of universal forces that are responsible for its preservation and functions. This conception applies the relationships demarcated in the table above to the bodily context. For example, the Neiguan Jing (Scripture on Inner Observation) posits that the various joints of the body function together through the “hundred manifestations of the spirit of life” pervading the whole body. The text subsequently identifies the locations of these spirit manifestations in precise reference to the five orbs. They are divided into the categories of spirit soul, material soul, essence, intention, and spirit, and, much like each of the orbs, hold distinct regulatory powers. On a more fundamental level, the Neiguan Jing also depicts the inculcation of these same forces into the body during the gestation period:

“In the first month, essence and blood coagulate in the womb. In the second month, the embryo begins to take shape. In the third month, the yang spirit arouses the three spirit souls to come to life. In the fourth month, the yin energy settles the seven material souls as guardians of the body. In the fifth month, the five agents are distributed to the five orbs to keep their spirit at peace…”

The Body’s Internal Environment[edit]

As a microcosm of the universe, the body in Daoism possesses an extremely vast and intricate internal landscape. The conception of the body as a symbolic land can be identified as early as the fourth century B.C. in the Zhuangzi, but was extensively developed in the early medieval period, especially in the Shangqing (Highest Clarity) School that emerged around the fourth century A.D.[7] This environment is made up of many fantastic features including mountains, rivers, temples, towers, ponds, forests, palaces, dwellings, walls, and gates. Taken as a whole, it constitutes what Kristofer Schipper terms “the symbolic vision” of the human body, which corresponds to Daoist visions of the inner world and related physical exercises.[8] In the context of meditation, practitioners of Daoism are meant to actively traverse this inner world to fully recognize its symbolic and spiritual dimensions.[9] Although there is no single Daoist vision of the body’s environment, early scriptures all convey mythological representations that are suited for this purpose. An exemplary portrayal of such an environment is found in the second century Book of the Center, or the Jade Calendar. Similar to other works of the early canon, this text depicts the inner body as divided into upper, middle, and lower regions, all of which possess specific features ranging from palaces to valleys to suns and moons. With the aid of the Book’s descriptions and instructions, the adept is led through this complex landscape. Essential elements are situated, and often embodied by, real physiological parts of the body. To list a few examples, the middle region is covered by clouds, represented by the lungs, the altars of the God of the Earth and the God of the Harvests are found in the intestines, and the spleen is the site of the Yellow Court, which serves as the body’s principal ritual area.[10]

Although Daoism frequently alludes to human anatomy, its body topology also contains important components for which there are no real physiological or even cosmological equivalents. Nonetheless, some of these components are integral for Daoist meditation, inner alchemy, and the religion’s very conception of how the body is structured. For example, in the lower region of the body, there appears a “great Ocean of Energies 「氣海」” from which there emerges K’un-lun, a sacred inverted mountain, and within which lies the Cinnabar Field—the source of all life. Purportedly situated three inches below the navel, and in the heart and the brain, the Cinnabar Field serves several invaluable functions: it is “the root of the human being. This is the place where the vital power is kept. The Five energies [of the Five phases] have their origin here. It is the embryos home. Here men keep their semen and women, their menstrual blood. Meant for the protection of children, it houses the gate of the harmonious union of yin and yang.”[11] Being among the most vital parts of the inner body, it also figures prominently in the spiritual journeys outlined in later texts, such as the twelfth century Chongyang zhenren jinguan yusuo jue (Master Chongyang’s Instruction on the Golden Gate and Jade Lock).[12]

Daoism thus conceives of an incredibly vast and varied environment within the human body. The cosmological connections described earlier are now realized in the form of a deeply symbolic realm of fantastic landforms and structures mapped onto basic physiological structures. This environment ultimately constitutes the setting in which the Daoist adept pursues self-cultivation with the guidance of scriptures and his masters.

The Body as the Residence of Gods[edit]

Closely related to the inner environment just described, Daoism also envisions the body as a host of various deities. This particular model figures prominently in Shangqing Daoism. Diverging from classical Chinese thought, this tradition posits that the body contains a multitude of gods in addition to the two basic souls of hun 魂 (celestial) and po魄 (earthly).[13] In this way, deities come to take up residence in different parts of the complex cosmic landscape of the body. The presence of these gods form another important dimension of the adept’s spiritual navigation of their inner body. The body abounds with thousands of different gods, yet each one is distinct in its function. As Isabelle Robinet observes, some deities may “incarnate certain subtle principles of the body” such as death and order, while others may also take on larger roles such as keeping the heavenly registers of life and death.[14] Various places in the body’s environment are directly associated with specific gods of the Daoist cosmology, the most important of which reside in the nine palaces in the head:

