The absence of the body has been a constant inquiry in the study of Chinese art. Why—John Hay (Hay 1994, p. 77
) asks in his article “The Body Invisible in Chinese Art”—does the body seem to be almost invisible in a figurative tradition that flourished for over two thousand years? Why does shanshui
山水 (mountain-water) painting2
, the pre-eminent art form in China, appear to exemplify an absence of the body? While the nude seems to be the starting point for Western bodily perceptions, a human body in the anatomical sense is absent in Chinese art traditions.3
paintings, we see small human figures amidst the immense nature—contrasted by the grandeur of the universe, human presence seems humble. However, we do not see the volume and structure of the human body. How should we understand such “absence”?
Hay answers these questions by explaining that the “invisibility” is not an absence but the West’s inability
to recognize bodies presented utilizing non-Western artistic indicators. A Chinese body was dispersed through metaphors locating it in the natural world by transformational resonance and brushwork that embodied the cosmic-human reality of qi
氣 (vital energy). He further demonstrates that the Chinese term for visceral system zangxiang
臟象 (visceral image) appears to have incorporated a perception that the universe is a process of self-imaging, and it represents the processing, storage, and distribution of vital qi
associated with the substances. On such ground, he concludes, all phenomena are images generated by an autonomous process out of potentiality, and the notion of “the representation of the body” may be descriptive rather than analytical (Hay 1994, p. 77
). Hay’s definition of “the representation of the body” invites us to think of the body in a more macrocosmic dimension. The gestures of natural objects can be read as dispositions of the human body. A bending pine tree is symbolic of a dignified salute. However, Hay’s points are insightful but far from being sufficient. In his understanding, the body is only present through anthropomorphizing natural objects.
This paper will address Hay’s question from a Daoist perspective by redefining the correlation between shanshui and the human body. I argue that the body is not invisible in shanshui paintings—it is ever-present through the agency of the shanshui. The correlation will be unpacked in two aspects. Firstly, shanshui is ontologically connected and shares a “corporeal” affinity with the body of human beings. It is the macrocosmic body that shares the most resemblance with human beings regarding body composition and structure. The affinity is further illustrated through the concept of dong 洞 (grotto, cave), which exists not just as a geographical or cosmological concept but also exists within the human body. Secondly, and more importantly, with the development of inner alchemy (neidan 內丹), shanshui and the human body are identified as representative of one another. Shanshui becomes the body through the lens of the unique concept of neijing 內景 (inner landscape). Shanshui reveals not only the inner body but also the mechanism of inner energies. As Daoist painters transform the inner alchemical vision into shanshui paintings, the boundary between the body and the cosmos has been dissolved. Nature and humanity fuse under the single agency of the shanshui, creating a unified image of the macrocosms and microcosmos.
Through this analysis, this paper reestablishes the crucial link between shanshui and the Daoist body. I argue that shanshui is the powerful and redemptive mediation between the human body and the Dao and offers a solution to solve the Daoist anxiety over the body’s physical limitations. It breaks down the constant confrontation and opposition between the “I” and the cosmos and reactivates one’s primordial dependency on nature. Shanshui paintings, in this vein, transcend the mundane body and provide access to the sacred truth and reality of the Dao. Furthermore, this paper will provide a theoretical foundation for the emerging discourse on inner alchemical shanshui paintings, a unique genre of Daoist paintings that has been “rediscovered” in recent years.
2. The Corporeal Affinity between Shanshui and the Human Body
as a compound can be traced back to as early as the 4th century in Zong Bing’s 宗炳 (375–443) Hua shanshui xu
畫山水序 (Introduction to Painting Mountain and Water
). It is the earliest extant theoretical formulation that has come down to us. In this short essay, Zong Bing remarks, “Sages model themselves on the Dao through their spirits, and the virtuous comprehend this. Mountains and water display the beauty of the Dao through their forms and the benevolent delight in this”4
. We can see that the meaning of shanshui
was closely related to Dao from its birth. Mountains and water, with one representing the strong force of yang
and the other representing the soft energies of yin
, work in balance as the symbol of the natural world. Their dynamic interaction resonates with the cosmic principle. Since the Dao is formless in nature, shanshui
approaches Dao through its concrete form. Shiming
釋名 (Explanation of names
) defines xian
仙 (immortality) as “moving into the mountains”5
. Another treatise in Songshu
宋書 (Book of the Song
) records how Zong Bing appreciates shanshui
paintings: “All I do now is purify my heart and contemplate the Dao by wandering in the paintings from my bed”.6
Away from the real shanshui
, Zong Bing immerses himself in shanshui
painting and uses it as a medium to access the reality of Dao.
