In their research, contemporary internal arts (nei dan) students frequently find their way to the commentaries of the 18th Century Liu I-Ming (Inner Teachings of Taoism, Understanding Reality, in turn written by the 11th Century Zhang Boduan). The genesis of written work about alchemy from which later commentators formulated their expostions trace back to about 150CE, when work began on a piece which would heavily influence later writers and practitioners. This text was rooted in I Ching, the “Book of Changes” and evolved into a title variously translated today as Cantong Qi, Kinship of the Three, Akinness of the Three, Triplex Unity, The Seal of the Unity of the Three, and in several other ways. The full title of the text is Zhouyi Cantong Qi, which more accurately describes its context as The Seal of the Unity of the Three in Accordance with the Book of Changes.
Cantong Qi is a landmark text in the Daozhing, or Daoist Canon. Nei dan evolved from the earlier practices of external alchemy – Wei Dan – and Cantonq Qi is credited as a catalysing framework which influenced nei dan practitioners from about the 8th Century.
The work discusses cosmology, as its authors considered it in the context of I Ching during the 2nd Century, Taoism and Alchemy, from which the text synthesises one doctrine which became a platform for the development of the alchemical arts. The transparent notion conveyed in its alternative title, ”Triplex Unity”, is a concept which resonates with internal arts practitioners or any student of the Daoist Arts vaguely familiar with the recurring models of ”tian, ren, di” (heaven, man, earth), shen, qi, jing, etc.
In contrast to the more familiar writing styles of Zhang Boduan (18th Century), who aspired to educate a broader public, Cantong Qi is one of the Taoist Canon’s most enigmatically written pieces. This is likely to have been by design, and like many Taoist reference works was written in coded language at a time when intellectual and political elites sought to serve and protect their own interests. .
A Daoist adept called Wei Boyang is popularly credited with the book’s authorship, but as with so many other pivotal scripts in the Daoist Canon, there is a healthy debate about who the original contributor or contributors were. Academics point to features of the book pertaining to a range of periods, and some suggest that the book has contributions that date to much later times. Fabrizio Pregadio, whose recent translation published by Golden Elixir Press is covered by the illustration above, builds a broad picture in his introduction from which he concludes that the book’s roots trace to about 150CE. However, since aspects of the book could only have been contributed at later dates in response to circumstantial historical contexts, he proposes that the edition we see today dates from 450 – 500AD.
In modern times we tend to consider a book is written by one individual within one lifetime. Unlike doctines that we might liken to perhaps Das Kapital or Mein Kampf which are attributed to individuals and their ideologies, Cantong Qi is one of several works as topically diverse as Laozhi in terms of philosophy, Huang Di Neijing in terms of medicine, and Sun Tzu in terms of military docrtrine, all of which have been subjected to the moderating influence of broader experience which comes with time and collaborative development. Rather than an individual’s observation, then, a text like Cantong Qi reflects the tested experience of a wider authorship.
Cantong Qi is not a text which anyone would read cover to cover in a night, however for serious students of the internal arts it is a text that has value in efforts to augment practice. Fabrizio Pregadio is a respected academic of the Daoist traditions, and translation of this classic has been well received.
Translated by Fabrizio Pregadio
Published by Golden Elixir Press