“1. The Hall of Light is placed one inch inside the head, starting from the point between the eyes. It is the residence of the Three Deities of Light.
2. The Grotto Chamber is located about one half inch behind the Hall of Light. It is one of the residences of the Three Ones.
3. The Cinnabar Field, also known as the Ni-huan‘. Palace is another half inch further inside. It occupies the central position in the head and serves as the residence of the three Highest Lords of the Universe. 
4. The Flowing Pearl Palace is one half inch behind the Cinnabar Field. It houses the Flowing Pearl Deity. 
5. The Palace of the Jade Emperor, is yet another half inch behind the last palace. It serves as a residence for the Mother of Jade Truth. 
6. The Celestial Court is located above the Hall of Light, the first of the nine palaces. It is the residence of the Goddess of Highest Clarity. 
7. The Palace of Ultimate Truth is located one half inch behind the Palace of the Jade Emperor i.e., above the Grotto Chamber. It houses the Lord of the Great Ultimate. 
8. The Palace of Mysterious Cinnabar is found one half inch behind the last palace, that is to say above the Cinnabar Field. It is the residence of the Great One, of the Lord of the Central Yellow.
9. The Palace of the Great August One is located one inch above the Palace of Mysterious Cinnabar. It houses the Great August One, the Highest Lord.”[15]

In Daoism, health, longevity, joy, and energy are all contingent on these gods remaining within their designated places in the body. While the pantheon of body gods is not precisely defined throughout Daoist literature, they are generally portrayed as being responsible for the preservation and regulation of humanity’s qi.[16] Consequently, Daoist scriptures prescribe certain meditation techniques to retain these gods, the most common of which is visualization. The types of visualization can vary significantly from deity to deity, though virtually all of them are contextualized in the wider cosmos. For instance, to visualize the Three Ones of the Cinnabar Fields, one has to actualize them as manifestations of three kinds of primordial energy, which correspond to different colours, elements, and essences. Aside from securing deities’ presence in the body, these techniques also enable a Daoist to transcend the limited physical body and become “a more cosmic being.”[17] After all, the deities that reside in the body on earth simultaneously reside in their respective dwellings in heaven.[18] Therefore by actualizing these spirits in their earthly and cosmic dimensions, a Daoist may ultimately unify these two realms within himself.

In contrast to this state of divinization, early Daoist texts also posit the existence of harmful spirits within the body—namely demons and parasites. Most prominent among them are the seven demonic souls and three worms, which are portrayed as the root of all possible mental and physical ailments. Much like the deities described above, these malevolent spirits pervade the entire inner body, including places where deities reside such as the Cinnabar Fields.[19] Because these spirits strive to bring about pre-mature death, and attract external demons, they must be expelled from the body if an adept is to attain longevity and immortality.[20]

The Bureaucratic Model of the Body[edit]

Another Daoist metaphorical model conceives of the human body as a microcosm of the state. From this perspective, the internal environment of the body is made up of administrative structures and actors that directly parallel those of government. Differing from classical Chinese medical texts, early Daoist scriptures tend to assign various state roles to the resident body gods. This synchronized structure is well illustrated in the third century Lao-Tzu chung-ching (Central Scripture of Lao-tzu): the eight deities of the lungs are the masters of Great Harmony. They are also called the “Secretaries of the palace of Jade Purity.” They govern 3,600 minor officials … The eight deities of the heart are the strategists and military generals … they equally govern 3600 minor officials.”[21] This model frames state governance as an analogy for body cultivation. Because cosmic order is not spatially limited in Daoism, the ideal of realizing it in countries and communities is not fundamentally different from realizing it within one’s self. In other words, as Kohn points out, “the creation of political order is structurally isomorphic with the cultivation of personal longevity” in Daoist thought.[22] An individual’s ability to regulate their inner body is thus a reflection of their capacity for ruling the external world and visa-a-versa. At the same time, the flourishing of the body according to this model still incorporates universal Daoist precepts. Specifically, the bureaucratic model of the body still requires an identification with the Dao and the retention of the body gods. This relationship is demonstrated in the following excerpt from an early commentary to the Dao De Jing compiled in the fifth century:

“The country is the self. The Tao is its mother. When one can preserve the Tao within the self, keeping the essence and energy from being labored and the five spirits from suffering hardship, then one can live forever.”[23]