On a spiritual level, even though human beings are the most advanced living creatures in the world, Daoists consider the natural and unspoiled shanshui closer to the Dao. While humans constantly consume their original essence, shanshui can maintain its most genuinely natural form endowed by the ontological entity Dao. Shanshui, as something unspoiled and uncarved, in such a context, sets a paradigm model of zhen 真 (true and real) for human beings. It is the manifestation of the Dao, the effective and redemptive mediation that connects man to the Dao. Shanshui painting, as the visual representation of the shanshui, provides access to the truth and reality of Dao.
But the connection between the shanshui and human beings is not only spiritual. The significance of shanshui also lies in the Daoist view of existence as a form of being that shares a cosmic connection between all things. In this vein, the macro-cosmos is inherently connected with the micro-cosmos; worldly things with bodily things; and physical things with “non-physical” phenomena such as time, space, spirit, and so on. The body of human beings as the microcosm is analogous to shanshui—the macrocosmic body of the universe.
2.1. Shanshui as the Macrocosmic Body
There is a homogeneous connection between the body of the shanshui
and the body of human beings engrained in Chinese tradition. Compared to other natural landscapes, the mountain-water compound shares the most resemblance with human beings regarding body composition and structure. The Northern Song painter Guo Xi 郭熙 (fl. 1060s) captures this resemblance in his famous treatise Shanshui xun
山水訓 (Mountains and Waters Treatise
), in which he describes the mountain-water as a living, organic cosmic body:
Mountain has water as blood, foliage as hair, mist, and clouds as its spirit and character. Thus, a mountain is said to gain its life through water, its external beauty through vegetation, and its elegant charm through mist and clouds. Water has the mountain as its face, huts, pavilions as eyes and eyebrows, and anglers as its soul.7
There are high mountains and low mountains. The arteries of the high mountain run low. Its limbs spread wide; its feet are powerful and solid. Ridgelines of creviced peaks and rounded crests crowd together and interweave in unbroken, gleaming links. Such is a high mountain. Thus, this type of high mountain is called not solitary and called not reclining. The arteries of [a] low mountain run high. Its head summit comes halfway down, merging straight into its neck. The base is broad spread, and earthen mounds erupt in profusion. It extends deep down into the earth; none can measure how far. Such is a low mountain…Such are the configurations of mountains and water.8
Guo Xi compares the natural landscape to the physiological body. As an organic cosmic body, shanshui
encompasses rocks, rivers, grass and trees, soil, and so on. They are the mountain’s bones, veins, hair, and flesh. These correlations, in terms of structure and composition, are rather straightforward. It is close to Hay’s understanding that the body is only present through anthropomorphizing natural objects. In a more sophisticated manner, Yunji qiqian
雲笈七籤 (Seven Tablets in a Cloudy Satchel
), the miniature Daoist Canon9
of the Song dynasty, recorded the mythical cosmogonic story of Pan Gu 盤古:
When the primordial breath burgeoned forth, the heaven and earth divided and formed the trigrams qian and kun, yin and yang came into force by dividing. It was then [that] the primordial breath engendered the central harmony which is none other than a man. It gave birth to Pan Gu, who, at his death, transformed his body. His respiration yielded the clouds and the wind, his voice the thunder, his limbs the four extremities of the world, his left eye the sun, his right eye the moon, his internal organs the five peaks, his blood the rivers, his veins the earth, his muscle the soil, his hair the stars, his skin the grass and wood, his teeth the metal and stone, his marrow the jewels and jades, his sweat the rain. All the worms he carried, roused by the wind, metamorphosed into humans.
The body of the primordial giant Pan Gu transforms into a natural phenomenon. Compared to Guo Xi’s treatise, the correlation between the natural landscapes and the body is made systematic and tight through the system of yin and yang and five elements, where the body parts are associated with different elements and form an organic whole. Furthermore, contrary to Guo’s anthropomorphizing natural objects, Pan Gu’s body becomes nature itself. The death of his body marks the differentiation of the undivided cosmic unity.
