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Inner Alchemy and Its Symbolism

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Illustration of Inner Circulation (detail)
Qing dynasty,
19th century
Ink rubbing; ink on paper
133 x 56 cm
Richard Rosenblum Family Collection, Newton Center, Massachusetts
cat. no. 133


Illustration of Inner Circulation

This is a rubbing of a wood tablet formerly kept in the White Cloud Monastery, Beijing, and dated to 1886. It shows the internal torso of the human body as it is visualized during the practice of Inner Alchemy. The images are based primarily on two poems attributed to Lü Dongbin included on the left side of the rubbing.

This representation of the human body is outlined on the right by a stream that represents the spinal cord; this stream allows yin and yang energy to flow through the body. Although the head is dominated by a chain of mountains representing yang energy, a stream flows through the mountains, suggesting yin within yang. The monk with raised arms and the old man sitting in the skull also represent yin and yang. The two dots between them (where the eyes would be) represent the sun and moon.

Unlike the head, which is dominated by the yang image of mountains, the lower part of the torso is dominated by the yin image of water. This water is made to flow upward toward the head by a girl and boy on treadmills (yin and yang). The water turns into fire as it rises up the spinal column, representing its transformation into yang energy. An elixir is formed in the lower abdomen, where four interlocking Taiji ("yin-yang") symbols hover over purifying flames.

The remaining images in the central torso also represent the flow of yin and yang energies through the body. Of particular note are the Herd Boy and Weaving Girl, two stars that the Chinese believe to be separated lovers that meet once a year in the sky. The Herd Boy stands in the heart, grasping the Northern Dipper (Big Dipper), and the Weaving Girl sits below him at her loom near the kidneys. They are joined by streams of energy represented by the ribbons that flow from their images.




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