Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Being by Oneself": A Visit to the Residence of Neidan Master Liu Yiming (1734-1821)

Liu Yiming - Entrance to Mount Qiyun
Fig. 1. Entrance
to Mount Qiyun
Liu Yiming 劉一明 (1734-1821) was one of the greatest masters of Neidan (Internal Alchemy). Born in Quwo (present-day Shanxi province), he spent the first half of his life traveling extensively to various towns and mountains in northwestern China and to Beijing, in order to search for teachings. His main teachers were a master whom he calls Kangu laoren (Old Man of the Kan Valley, first met around 1755), who gave him teachings on the Book of Changes, cosmology, and Neidan; and another master whom he calls Xianliu zhangren (Great Man Resting in Immortality, first met in 1768), who gave him further teachings on Neidan.

Liu Yiming - First level of the Zizai wo
Fig. 2. First level
of the Zizai wo
In 1779, Liu Yiming visited Qiyun shan (Mount Resting on the Clouds). He decided to settle there and built his residence, called Zizai wo (meaning Nest of Being by Oneself, but also Nest of Freedom, as well as Comfortable Nest...). Since then, his main activities were teaching, writing, and building or restoring a large number of temples and shrines on the mountain. Liu Yiming's best-known works consist of commentaries on major Neidan texts, such as the Cantong qi (The Seal of the Unity of the Three) and the Wuzhen pian (Awakening to Reality); independent works on Neidan, both in prose and poetry; and commentaries on the Book of Changes. In addition, he wrote works still virtually unknown to Western readers, including a commentary to the Daode jing (Book of the Way and Its Virtue) and one to the Buddhist Heart Sutra.

Liu Yiming - Liu Yiming's own room
Fig. 3. Liu Yiming's
own room
Mount Qiyun is located near Yuzhong (present-day Gansu province). After one crosses the gate that formally marks the entrance to the mountain (fig. 1), it takes almost one hour to climb the steps that lead to Liu Yiming's residence. A recently-built shrine devoted to Liu Yiming is found near the foot of the mountain. Continuing the climb, one at last reaches the Zizai wo. Arranged into three levels, the residence is built around a natural cave and for this reason it is still remarkably well preserved. Most other temples and shrines on the mountain, instead, have been destroyed during the past century due to political turmoils, although a few new sites have been built in the meantime.

Liu Yiming - Ceiling of Liu Yiming's own room
Fig. 4. The ceiling
The lower and main level of the Zizai wo is a shrine (fig. 2). The front wall is now covered by several wallboards containing Liu Yiming's life chronology, photographs of earlier Taoist masters, and other materials. On the left side is found Liu Yiming's own room, which is built directly inside the cave (fig. 3). The ceiling of the room, instead, is covered by tiles that form a octagonal shape, to represent the eight trigrams of the Book of Changes and their center (fig. 4). The terrace facing the shrine offers a spectacular view of the mountain.

Liu Yiming - Second level of the Zizai wo
Fig. 5. Second level
of the Zizai wo
The second, intermediate level of the Zizai wo is where Liu Yiming wrote his books and prepared medicines. Although he was a Neidan master, he was often visited by people who knew him for his medical skills. In the first part of his life, his peregrinations led him to study medicine in Henan from around 1762 to 1765, and later he wrote four little-known works on ophthalmology. Healing was only one of Liu Yiming's charitable activities. His biographies mention that he bought farming land on the mountain, which he then leased in order to fund restoration or construction of temples and shrines. He also bought land to be used as burial ground by those who could not afford buying a tomb. Part of the terrace at the second level of the Zizai wo is now occupied by a simple but effective solar-energy device used for boiling water (fig. 5).

Liu Yiming - Third level of the Zizai wo
Fig. 6. Third level
of the Zizai wo
The upper level of Liu Yiming's residence is the Cangjing dong (Cave for Storing the Scriptures, fig. 6); here Liu Yiming kept his books. None of them is found in this room: the former "library" now contains an altar devoted to Liu Yiming. Considering the breadth of subjects covered in his works, nevertheless, it is easy to imagine that the Cangjing dong hosted texts on Taoism, Neidan, Confucianism, Buddhism, as well as medical books.

Liu Yiming - Master Zhang Xincheng
Fig. 7. Master Zhang Xincheng
Master Zhang Xincheng 張信誠 (fig. 7) takes care of Liu Yiming's residence. He is a 25th-generation master of Longmen (Dragon's Gate), the lineage to which Liu Yiming also belonged. This lineage claims direct descent from Qiu Chuji (1148-1227), one of the disciples of Wang Chongyang, the founder of Quanzhen Taoism. Longmen became formally acknowledged in the 17th century, and since then has been the main Taoist lineage in northern China.

We are grateful to Master Zhang for allowing us to visit the Zizai wo, for answering our questions on Liu Yiming and Neidan, and for offering us a delicious tea.

Text and pictures by Fabrizio Pregadio and Song Xiaokun 宋晓堃. — See also a Facebook album on the Zizai wo.


  1. Thanks for the post and the pictures.

    "In addition, he wrote works still virtually unknown to Western readers, including a commentary to the Daode jing (Book of the Way and Its Virtue) and one to the Buddhist Heart Sutra."

    Have perhaps these commentaries been published?


    1. The two commentaries have not been published. There are PDF reproductions in this website: http://www.byscrj.cn/jmm (search for "Liu Yiming" in Chinese characters). On the other hand, Song Yongle 孙永乐 has published in 2011 a book entitled "Qiyun biji" 栖云笔记, containing previously unknown or little-known works by and about Liu Yiming.

    2. Sorry, that's Sun Yongle 孙永乐, not "Song Yongle".

  2. Hey fabrizio, this post just brings limitless joy to my heart. I have read a lot of Liu yiming's text and this visit of your inspires me to go there and live there lol. I have a question though I was wondering whether this place is tourist destination or a place of worship and learning? I would really go there and stay there learn the text and learn from the master living there. This post paints a very good picture of the ancient lineage of the long men patriarchs. I would really love to go there so is there any chance I can get more info on your journey fabrizio on how to get to this place and whether one could stay there to learn and be a part of this temple? Will look forward to your reply. Cheers


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