It is noticeable that the Pan Gu myth gives a detailed description of how the giant, as the first-born human being, transforms into nature but uses minimal words to describe the birth of other human beings—they are just trivial worms that Pan Gu carries. There is an apparent division between Pan Gu and other human beings. The myth suggests that while Pan Gu’s body can transform and become shanshui
, an ordinary human body is not able to attain such transcendence. In between the transformation of the microcosmic and macrocosmic body, there is a clear prerequisite for the human body. Pan Gu, born out of the harmonious interaction between the primordial yin
and yang qi
, is the ideal form of human being, or the “superman.” His physical body does not limit him. In this sense, Pan Gu is close to what Zhuangzi
calls the zhenren
眞人 (authentic/perfected being), who can “go into the water and not get wet, enter the fire and not be burned” (Zhuangzi and Watson 2013, p. 42
has made many distinctions between the zhenren
and ordinary human beings; for instance, a zhenren
breathes through his heels, whereas the ordinary mean breathes through his throat (Zhuangzi and Watson 2013, p. 42
). That is to say, the difference between Pan Gu or the zhenren
and the ordinary is not only spiritual but also corporeal. The former can break through the determinate functions of the body parts and allow the body to meld into one whole and be fully integrated by the vital qi
. Therefore, in order to transform the mundane human body into the macrocosmic body, one needs to overcome physical limitations to join in great unity with the Dao.
Now it becomes clear that for the Daoists, nothing seems to be more limiting than the physical body. The body marks the boundary of a human being and separates him/her from the natural flow of the cosmos. As Yuan Daoist Zhang Ziqiong 张紫琼11
Heaven and human beings are originally [formed] by one homogenous qi,
It is the form and body [of the human beings] that stand in between them.
Cultivate until one’s form and spirit are deeply united.
Then [one] will realize that form is true emptiness.12
The physical body is eventually to be transcended. Lao Zi’s famous saying, “the reason I have great trouble is that I have a body. When I no longer have a body, what trouble have I?” (Lau 1963, p. 17
) echoes the anxiety with the body. In a similar vein, Zhuangzi advocates that in the process of Dao-embodiment, firstly, one must smash one’s limbs and body to disintegrate perception and rationality (Zhuangzi and Watson 2013, p. 53
), as mentioned above. Here Zhuangzi discards the limbs not to disable the body but to stress how the physical body could stand as an obstacle in arriving at a state of equivalence (tong
通) with the Dao. In inner alchemical practice—which turns the whole body into a laboratory to produce the elixir, the physiological function of the body parts is less important compared to the emblematic functions of the body.
For the Daoists, the body is a paradoxical complex. On the one hand, it is the field of life and contains the true form of the symbolic body. On the other hand, the limitation of the physical body has become the source of Daoist anxiety, for it imposes the constant confrontation and opposition between the “I” and the cosmos. Therefore, reconnecting the opposition and reactivating one’s primordial dependency on nature become the locus of the transcendent quest.
2.2. Dong: Connecting the Space of Shanshui and the Human Body
The corporeal affinity between the mountain-water compound and the human body might be best exhibited through the concept of dong 洞. Dong, as an empty space or a natural void, echoes with the source of Dao—a deep and murky great void or emptiness. The void is the realm of nothingness, or “non-being.” In other words, the Dao is the unmanifested void or emptiness. Since it is uncreated and unmanifested, it harbors endless potential and will not die. Therefore, the image of the void possesses the features of the Dao. Dong, in this sense, suggests a cosmological beginning.
The concept of the dadong
(Great Grotto 大洞) was adopted in medieval religious Daoism. It lies at the heart of Upper Clarity cosmology, a tradition from the fourth century onwards. In the mysterious cosmic process, human beings and the celestial realm fuse through the vast void of the Great Grotto. The Preface to the Upper Clarity Perfect Scripture of the Great Grotto
(Shangqing dadong zhenjing xu
上清大洞真經序) demonstrates the Great Grotto as such:
The Dao is born from nothingness, secretly harboring a multitude of numinous powers, which no one can fathom. Spirits condense in the void, marvelously transforming in myriad ways without bounds. In the darkest depths, there is an essence, serene and stable, which shines out the light. This great mystery is infinite, reaching across the void and preserving stillness. This is called the “Great Grotto”.
