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Thoughts on Daoist Physiology Fundamental to Inner Alchemy: Dantian and the Curious Meridians: Part 1

Catherine Despeux is one France’s great Daoist scholars. Unfortunately many of her translations and essays are only available in French. In her introduction to a a Treatise on Daoist Alchemy and Physiology by Zhao Bichen Catherine discusses different of aspects of Daoist view on physiology and the Eight Extraordinary Meridians. This article is extracted from Traité d’Alchimie et Physiologie Taoïste (Weisheng Shenglixue Mingzhi), Introduction, Traduction et Notes par Catherine Despeux. (Paris: Les Deux Océans, 1979), p. 27-47.

By Catherine Despeux   (translation by Tom Bisio)

Throughout the Wei Sheng Sheng Li Xue Ming Zhi there are references to the Dantian (or equivalent terms) and the Curious Meridians.[1] These terms stand out in the Daoist conception of the human body and its proper functioning, as these terms have a particular interpretation in Daoist thought that has points of difference with their understanding in Chinese medicine. It should be noted that the Dantian and the Eight Curious Meridians, and more particularly two of them, Du Mai and Ren Mai, comprise the framework of Daoist physiology.

Dantian: The Cinnabar Field

In Daoism, the term Dantian designates certain body locations of transformation and transmutation. In Chinese alchemy, cinnabar or mercury sulfide, in the form of a red rock, is the primary raw material, the philosopher’s stone. In other words, cinnabar is the base material for the development of gold in external alchemy, and the drug of immortality in internal alchemy. According to the Shuo Wen, Han dictionary, the Chinese character for Cinnabar (Dan)[2] represents a well, or a hole containing a stone, because cinnabar, very abundant in southern China, is extracted from mountain caves. One should note that the term “Tian” (field) borrowed from the vocabulary of agriculture, introduces a notion of culture into the expression. In addition in the Wei Sheng Sheng Li Xue Ming Zhi we shall see the appearance of phrases like: “growing the remedy” or picking the remedy.” The Dantian are therefore neither reservoirs nor ordinary places, but rather fields for transforming the specific materials of Internal Alchemey.

The term Dantian appears for the first time, it seems, in a Daoist text from the end of the Han Dynasty, the Huang Ting Wai Jing – a basic text on self-cultivation and research into longevity, which has continued to be studied and commented on throughout the centuries. In the first chapter of the text, one finds the following phrase: “Breath (respiration) penetrates into the interior, the house of the Dantian” and a little later, “The Dantian holds the Jing (essence) and breath (Qi).[3] The text does not give the precise location of Dantian, and one can notice that there is still the question of there being a single Dantian.

It is only in the 3rd or 4th century that one sees the appearance of three separate levels of Dantian in the body. They are: the Lower Dantian, located below the navel, the middle Dantian, located at the level of the Heart, and the Upper Dantian, located in the head. These three Dantian, receive different locations and names according n various texts.

Two texts from the 4th century, the Bao Pu Zi Nei Pian and the Deng Zhen Yin Jue[4] locate the Dantian two body-inches (cun) below the navel, while the later texts like the Tai Xi Jing, or the Xiu Zhen Shi Shu, locate it lower, three inches below the navel. This location is for the most part the one adopted by contemporary Daoists. However some, and in this case our author, locate it from one to three inches below the navel.

The Upper Dantian has not been subject as much detailed description as the Lower Dantian. Rarely is it precisely located in the texts. One could cite a text from the Six Dynasties period, the Lao Zi Zhong Jing, which gives the following description:

The Dantian (Lower) is the root of human beings. It is there that the Jing (Essence) and the spritual energy accumulate. It is the domain of the origin of the Five Breaths (Qi), the palace of infancy. In men, Jing accumulates there, and in women menstruation. It presides at birth, it is the door of union of Yin and Yang and is located three finger widths below the navel. It is red in the center, green to the left, yellow to the right, white above and black below. It is square and round and measures four inches. It is located three inches below the navel and takes as its model Heaven, Earth and Human Beings. It measures four inches, because Heaven is one, the Earth is two, Human Beings are three and the seasons are four. It is five colors, because it takes the Five Elements as its model.

In this text, the Lower Dantian coincides with the uterus and even with the sex. In regard to the five colors, their distribution does not correspond to the common spatial relationship which is yellow in the center, red in the South, black in the North, white in the West and green in the East. We notice that the center is red, the color of the menses and of cinnabar.

