Origins of Chinese Inner Alchemy
Chinese Inner Alchemy includes meditation, breathing and movement exercises like Qigong and taijiquan. In both Chinese Daoist alchemy and the Western Royal Art, two distinct interpretations of alchemy have developed over time: ‘external alchemy’ (Mandarin waidan) and ‘internal alchemy’ (neidan). ‘External alchemy’ is the literal interpretation, producing and consuming herbal recipes, pills, powders and elixirs with the intention of cultivating life and longevity or achieving physical immortality.
By contrast, ‘internal alchemy,’ also called inner alchemy or symbolic alchemy, is a path of meditative cultivation that includes some combination of strict moral discipline, a regimented or healthy diet, and specialized exercises to nourish and purify spirit, called quintessence or life-force. Symbolic alchemy often includes breath control, meditation, visualization, moderation of carnal practices, and physical exercises. It also, therefore, aims to nurture and prolong life, but only incidentally. Symbolic alchemy is also a form of therapy, as exemplified by C. G. Jung’s analytical psychology.
The first known alchemist was the Chinese Zou Yan (Tsou Yen), who lived at the same time that signs of alchemy arose in Babylon and Egypt, during the third and fourth centuries before the Western Christian Era. In time, respected Chinese scholars, priests and even emperors, became deeply interested in alchemical pursuits. Visualization and breathing techniques prepared the empire, from crown to peasant, for ancient and timeless meditation, first described by some of the first Daoist philosophical texts.
The first collections of these instructional and inspirational texts were attributed to Laozi (Lao Tzu), who is supposed to have lived in the fifth century BCE, though the literature is dated no earlier than the middle of the fourth century BCE. The legendary Laozi’s Daode jing (Tao Te Ching), or Classic of the Way and Its Virtue, is also simply called the Laozi. It is a compilation of mature contemplations written as a guide addressed to a ruler.
Commentaries on the Laozi, notably the Xiang’er, Heshang gong and Wang Bi commentaries, increased its popularity. Following the Laozi was the Zhuangzi, fourth century BCE, and the fourth century CE text Liezi, attributed to a fifth century BCE philosopher mentioned by Zhuangzi. These three collections of writings are the primary texts of Daoist philosophy.
Many other Daoist works would follow, especially Huang-Lao texts, such as the second century BCE Huainanzi and various non-extant or recently discovered ancient manuscripts claiming to represent the words of the Yellow Emperor. Huang-Lao Daoism refers to the metaphysical and legalist philosophical tradition attributed to the mythological Yellow Emperor and Laozi. Huang-Lao was the primary philosophy of the Han imperial court until it was replaced with Confucianism during the first century BCE.
 Lu-Chiang Wu, Tenney L. Davis and Wei Po-Yang. “An Ancient Chinese Treatise on Alchemy Entitled Ts’an T’ung Ch’i.” Isis Vol. 18, No. 2 (Oct., 1932). The University of Chicago Press. pp. 210-289.
 The ancient silk manuscripts discovered in 1973 at the Mawangdui site in Changsha, China, offer a glimpse into Huang-Lao philosophy. Early English translations include that of Robin D. S. Yates, Five Lost Classics: Tao, Huanglao, and Yin-Yang in Han China, Random House, Inc., New York, 1997.