In this passage, the Great Grotto is identified with “the great mystery.” It is the harbor of Dao, boundless and limitless. Moreover, we find new dimensions of the Great Grotto: it is the source of spirits (shen
神) and essence (jing
精). That is to say, the purest form of spirit and essence is born and located in the empty void of the Great Grotto. The void of nothingness is the source of “being,” from which the creation of myriad things has emerged. This quality reminds us of another popular image in Daode jing
—the valley (gu
谷). Hans-Georg Moeller demonstrates that the valley—the open void of the mountain—possesses the positive quality of fertility (Moeller 2006, p. 28
). The valley is a negative form (compared to the “full” mountains that surround it) and is mere potential (a potential that has not yet materialized). But due to its emptiness and featurelessness, it guarantees its inexhaustibility and constant fertility. A couple of similar images—“a negative, merely potential, and imperishable void” (Moeller 2006, p. 10
)—share the same characteristics with the valley, including the grotto.
Grotto-heaven is a unique geo-religious phenomenon in Daoism. As the quintessence of the mountain (Raz 2019, pp. 1409–52
), it is a place of transcendental passage and revelation and is interconnected with other supernatural realms (Verellen 1995, p. 271
). The Daoists, not intimidated by the mysterious and the unknown, are always willing to go into the mountains and seek the grotto-heavens and the blessed land (dongtian fudi
洞天福地). However, the grotto-heavens do not guarantee transcendence. The tale guanqi lanke
觀棋爛柯 (“Watching Chess While the Axe Rotted
”) recorded in Shuyi ji
述異記 (Records of Strange Things
) tells an interesting story. Due to its broad reception, the mountain where the story happened was renamed Lanke Mountain, which the late Tang court Daoist Du Guangting 杜光庭 (850–933) labeled as the Eighth Grotto-Heaven of Turquoise Clouds.
During the Jin Dynasty, Wang Jin from Xin’an County was chopping wood at Stone Chamber Mountain. He saw several youths playing the game of Go and singing. Zhi stopped to listen. The youths gave an item to Zhi, which was similar to a jujube core. Zhi kept it in his mouth and felt no hunger. A moment later, the youths said: “Why are you not going?” Zhi stood up and saw the axe had completely rotted. When he returned, there was no one from his time.
(Ren Fang 任昉, Shuyi ji
In this tale, Wang Zhi is a curious man, drawn to the youths by the board game15
and their singing. The youths, knowing that he is not an immortal, give Zhi a jujube core to keep him from being hungry. Jujube is considered the food of immortals. It is also the food Daoists have during bigu
辟穀 (avoiding grains) fasting. Here, it is noticeable that the youths give Zhi a jujube core rather than juicy jujube with full flesh. Daoists often contain the jujube core in the mouth to stimulate saliva flow. In inner alchemical practice, the mouth is often referred to as the Flowery Pond (huachi
華池), while the liquor of the mouth is called Nectar Spring (liquan
醴泉) or the Jade Secretions (yujin
玉津). Daoist Tao Hongjing said in Yangxing yanming lu
養性延命錄 (Records on Preserving One’s Nature and Lengthening Life
) that “Drinking at the Jade Spring, we can live longer and eliminate the disease.”16
The saliva the jujube core stimulates would eventually help nourish the cinnabar field, the main areas the adept concentrates on during his/her breathing or visualizing exercises.
The rotted axe shows us that time is still passing in the cave. However, the axe experiences a different length of time from Wang Zhi. Thanks to the jujube core, Zhi can share a “being in the present” with the immortals. He is experiencing the immortal’s perception of time in the grotto—things happen within a moment (e’qing 俄頃). But for the axe, many years have passed by. There is a saying related to this story—“only one day one has been in the grotto, while outside millennia have passed” 山中方一日，世上已千年.
Apparently, the grotto heavens do not guarantee transcendence. The adepts must find their own “jujube core” to transcend their physical body. Nevertheless, the grotto heavens contain passages to the Dao, and the journey through the grottos is a journey beyond our world. A mountain is a place of life—“the locus of sustenance and transcendence” (Raz 2019, p. 1409
, as Verellen eloquently summarized, has the meaning to “penetrate” or “communicate” both physically and intellectually.