In a number of Daoist texts, notably those from the Maoshan School, different deities are located in the Dantian (in different parts of the body) and they must be visualized by the adept.[5] This is not the the case with the texts on Internal Alchemey, which we are concerned with here. In Internal Alchemy, beginning with the Song Dynasty, the Dantian are primarily areas for the transformation of Jing, Qi and Shen (Spiritual Energy/Spirit): There are three areas in the body around which the three stages of psycho-physiological work are concentrated. The Xiu Zhen Shi Shu, a Song compilation, quotes the Treatise on the Three Fields and Three Cinnabar: “Shen that is born of Qi resides in the Upper Dantian; Qi, which is born of Jing, resides in the Middle Dantian; The union of water and True Qi forms Jing, which resides in Lower Dantian. The Upper Dantian is the home of Shen, Middle Dantian is the palace of Qi, and the Lower Dantian is domain of Jing.

Several texts from the Dragon Gate School, and thus related to the text which we translate here, attribute several names to the different Dantian. The Da Cheng Jie Jing, written by Liu Hua Yang in the 18th century, gives the following names: The Upper Dantian or Ni Wan is located in the center of the head. Also called the Upper Lotus Pool (上蓮池 Shang Lian Chi), it contains the Shen. The Middle Dantian is also called the Earth Cauldron (土釜 Tu Fu), or the Middle Lotus Pool (中蓮池 Zhong Lian Chi), is found three inches and six tenths below the body center. It measures two inches and is the place where one nourishes the embryo. It is flanked by Mingmen on the left and by Dong Fang.[6] The Lower Dantian is also called the Flower Pool

(花池 Hua Chi) or the Sea of Qi (氣海 Qi Hai). It is located three inches below the navel. It is an equal distance from the kidneys and the coccyx and corresponds to the gonads. It contains the Jing and is the place where one gathers the medicine. It is also flanked by Mingmen on the left and by Dong Fang. 

The Ru Shi Wo Wen, another text from the Dragon Gate School, dated from the 19th century, gives a similar description of the three Dantian, but it says that the Lower Dantian measures two inches and has two cavities which connect with the kidneys.

It appears that in the texts on Internal Alchemy, the Lower Dantian is directly linked to sexual function. Note that the Wei Sheng Sheng Li Xue Ming Zhi does not use the term Lower Dantian, but instead employs a synonym, “the place of Qi

The Curious Meridians (Qi Jing Ba Mai)

The Eight Curious Meridians are: Du Mai, Ren Mai, Chong Mai, Yang Qiao Mai, Yin Qiao Mai, Yang Wei Mai, Yin Wei Mai and Dai Mai.[7] The first two of these take on an importance very specific to Daoism due to the diverse symbolism to which they are attached. The texts of Internal Alchemy repeatedly describe the circulation of internal Qi in these two channels in a more or less veiled manner with different yet analogous systems. given their importance, we will discuss them last.

The Classic of 81 Difficulties (Nan Jing), a medical work of the 1st and 2nd century of our era contains three chapters on the Curious Meridians, describing their trajectory, function and pathology. According to chapter twenty-seven, these eight meridians are called the Curious Meridians, or rather the Eight Extraordinary Vessels, because they form a system that is separate from the twelve “Normal Meridians,” which are each associated with a Yin or Yang organ. In the Nan Jing the Curious Meridians are compared to reserve drains (or drainage ditches) into which pours the excess energy from the twelve meridians, thereby playing their role in safeguarding the system. Li Shi Zhen, the celebrated doctor of the Ming Dynasty, reiterates the presentation of these meridians in the Nan Jing, but adds that doctors must know the role of these eight meridians and not fail to search for the true cause of the illness, and that Daoists, thanks to these meridians, assure the proper functioning of the stove and the cauldron.

For Daoists, the Eight Curious Meridians play a slightly different role. They are the place of circulation par excellence for the Ancestral Qi and the Yang Qi. Daoist texts postulate that the meridians are blocked in an ordinary person. to the contrary, in medical texts these meridians are not blocked and the Qi circulates there. In fact it is a qualitative difference: For an ordinary person the eight meridians so not carry enough Yang Qi in order to function fully and the Daoists employ different exercises to strengthen and stimulate their functioning.

Yang Qiao Mai (Yang Heel Vessel)

It is called this because it starts in the heel. According to the Nan Jing, it begins in the middle of the heel, following the external malleolus and goes upward until it reaches the Fengchi (GB 20) acu-point, where it enters the head. According to the Ling Shu,[8] it goes from the foot to the inner corner of the eye and measures seven and one-half feet. It is considered to be a branch of the Bladder Meridian of Foot Taiyang. In acupuncture, this meridian to ten points located on the Yang meridians. It connects to the Yang meridians of the hand and foot on the right and left sides of the body.


Yin Qiao Mai (Yin Heel Vessel)

It links the various Yin meridians. According to the Nan Jing, it starts in the middle of the heel and following the internal malleolus and goes upward to the throat where it connects with Chong Mai. According to the Ling Shu, it is a branch of the Kidney Meridian of Foot Shaoyin. It starts at acu-point Rangu (KID 2) on the Kidney Meridian and goes upward to the chest, penetrating into the interior of the body at Quepen ( ST 12), appearing again at Renying (DU 26) to go up to the face until it reaches the inner corner of the eye. This meridian connects four acupuncture points.


