AUTHORING VIRILE BODIES: Self-cultivation and textual production in Early China – Ori Tavor, 2016.

“The Warring States period (453–211 BCE) is often described as the age of the ‘Hundred Schools of Thought.’ Motivated by the decline of the centralized Zhou regime and the increasing brutality of everyday life, early Chinese thinkers took it as their mission to offer possible solutions to this state of chaos. Their new ideas about the self and its relationships with social and political institutions subsequently found articulation in a growing corpus of literature. This intellectual awakening also produced a growingly sophisticated discourse on the topic of the human body and its cultivation, prompting some scholars to designate the 4th century BCE as China’s ‘discovery of the body’ and as the ‘bodily turn’ in the development of classical Chinese thought.”

“In the Mengzi 孟子, for instance, we find a brief reference to the circulation of flood-like qi as a component of an overarching regimen of moral self-cultivation, but the author’s description of this practice is lacking in detail. Another Warring States text, the Zhuangzi 莊子, contains references to practices that seem meditative in nature: ‘sitting and forgetting’ (zuo wang 坐忘) and ‘the purification of the mind’ (xin zhai 心齋). Both techniques envolve dimming sense perception and discarding emotions and desires in order to achieve an altered state of consciousness, but again, their particulars are not entirely clear. The most detailed account of seated meditation practices can be found in several chapters from the Guanzi 管子, an eclectic text traditionally believed to have been compiled in the state of Qi 齊 in the late Warring States period, most famously in an essay called the Inward Training (Neiye 內業). While not a meditation manual per se, the Neiye does include multiple references to body alignment, breathing exercises, and emptying one’s mind. This has led some scholars, most notably Harold Roth, to argue that the text was a product of a single lineage that held spiritual self-cultivation through corporal practices as its main goal.” “Fortunately, recent archaeological excavations have unearthed a large number of manuscripts that belong to a different literary genre – technical literature. These include medical recipes, prognostication and divination manuals, demon-quelling techniques, ritual instructions, and self-cultivation regimens, which offer us a glimpse into the realm of religious adepts, astrologers, physicians, and diviners, whose writings played a significant role in the shaping of Warring States and Qin-Han intellectual culture.

Two archaeological sites in particular contain a plethora of excavated manuscripts pertaining to the cultivation of the human body. Excavated in the 1970s and 1980s, the tombs in Mawangdui 馬王堆 in modern-day Hunan Province and Zhangjiashan 張家 山 in modern-day Hubei, held multiple technical manuals. Sealed in the early decades of the Han Dynasty (168 and 186 BCE respectively), the dating and authorship of the Mawangdui and Zhangjiashan self-cultivation manuscripts are a matter of scholarly debate. Chemical analysis reveals that the tombs were both sealed in the first half of the second century BCE, but an examination of various linguistic components suggests that the manuscripts might have been produced earlier and copied in different times by different scribes.”

“Widely recognized as a turning point in the study of early China, some scholars have gone so far as to argue that the information contained within the excavated manuscripts requires us to reassess everything we know about early Chinese intellectual history.”

“Authorship, for example, is a highly controversial topic in the study of early Chinese texts. While the provenance and approximate dating of excavated sources can be determined with some degree of accuracy, especially when they are compared with transmitted texts, in most cases these materials do not contain their author’s name.14 Faced with these challenges, contemporary scholars adopt two main approaches. The first, utilized by many of the individuals mentioned above, treats these sources as repositories of ideas, and reads them against the received literature in order to offer a richer account of Chinese philosophy, religion and medicine. The second approach involves putting a greater emphasis on the materiality of excavated manuscripts in an attempt to determine the reasons for their production and the identity of their authors, as well as readers.”

“The term ‘religio-medical marketplace,’ which is currently used to explain the intricate context in which various techniques of healing and self-cultivation were produced, exchanged, and discussed in early medieval China, was first put into use by C. Pierce Salguero in his study of the translation of early Buddhist scripture.”

Michael Stanley-Baker picks up this term, which he then describes as a field of ‘discursive and economic competition’ comprised of diverse actors attempting to assert the supremacy of their own technologies of cure and salvation over that of their rivals, to analyze the role of therapeutics in the formation of Daoist beliefs and practices in the early medieval period. Stanley-Baker’s work endeavors to go beyond well-heeled categories such as the religion–science dichotomy or the classification of Daoist religion into distinct sects, and to instead investigate the various strategies employed by individual actors to ‘negotiate their ideological, institutional, social and physiological concerns.’”

“Some texts, such as the Lunyu 論語 (The Analects), Mozi 墨子, and the Mengzi, were written almost entirely in dialogue. Others, such as Xunzi 荀子 and the Zhuangzi, embed dialogues between exemplary figures within their philosophical arguments to lend them an aura of authority.”