Following the macrocosmic-microcosmic model, we should notice that dong
is not just a geographical or cosmological concept; it also exists within the human body. One of the earliest examples of esoteric hagiography (neizhuan
內傳), the Esoteric Hagiography of the Perfected Being of Purple Solarity
紫陽真人內傳) provides a detailed account on different dimensions of the dong
. This text records the spiritual journey of Zhou Yishan 周義山 (b. 80 BCE), detailing the methods he used to become a Perfected being. The text reads:
“The [part of] heaven [where there is] nothing is called space. The [part of] a mountain [where there is] nothing is called a grotto. The [part of] a human [body where there is] nothing is called a [grotto] chamber. The empty spaces in the mountains and organs of the body are called grotto courts. The empty spaces in human heads are called grotto chambers. This is how the perfected take up residence in the heavens, the mountains, and human beings. When they enter the place of nothingness, a grain of rice could contain Mt. Penglai and embrace the sixfold harmony [of the cosmos], yet heaven and earth would not be able to contain them. Only those who meditate on and visualize the perfected, preserve the three palaces, have an audience with the one spirit, and make an effort to meditate on them will definitely be able to see Lord Wuying, the White Prime Lord and the Yellow Venerable Lord in their grotto chamber.17
The chariot of clouds with a canopy of feathers will then come, and they will become perfected persons.”
The above passage shows that a grotto exists in heaven, a mountain, and a human head. Dong suggests simultaneously primordial cosmological grottos, grottos in a mountain, and within the human body. The grotto chamber in the human head is the residence of the spirits. It is noticeable that the human body is again compared to the body of the mountains, attesting to the former argument about corporeal affinity.
The passage tells us that a Perfected being can walk freely in these empty spaces. The real question here seems to be how to reach the state of the Perfected being. James Miller explains that since the Perfected dwell in vacuity, they can forge the connections between the emptiness of outer space and the inner space of mountains and brains (Miller 2008, p. 152
). Miller’s explanation suggests that the emptiness in heaven, the mountain, and the human head should not be taken as “void of the space.” It is instead an ontological condition that precedes the materialization of things. Only the Perfected beings could dwell in these empty grottos, for they are able to withdraw from the physical and return to their source in the great void or emptiness. This understanding aligns with the following passage from Annotations to the Scripture for the Salvation from Distress
(Taishang dongxuan lingbao tianzun shuo jinku miaojing zhujie
太上洞玄靈寶天尊說救苦妙經註解) by Dongyang zi 洞陽子:
(cavern or grotto) is tong
通 (to “connect/penetrate/communicate”). It is connected with heaven and earth. Spirits and immortals secretly commute in between these grottos. Under heaven, there are ten greater grotto heavens, and thirty-six lesser grotto heavens dwell in the tremendous boundless void, and they are all interlinked. Only the immortals and sages who assemble to form and disassemble into qi
can go through the void without obstacles. Therefore, the sage [understands the patterns of things] from various parts of things and nearby from his own body. Within the human body, there are also grotto heavens. There are nine palaces in the head. Counting the empty heaven above, there are ten greater grotto heavens. The spine has twenty-four sections, and [the throat] has twelve stories. There are thirty-six lesser grotto heavens in total. They connect with the nine heavens of the Muddy Palace above and the nine places of the Caudal Pass below. True qi
secretly commutes in between these grottos. Therefore, the stage operates the polar stars in utmost emptiness and silence. Their spirit communicates with the qi
of the grotto heavens and the heaven above. That is so-called the rising and descending of the three palaces. They go up and down, and it is infinite.19
This passage adopts the ten greater grotto-heavens and the thirty-six lesser grotto-heavens system that was organized in the Tang Dynasty by Sima Chengzhen 司馬承禎 (647–735) and Du Guangting into the human body. Just as the geographical grotto-heavens are interconnected, the grottos within the human body are also interlinked. Yet, the author reminds us that only the immortals and sages can go through these places freely. That is because they can transform between form and formlessness and attain an all-pervading (tong) unity with the Dao. However, for ordinary human beings, the physical body stands between them and the datong 大通 (Great Thoroughfare). The grottos within the body are blocked. Hence the lived body is not able to merge with the vital energies of the outer cosmos.
To put it in a nutshell, shanshui is ontologically connected and shares a “corporeal” affinity with the bodies of human beings. The human body as the microcosm is analogous to the macrocosmic body of the universe. Shanshui, as the macrocosmic body, shares the most resemblance with human beings regarding body composition and structure. This correlation was made systematic and tight through the system of yin and yang and five elements, as well as Daoist practice. The affinity is further illustrated through the concept of dong, which exists not just as a geographical or cosmological concept but also exists within the human body. In this way, the body is not invisible in shanshui paintings—it is ever-present through the agency of the shanshui. However, the connection is undermined by the limitation of the physical body, for it imposes the constant confrontation and opposition between the “I” and the cosmos. Only through the transformative process—by letting go of regular vision and transcending awareness of human form—can one attain recognition of the Great Thoroughfare between the human body and shanshui.