Yang Wei Mai (Yang Linking Vessel)

According to the Nan Jing (Chap. 28), this meridian, with Yin Wei Mai, has the function of irrigating and nourishing the parts of the body where the other meridians do not circulate the Qi. It plays an essentially regulatory role. It starts at a point on the Foot Taiyang meridian, located on the external malleolus, the Jinmen (BL 63) acu-point and circulates in the back up to the neck where it meets all the Yang Meridians and the Du Vessel.

This meridian has sixteen points, and its trajectory in the head is more or less complex according to different sources. According to Li Shi Zhen,[9] it rises behind the ear, reaching Fengchi (GB 20) where it goes into the head, then enters the ears and rises up to Benshen (GB 13) where it ends.


Yin Wei Mai (Yin Linking Vessel)

According to the Nei Jing, it starts at Zhubing (KID 9), the connecting point of all the Yin meridians. It starts from the middle of the heel, follows the medial malleolus, rises along the front through the breast and goes up to the throat, where it meets the Ren Vessel. It has seven points.

According to Li Shi Zhen, this meridian ascends to the front of the vertex. Yin Wei Mai is related to the interior of the body (considered Yin in Chinese medicine), Yang Wei Mai with the superficial [part of the body] (considered Yang relative to the interior of the body).


Dai Mai (Belt Vessel)

According to the Nan Jing, it begins at Jixie[10] and makes a circuit around the waist. According to the Ling Shu (Chap. 17), it is a branch of the Kidney Meridian of Foot Shao Yin, which starts from the knee, meets the Bladder Meridian of Foot Taiyang, ascends to the Kidneys, and emerges at the level of the 14th vertebrae to form Dai Mai. Like a belt, it encloses all the meridians.

Chong Mai (Thrusting Vessel)

This meridian is also called the Central Channel (Zhong Mai), especially in Daoist texts. According to the Su Wen (Chap. 60), this meridian starts at the perineum, passes through the navel and goes to the Heart. According to the Ling Shu (Chap. 65), one of the branches of this meridian extends upward in the back and serves as a reservoir for the different meridians, while a superficial branch ascend up the front to the larynx and ends around the mouth. Above it connects to Yang meridians and below to the Yin meridians and in the middle with the meridians of the Kidneys and Stomach.

This meridian is the “Sea” of all the meridians and also the “Sea of Blood.” Like Ren Mai, it starts in the uterus. The superficial and external part begins at Qichong (ST 30 – “Surging Qi”) and circulates in the Stomach Meridian of Foot Yang Ming and the Kidney Meridian of Foot Shaoyin. It follows the belly to the Henggu acu-point (KID 11), encircles the navel right and left (to 5/10), ascends and disperses in the chest. It is composed of 24 points.

According to Li Shi Zhen, this meridian, Ren Mai and Du Mai are actually filled with the Qi of the stomach derived from nutrition, which joins in the lower abdomen with the True Pre-Heaven Qi issuing from the Kidneys. These two Qi mingle and circulate together throughout the body.

In Daoist texts, Chong Mai is almost always called the Central Meridian (Zhong Mai), sometimes conceived of as a center that is conflated with the Central Palace (Zhong Gong), and sometimes conceived of as a channel passing through the center of the body, which is also called the Path of the Yellow Court (yellow is the color which corresponds to the center).


[1] The Author uses the term Curious Meridians, to signify what acupuncturists call the Extraordinary Channels

[2] 丹 Dan: red; cinnabar.

[3] In French texts on Taoism and Qi Gong, souffle (breath) is often used to refer to Qi.

[4] Chapter 1.

[5] Tai Shang Yang Sheng Tai Xi Qi Jing. See also Henry Maspero, Le Taoisme et les Religions Chinois, p. 360 and 494.

[6] Dong Fang: Despeux translates this as “la Demeure de l’arcane” (the abode of the arcane).

[7] In French, these are le Canal de Contrôle (Governing Vessel), le Canal de Fonction (Conception Vessel), le Canal d’Assaut (Thrusting, Penetrating, or Thoroughfare Vessel), le Méridien Yang Du Pied (Yang Heel Vessel), le Méridien Yin du Pied (Yin Heel Vessel), le Méridien Yang-Wei (Yang Linking Vessel), le Méridien Yin-Wei (Yin Linking Vessel), and le Méridien de Ceinture (Belt Channel). 

[8] Chapter 17.

[9] Nei Gong Tuo Shuo

[10] An alternative name for LIV 13 (Zhangmen)