Tao Hongjing

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Born into an aristocratic landowning family, Tao Hongjing (TAH-oh HONG-jihng) spent his early career in service to the Song and Qi courts. While tutoring the Qi emperor’s sons, Tao began to study the major works of Six Dynasties Daoism, including those of the alchemist Ge Hong, the liturgical Lingbao (Spiritual Treasure) scriptures, and the Shangqing (Supreme Purity) scriptures revealed at Mao Shan from 367 to 370 c.e.

In 492 c.e., Tao retired to Mao Shan, where he spent the remainder of his life collecting, editing, and annotating the Supreme Purity scriptures. Tao was the first scholar to classify the Daoist deities hierarchically. He also composed a commentary on an ancient pharmacological text and created a guide for Daoist practice. Additionally, Tao devoted much of his life to the search for an alchemical elixir designed to secure “immortality” or transcendence (xian) from this world for its user. While focusing on the manipulation of medicinal herbs and minerals to create a consumable elixir, Tao greatly influenced the movement toward internal alchemy, through which a practitioner could become a transcendent by mental and physiological means.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Because of the influence of the Daoist community he established at Mao Shan, the Supreme Purity tradition subsequently became the dominant Daoist school during the Tang Dynasty, emphasizing meditation and internalized ritual practices. Tao is also regarded as the founder of critical pharmacology in China.

Additional Resources

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Bokenkamp, Stephen. Early Daoist Scriptures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Robinet, Isabelle. Taoist Meditation: The Mao-shan Tradition of Great Purity. New York: State University of New York Press, 1993.