“The same pattern recurs in the first 4 dialogues of the Shiwen, which all feature the Yellow Emperor asking various advisors general questions about the nature of life and death and the physiological make-up of humans. While his conversation partner in the third dialogue, Cao Ao 曹熬, is not attested in the received literature, the remaining 3 are well-known figures. Various received sources identify the protagonist of the 2nd dialogue, Great Perfection (Dacheng 大成) as the teacher of the mythical Yu the Great, the flood-tamer, including the Lüshi Chunqiu 呂氏春秋(The Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lü).”

“In the first chapter, ‘Discourse on the Divine Perfection of High Antiquity’ (Shanggu Tianzhen Lun 上古天真論), the Yellow Emperor asks the Heavenly Teacher about the difference in the physiological make-up between the people of antiquity and people today. The following lines refer to the respondent as Qi Bo 岐 伯, leading the Tang dynasty commentator Wang Bing 王冰 to claim that the Heavenly Teacher is simply his title. The close relationship between the Yellow Emperor and Qi Bo, as well as their association with the technical arts, is further attested in the bibliographical ‘Yiwen Zhi 藝文志’ chapter of the Hanshu 漢書 (History of the Han), in the form of a reference to a now-lost text called the Massage [Techniques] of the Yellow Emperor and Qi Bo 黃帝岐伯按摩 and the designation of Qi Bo as one of high antiquity’s foremost masters of recipes and techniques (fangzhi 方技).”

“The use of mythical figures was a common literary technique in early Chinese literature. By presenting their ideas through dialogues between such familiar figures as the Yellow Emperor, Yao and Shun, Rong Cheng, and Ancestor Peng, the compilers of the Shiwen would have made their text more palatable to some educated elite readers. In addition to lending their manuscript a sense of familiarity, this literary device also associated a self-cultivation technique with established figures of authority, some of them already identified in the third and second century cultural milieu with issues of longevity, manipulation of time, and health. This allowed them to pursue their main goal – the construction of a new mode of discourse on the human body that presented the common problems of their target audience, aging men, as treatable conditions.”

PURA ESPECULAÇÃO: “Applying Stark and Finke’s model, I would argue, allows us to see the late Warring States ‘bodily turn,’ namely the emergence of a theoretical discourse on the human body, not as a response to a shift in demand but as a conscious attempt by the technical masters to instigate a shift in supply and break into one of the most lucrative and prestigious market niches – educated affluent male elites.”

“The fact that technical manuscripts were not preserved in the canon, leaves the impression that this was a wholly philosophical discourse. The discovery of the Mawangdui, Zhangjiashan, and other excavated sources, however, allows us to better ascertain the role of masters of techniques in the development of early theories of the human body and its cultivation.”

Wangzi Qiaofu asked Ancestor Peng:

‘Of the qi of man, which is the most essential?’

Ancestor Peng replied:

‘Of the qi of man, none can compare with penile essence. When penile qi is congested and clogged, the 100 vessels produce illness. When penile qi is insufficient, you cannot procreate. Thus, the key for obtaining longevity lies entirely with the penis.’

“Focusing on the male sexual potency and identifying the male sex organ as the key component in the quest of longevity and health can be construed as a calculated move by the authors” Não diga!

The Yellow Spirit asked the Left Spirit:¹

‘Why is it that the yin [the penis] is born together with the 9 apertures and 12 joints, yet it alone dies prematurely?’

The Left Spirit replied:

‘It is not utilized in strenuous activity; when there is sorrow and joy it is not used; it is not involved in drinking and eating. It dwells in deepest darkness and does not see the light of day, yet it is employed in a sudden and abrupt fashion, with no regard to its state of arousal. Unable to withstand the double hotness,² it is therefore severely hurt. Its name is avoided and its body concealed, yet it is employed very frequently and unceremoniously. Therefore it is born together with the body, yet it alone dies prematurely.’

If you are unable to utilize the 8 proliferations and eliminate the 7 diminutions, then, at the age of 40, your yin qi will half itself; at 50, your mobility will decline; at 60, your hearing will no longer be acute and your vision will no longer be clear; at 70, your lower body will wither and your upper body will unravel, your yin qi [virility] will be rendered useless, and mucus and tears will flow out.

¹ “The Yellow Spirit is probably an alternative title for the Yellow Emperor. As for the Left Spirit, received literature does not mention this figure. The title ‘left,’ however, often refers to the senior of a double appointment (outranking ‘right’). The Left Spirit is thus probably a member in the celestial ranks, an advisor to the Yellow Emperor.”

² “The meaning of the term ‘double hotness’ 兩熱 is unclear. Harper [abaixo] believes this refers to the hotness emanating from the two partners during intercourse.

O MESMO PURITANISMO DE SEMPRE: “Drinking and eating as he pleases, the pores and interstices of his skin are glossy and taut, his qi and blood are full and replete, and his body is light and lithe. But if he has intercourse impulsively, he will [be] unable to guide his qi and will fall ill. Sweating and panting, his insides will become feverish and his qi disordered.”

“Why do some age faster than others? Why do some retain their vigor and age gracefully while others wither away rapidly?”