3. The Inner Landscape: Shanshui as Human Body
With the development of Quanzhen Daoism and inner alchemy, Daoists start to visualize the “inner landscape” of the body as a microcosm containing the natural phenomenon of the macrocosm. Even though the correlation between shanshui
and the human body goes way back in Chinese philosophy and aesthetic discourses, the visual representation of the mountain as/inside the body is an inner alchemical invention. The history of inner alchemy can be traced back to the second century AD, to the inner cultivation methods recorded in the scriptures of Laozi zhongjing
老子中經 (Central Scripture of Laozi
) and Huangting jing
黃庭經 (Scripture of the Yellow Court
). We could even find its sprouts in much earlier scriptures such as Neiye
內業 (Inward Training
). Yet it is from the Tang Dynasty (618CE-907CE) and Song Dynasty (960CE-1297CE) onward, especially with the establishment of Quanzhen Daoism, that inner alchemy has gained wide acceptance among Daoists and established itself as the major and orthodox practice for nourishing life and achieving Dao within one’s own body.20
The goal of inner alchemy is to join the “natural ingredients” in a symbolic crucible and purify them in the fires of a symbolic furnace in the body. The adepts are expected to visualize a combined image in which the cosmic body and human body are orchestrated into a unified rhythm.
Inner landscape refers to the inner alchemical vision that the interior of the human body is a microcosm, and it contains the natural phenomenon of the macrocosm, as Zeng Zao 曾慥 (–1155) elaborates in Daoshu
道樞 (Pivot of the Dao
What is called the inner realm? It is the realm of the body. The real image is the furnace within my body, which contains heaven and earth, sun and moon, stars, wind and clouds, the milky way, mountains, rivers, grass, and wood. Heaven is [associated with] qian
hexagram, [with] gold; it is the canopy situating above the myriad of things, and it is, therefore, the lung of the inner realm. The stars, sun, moon, and so on are the upper burner21
of the inner realm, it is the measurement system of blood circulation. The Great Void mysterious realm above is where the lucid qi
coagulates; below the mysterious realm is where the turbid qi
unites and separates. The division between the lucid upper part and the turbid lower part is the middle burner, and it is the separation between the thorax and the abdomen. The area above the separation is translucent, and the down below is filthy. The five mountains and the mountain ranges are the head; the valley is the mouth and nose; the wellspring is the saliva, and the food and the drink; the river running to the sea is [similar to] the food and drink coagulate in the springhead; the cloud and rain generated from the mountain and stream is the hair.22
Since the macrocosm is inherently connected with the microcosm, and the process of inner alchemy imitates the circulation of the qi between heaven and earth, the natural landscape seems to be the perfect medium to illustrate the inner operation of the body. In the inner alchemical visualization process, human bodies and natural landscapes are identified as representative of one another. The cosmic body is the human body, and the vital energy roams in between heaven and earth the same way it circulates within the human body. The space and structure of the natural world becomes integral to understanding the human body. The material representation of the natural world—the shanshui—hence becomes a powerful visual tool connecting the spheres of the body, the natural world, the cosmos, and the mental world. The externalization of the inner alchemical progress in the likeness of the macrocosm manifests the divine identity of the practitioners. For them, the ultimate reality is not the actualities of everyday life but the vision they acquire through inner alchemical practice.
Consequently, inner alchemical graphic representations of the body often depict the human body microcosmically with an inner landscape. Anna Hennessey demonstrates that just as internalization in the form of internal alchemy was becoming a focal component of Daoism, externalization in the form of alchemical representation was also rising as a tool through which this process of internalizing the religious experience could be actualized (Hennessey 2011, p. 16
). In other words, the practice of inner alchemy focuses on visualizing the inner landscape, a virtual microcosm of the external cosmos manifested in the Daoist body. Visualization is a practice that actualizes the presence of the deities or inner landscape according to painted or textually described icons through concentration and imagination. The interaction with the divine stimulates and increases the body’s energy, improving both physical and spiritual conditions and unclogging the blockage between inner “grottos.” The eventual goal of visualization is to see the inner and outer dimensions as one.