The Body in Daoist Immortality and Salvation[edit]

In the context of achieving Daoist immortality, the physical or personalized body is considered a major hindrance to one’s ultimate unification with the Dao. What is of greater importance to an individual’s pursuit of this end is their xing 形, meaning abstract form, which is the embodiment of the pure and eternal universe. In fact, Daoism views xing as the original condition of the body which came to be corrupted by the limitations, distractions, and desires of shen 身, referring to the personal body inclusive of all human sensations and feelings.[24] Daoism posits a similar dichotomy for the concept of mind: it distinguishes between xin心, referring solely to emotions, and shen神, referring to the spirit of a realized cosmic mind.[25] The latter concept of mind corresponds to xing because it concerns the oblivion of all self-perception.

It therefore follows that the body must undergo a process of comprehensive de-personalization and de-emotionalization if it is to merge with pure energy, pure spirit, and ultimately the Dao.[26] The concomitant abandonment of the self aligns perfectly with the broader Daoist regression back towards a state of complete non-differentiation.

Attaining immortality in Daoism does not necessarily entail the death of the physical body. So long as an individual purges himself of all personal and egoistic elements, the pure spirit may still prevail during one’s existence on earth. In fact, this is the precise meaning of longevity in the context of early Daoism, as shown in the following passage from the earliest commentary on the Dao De Jing: “The [good] actions of the man of the Tao are perfect and the spirit of the Tao gathers about him. When he retires from the world, he simulates death and passes over in the realm of the Extreme Yin. There he revives, goes forth anew and thus does not perish. This is what is meant by “longevity.”[27] In effect, Daoism maintains that a “feigned death” or “liberation from the corpse” is possible within one’s lifetime; once attained, this condition will persist indefinitely even after the expiration of the material body.[28] Immortality in the Daoist context therefore resembles an ideal psychological state—culminating from the extensive cultivation of the cosmic body and spirit—that is transcendent of not only the self, but also both life and death.


  1. Livia Kohn, ed., The Taoist Experience: An Anthology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 162.
  2. Louis Komjathy, “The Daoist Mystical Body,” in Perceiving the Divine through the Human Body, eds. Thomas Cattoi and June McDonald (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 70.
  3. The Taoist Experience: An Anthology, ed. Livia Kohn, 166.
  4. Cited in Kristofer Schipper, The Taoist Body, trans. Karen Duval (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 114.
  5. Livia Kohn, ed., The Taoist Experience: An Anthology, 168.
  6. Schipper, The Taoist Body, 115.
  7. Isabelle Robinet, “Shangqing—Highest Clarity,” in Daoism Handbook, ed. Livia Kohn, (Boston: Brill, 2000), 211.
  8. Schipper, The Taoist Body, 104.
  9. Livia Kohn, ed., The Taoist Experience: An Anthology, 175.
  10. Cited in Schipper, The Taoist Body, 106.
  11. Ibid., 106
  12. Livia Kohn, ed., The Taoist Experience: An Anthology, 175-180.
  13. Robinet, “Shangqing—Highest Clarity,” 211-213.
  14. Isabelle Robinet, Taoist Meditation: The Mao-Shan Tradition of Great Purity, trans. Julian Pas and Norman Girardot (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 104.
  15. Cited in Kohn, “Taoist Visions of the Body,” 236.
  16. Ibid., 237.
  17. Ibid., 239.
  18. Robinet, Taoist Meditation, 105
  19. Christine Mollier, “Visions of Evil: Demonology and Orthodoxy in Early Daoism,” in Daoism and History: Essays in Honour of Liu Ts’un-yan, ed. Benjamin Penny (London: Routledge, 2006), 99.
  20. Komjathy, “The Daoist Mystical Body,” 72.
  21. Kohn, “Taoist Visions of the Body,” 232.
  22. Ibid., 233.
  23. Cited in Kohn, “Taoist Visions of the Body,” 234.
  24. Ibid., 242-245.
  25. Livia Kohn, “Eternal Life in Taoist Mysticism,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 110, no. 4 (1990): 637.
  26. Kohn, “Taoist Visions of the Body,” 247.
  27. Cited in Anna Seidel, “Post-Mortem Immortality or: Taoist Resurrection of the Body,” in Gigul: Essays on Transformation, Revolution and Permanence in the History of Religions, Dedicated to R.J. Ziwi Werblowsky, eds. Guy Stroumsa, Shaul Shaked, and David Shulman, (New York: Brill, 1987), 230.
  28. Ibid., 230.

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