I have heard that there are some things that even sages are unable to understand, only those who have obtained the Way. The culminant essence of Heaven and Earth is born in the indefinite, grows in the formless, and is perfected in the bodiless. He who obtains it can obtain longevity, he who loses it dies young

“In the last few decades, in the hope of capturing the attention of a potentially profitable segment of the population in many countries around the globe, medical experts and pharmaceutical companies began constructing a new discourse of masculinity, portraying the once natural process of aging and its accompanying byproducts as pathological ailments that fall under medical jurisdiction and can be pharmaceutically solved. Age-related decline in testosterone levels, for example, was ‘rebranded’ as andropause, a pathology that requires medical intervention through testosterone supplementation. The same can be said about the new category of erectile dysfunction (ED). Prompted by the initial slow sale of Viagra, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals launched a massive campaign based on the direct-to-consumer model, expanding the original target market share of aging men to include men of all ages by presenting it as a ‘technology of the gendered body,’ a way to transcend our natural biological limitations through bio-medical enhancement.”

“While we know that affluent elites hired scribes to copy manuscripts for their own use, real commercial book trade only began to emerge in the first century AD. The dissemination of the Mawangdui and Zhangjiashan texts was, in fact, highly regulated. According to Harper, receiving such books ‘constituted an initiation which bound the disciple to the physician and sanctified the books, confirming the exclusiveness of the knowledge they contained.’ This is further supported by the fact that the manuals themselves offer very terse instructions, often revealing only half the story. From this we can assume that these texts were meant to be read together with a master in order to be understood and used in everyday practice.”

The reason why people of low social status contract disease is due to hard manual labor, hunger, and thirst. Sweating profusely, they plunge themselves into water and proceed to lie down on the cold earth, not realizing that they should put on clothes.

“In recent years there has been a growing interest in the study of the interaction of China’s religious traditions and the role of Buddhism, Daoism and popular religion in the shaping of medieval concepts of the human body and the development of healing practices. Comparatively little work has been done on the impact of early Chinese religious ideas and practices on this field.” “unlike Buddhism and Daoism, early Chinese religion is a particularly amorphous entity that does not conform to contemporary definitions of religion, as it lacks many of the features modern scholars view as fundamental, such as a canonical set of sacred scriptures, organized clergy or a fixed pantheon. In fact, the label ‘early Chinese religion’ does not refer to a specific empirical singularity. It is mainly used as a heuristic device, a term coined by later scholars to help make sense of a collection of phenomena.” “Fortunately, the discovery and steady publication of excavated manuscripts from the Warring States and Qin-Han periods is expanding our knowledge of early Chinese religion, helping us to construct a richer picture than the one reflected in the received literary tradition.”


“Harper juxtaposes these individuals, whom he refers to as ‘natural experts and occultists,’ to the masters of philosophy (zi, 子). See Harper, Early Chinese Medical Literature, 10. I have chosen the appellation ‘masters of techniques’ in order to simultaneously stress their close association to the philosophical masters while also emphasizing the diferences between them. I would like to emphasize that by designating these hypothetical agents as ‘technical masters,’ I am not identifying them with the fangshi 方士, translated as ‘masters of esoterica’ or ‘masters of methods,’ who are often mentioned in Han sources. While modern scholars have identified the crucial role of the ideas and practices espoused by the fangshi in the development of Daoist religion, there is no conclusive evidence that links the authors of the Mawangdui and Zhangjiashan manuscripts to the fangshi. For more information, see Raz, The Emergence of Daoism, 39–42, and Arthur, Early Daoist Dietary Practices, 4. For an opposing view, see Nathan Sivin, who argues that this term does not denote ‘a social grouping toward which people align themselves’ but a ‘catchall phrase’ used by authors and bibliographers in a somewhat derogatory manner, attached to agents who did not align themselves with the goals of the state orthodoxy. Sivin, ‘Taoism and Science’

“The content of the Mawangdui texts suggest that despite their emphasis on coupled practices, they were mainly geared toward male practitioners.”

“The 9 apertures are the eyes (2), ears (2), nostrils (2), mouth, anus, and urethra. The 6 palaces are the large intestine, small intestine, stomach, bladder, gall bladder and a somewhat unclear 6th organ often translated as the ‘triple burner.’ See Unschuld, Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, 130.”

Indications (entre ‘’ – artigos)

“For calisthenics, see Kohn, Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin and Despeux, ‘La Gymnastique Daoyin dans la Chine Ancienne’. For the role of dietary regimens in self-cultivation, see Arthur, Early Daoist Dietary Practices. For sexual cultivation, see Wile, Art of the Bedchamber.”

Boltz, ‘The Composite Nature of Early Chinese Texts

Billeter, ‘Étude sur sept dialogues du Zhuangzi’; Cua, ‘The Logic of Confucian Dialogues”.

Pines, ‘Political Mythology and Dynastic Legitimacy’

Liexian Zhuan 列仙傳 (Collected Biographies of Immortals)

Pregadio, Encyclopedia of Taoism

Conrad, The Medicalization of Society

Valussi, ‘Female Alchemy: an Introduction’ Mollier, Buddhism and Taoism Face to Face