Representations of the inner alchemical body were rarely found prior to the Song dynasty (960–1279), but the Song period marks a turning point in the graphic representation of the body along with graphic representation (tu
圖) in general. As Catherine Despeux elaborates, from the Song onward, visual imagery comes to play a more significant role, not only as a record of knowledge but also as a teaching aid, a mode of transmission, a mnemonic device, a visual translation of a text, and a representation of a certain reality (Despeux 2005, p. 47
). These body-mountain charts could be roughly divided into two categories: representation of the body in the form of a mountain, such as Chart of the Rise and Fall of Yin and Yang, Image of the Body
(Tixiang yin yang shengjiang tu
體象陰陽升降圖) and Image of the body of Original Qi
(Yuanqi tixiang tu
元氣體象圖) and representation of landscape within the human body such as Neijing tu
內經圖 (Chart of Inner Landscape
) and Xiuzhen tu
修真圖 (Chart for the Cultivation of Perfection
). In these body charts, the visual representation of inner alchemy blends in patterns of cosmological emblems, laboratory alchemy, Daoist deities23
, Buddhist terms, and other metaphorical images such as natural landscapes, animals, human figures, buildings, and so on. The key to deciphering the meaning of these images is to understand the dynamics between them and how these images, through the interplay of the five elements and yin
, contribute to the whole alchemical process. Whenever we look at inner alchemical charts or images, we look at (part of) a transformative process, both spatial and temporal.
The visual representation of inner alchemy inspires Daoists to transform the inner vision into shanshui
paintings. The visual iconography, metaphors, and principles of inner alchemy are incorporated into the representation of shanshui
. Since shanshui
can stand for the human body or body parts, and shanshui
painting, in its nature, embodies the element of time, shanshui
paintings seem to be the perfect medium of the field of life or transformative progress. That is to say, shanshui
reveals not only the inner body but also the mechanism of inner energies. Daoist literati Huang Gongwang 黃公望 (1269–1354) was a pioneer in waving the inner landscape of the body into the fabric of the cosmos. As the head of the acknowledged “Four Masters” of the Yuan period, he was also a renowned practitioner of inner alchemy whose teachings are recorded in the Daoist Canon.24
In his later years, he withdrew from public life and joined Quanzhen Daoism. In recent years, scholars have noticed the connection between Huang’s shanshui
paintings and inner alchemy visuality. By comparing the graphs and illustrations from Daoist Canon with Huang Gongwang’s Sunny after Sudden Snow
快雪時晴圖, Susan Huang claims that the painting is of significant inner alchemical connotation (Huang 2014, pp. 121–204
). The two elements from the painting—the usual red sun and the cliff in the shape of a platform—are iconic visual language in inner alchemy. While the red sun represents the spirit of pure yang
, the platform could be either the Palace of Muddy Pellet in the head or the practitioner himself. In 2017, Lennert Gesterkamp gave a lecture at the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts titled “Huang Gongwang’s ‘Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains
’ as a Daoist Inner Landscape.” In this lecture, he argued that the landscape in this painting symbolizes the various stages and processes of Daoist inner alchemy, which Huang’s friend and fellow disciple undoubtedly understood. Furthermore, Xie Bo offers a thorough inspection of Huang Gongwang’s painting in her book The Visualization of Daoist Elysium: Huang Gongwang and His Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains
). Built on Susan Huang’s concept of the inner landscape, Xie forwards the idea of “Visualization of Daoist Elysium.” She believes that Huang’s shanshui
painting is essentially an exteriorization of his ideal shanshui
, a mixture of the inner alchemical landscape with Daoist sacred iconography and cosmology. Ziyun Liu’s dissertation The True Realm of Vision: The Visualization of Inner Alchemy in Yuan Shanshui Painting
) argues that Huang Gongwang’s later paintings can be read as different stages of the inner alchemical transformative process.
As a Daoist literati painter, Huang transformed his inner alchemical vision into shanshui
paintings and used art as a proper vehicle to access the truth and reality of Dao. These paintings blur the boundary between the inner and the outer landscape. Nature, the human body, and celestial heaven fuse under the single agency of shanshui
. Huang Gongwang creates a unified image of the macrocosms and microcosmos, representing an ontologically united realm that is essentially one and the same. Consequently, Huang Gongwang’s inner alchemical visual expression set a new paradigm for his protégés and the following generations. Meanwhile, they created new inner alchemical visual languages and constantly expanded their repertoire. Stephen Little’s sugggestion that Wen Boren’s文伯仁 (1502–1575) handscroll Spring Dawn at the Elixir Terrace
丹台春曉圖 is an allegory of inner alchemy is corroborated by the presence of an attached colophon in cursive script, written by the late Ming artist and dramatist Xu Wei 徐渭 (1521–1593) in the classical language of inner alchemy, in which the component aspects of the vital energies (qi
) within the human body are directed toward the creation of the inner elixir (Little and Eichman 2000, pp. 350–51
). Gesterkamp reads Wang Ximeng’s A Thousand Miles of Streams and Rivers
千里江山图 as depicting a story of Daoist self-cultivation. This journey includes the mundane and transcendental world as well as inner alchemical transformation (Gesterkamp 2022
). For example, the river chariot in the image is a typical inner alchemical metaphor symbolizing the transportation of the spleen water. Liu believes that Lu Guang’s 陸廣 (C. 1300–after 1371) Spring Dawn at the Cinnabar Platform
丹臺春曉圖 and Kun Can’s 髡殘 (1612–1674) Green Mountains Rising to the Sky
蒼翠凌天圖 and Layers of Rock and Piles of Ravine
層岩疊壑圖 represent the alchemical paths, and The Thatched Hut of Dreaming of an Immortal
夢仙草堂圖, attributed to Tang Yin 唐寅 (1470–1524) embodies the inner alchemical visualized true realm (Liu 2021
As we can see, inner alchemical shanshui
paintings exist as a tradition that goes beyond the scope of Huang Gongwang, as well as the Yuan literati circle. It has been passed down from generation to generation and continues to shape the meaning of shanshui
paintings. In these paintings, the human body does not need to manifest itself through anthropomorphizing natural objects; it is visible and present in the way that shanshui
becomes the body. The meaning and function of inner alchemical shanshui
paintings are probably best illustrated by Daoist Liu Chengyin’s 劉誠印 colophon to the Chart of the Inner Landscape
. He miraculously encountered the chart when examining paintings and calligraphies in a mountain study surrounded by pine trees. At first, he thought it was simply a shanshui
painting. But after he observed the chart for a long time, he said: “I began to realize that exhalation and inhalation (huxi
呼吸) as well as expelling and ingesting (tuna
吐納) of the human body are the waxing and waning as well as the ebb and flow of the cosmos. If you can divine and gain insight into this, you will have progressed more than halfway on your inquiry into the great Way of the Golden Elixir” (Komjathy 2008, p. 77
Through his Daoist gaze, Liu syncretized his exhalation and inhalation with the dynamism of the cosmos. The cosmic body becomes his body. The world as lived and the world as “the ultimate reality” fuse under the agency of shanshui and become the same world. Meanwhile, Liu’s experience brings out a significant function of inner alchemical shanshui paintings: they could potentially have the same function as a typical Daoist bodily graph, and work as a record of knowledge, a mode of transmission, a mnemonic device, a visual translation of a text, and even a teaching aid. As inner alchemical transformation is a long and challenging process, and there can be dangerous illusions and delusions, these inner alchemical shanshui paintings are extremely valuable for confused practitioners. The translucence this genre of painting brings dissolves the border between the body and shanshui. This is especially true considering these paintings are often dedicated to a certain Daoist.
Inner alchemical shanshui paintings show us a vision that transcends the actualities of everyday life. It is not an image depicting the pure joy and magnificence of paradise—the realm out of this world. It is a picture in this world. The Daoist painters see the shanshui, the human body, and the cosmos essentially as one. The transcendence and even sacredness of inner alchemical shanshui paintings come from the unity of humanity and nature. The cosmic body and the human body fuse under the single agency of the shanshui, creating a unified image of the macrocosms and microcosmos. In these paintings, we can see how the flow of energy (qi) is activated through the momentum of force (shi 勢) of shanshui and how the yin and yang energy is constantly in flux through the coalescence of the amorphous qi. Inner alchemical shanshui paintings break down the constant confrontation and opposition between the “I” and the cosmos and reactivate one’s primordial dependency on nature. The “outer” and “inner” realms hence become inseparable. What seems more significant than identifying the inner alchemical connotation of a shanshui painting is recognizing that it is a unified image of the macrocosms and microcosmos. This realm is ontologically united and is essentially one and the same. In this vein, inner alchemical shanshui painting is essentially a manifestation of the truth of Dao.