Ge Hong (Wade-Giles: Ko Hung; 284 – 364 C.E.), also known as Zhichuan, was a prolific Chinese writer and political official during the Jìn Dynasty (263–420 C.E.), best known for his writings on Daoism, alchemy, and techniques of longevity. These religious and esoteric writings represent only a portion of his considerable literary output, which, as a whole, spans a broad range of content and genres. Although most of Ge Hong's early works are lost, modern scholars have recognized his influence on later writers, such as the Tang Dynasty (618–906 C.E.) poet Li Bai (701–762), who was inspired by his predecessor's images of transcendence and reclusion. Despite the thematic and artistic significance of his work, it was never enshrined in one of the famous collections of essays and poetry, such as the Wenxuan (Selections of Refined Literature).
Ge Hong’s writing reflects the complex intellectual landscape of the Jin period, and should be considered essential reading for anyone seeking to understand early medieval Chinese religion, culture, and society. Recent scholarly and popular translations of Ge Hong’s writing into English have ensured his inclusion in the swelling tide of enthusiasm for esoteric and religious Daoism in the West.
Ge Hong’s efforts to understand Daoism and Confucianism are relevant to thinking today about how to establish a just and stable social order. Although he considered following the dao superior to the rules of social conduct (li) associated with the Confucian tradition, he viewed each as appropriate within its proper sphere. According to his paradigm, which he drew from earlier sources, when the sage kings followed the dao, society was well ordered, and the natural world proceeded without calamities. As the dao declined, the ethical prescriptions of the ru (Confucianism) arose to remedy the resulting social ills and natural disasters. Thus, in his view, Daoism and Confucianism both possess an ethical and political dimension by bringing order to the human and natural world. However, because most people have difficulty following or understanding the dao, Confucianism (along with a healthy dose of legalism) is necessary to enact social order.
Biographical sources for Ge Hong are varied, but almost all of them are based either in whole or in part upon his autobiographical Postface to the Outer Chapters. Though this postface makes some dubious statements about his lineage's emergence from a long-defunct royal family (in keeping with Chinese autobiographical convention), there is no reason to dismiss Ge Hong's depiction of his family's more recent history.
According to this source, Ge Hong’s family resided in the south for generations, and occupied official positions in the kingdom of Wu (220–280 C.E.), which ruled southeastern China after the final dissolution of the Han Dynasty in the early third century. Ge Hong's grandfather, Ge Xi, was an erudite scholar who governed several counties in modern Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. He eventually rose to the rank of junior mentor to the crown prince of Wu, and occupied numerous posts within the central administration.
Ge Hong describes his father, Ge Ti (d. 295 C.E.), in similarly laudatory terms. Ge Ti served in various civil and military positions, and was eventually appointed governor of Kuaiji prefecture. Around the time of this appointment, the Jin dynasty, which had already succeeded in unifying northern China around 265 C.E., successfully invaded the state of Wu in 280 C.E.
The Ge family's fortunes changed with the Jin victory. Because the Jin administration attempted to check the power of the southern gentry by giving them positions of little authority, Ge Ti initially lost both prestige and power under the new government, which appointed him to various minor posts. However, Ge Ti’s administrative skills were eventually rewarded with a promotion, and he died while in office, serving as the governor of Shaoling (modern Hunan) province.
Ge Hong, the youngest of Ge Ti's three sons, was born in 283 C.E. in Jurong, just three years after the Jin conquest of Wu. He was only 12 years old when his father died, an incident that inflicted social and financial hardship on his family. In his Postface, Ge Hong describes how he had paid for his education through a meager income earned chopping firewood. However, modern scholars now assume that his claims of extreme poverty are exaggerated. They compellingly observe that such a distinguished family, with their long and prestigious record of government service, would not have declined so quickly into economic ruin.
Regardless, this period of Ge Hong's life, as described in his biography in the Jin shu (History of the Jin Dynasty), also saw the beginning of commitment to scholarship. It was at this time that he began to study the canon of texts generally associated with the ru jia (Confucianism). Ge Hong states that he began to read classics such as the Shi jing (Book of Odes) at 15 without the benefit of a tutor, and could recite from memory those books he studied and grasp their essential meaning. His extensive reading is described as approaching "ten thousand chapters," a number evidently meant to suggest the dizzying scope of his education.
In reality, his formal education probably began much earlier, as elsewhere in his autobiographical postface, Ge Hong states that he had already begun to write poetry, rhapsodies, and other miscellaneous writings by the age of 14 or 15 (c. 298), all of which he later destroyed. His statements regarding early poverty and belated studies convey the sense that his education was largely the product of his own acumen and determination rather than his privileged social status. Claims that he started his education as late as fifteen may also be an oblique literary reference to Confucius’ own statement in the Lunyu (Analects) 2.4 that, "At fifteen, I set my heart on learning."
Around this time, Ge Hong entered into the tutelage of Zheng Yin, an accomplished classical scholar who had turned to esoteric studies later in life. According to his lengthy and colorful description of his teacher, Zheng Yin was over 80 years old but still remarkably healthy. He was a master of the so-called "Five Classics" who continued to teach the Li ji (Book of Rites) and the Shu (Documents). Zheng Yin was also a teacher of the esoteric arts of longevity, divination, and astrology, and was also an accomplished musician. Zheng Yin’s instruction in the esoteric arts emphasized the manufacture of the "golden elixir" or jin dan, which he considered the only truly achievable means of achieving transcendence. His influence is reflected in portions of Ge Hong’s writings that endorse alchemy, but are critical of dietary regimens, herbs, and other popular methods of longevity.
Regardless of this esoteric focus, it is notable that Ge Hong's Baopuzi abounds in references to canonical texts, implying that he likely received a well rounded, if untraditional, education from Zheng Yin.
Around 302 C.E., Ge Hong's mentor Zheng Yin moved to Mount Huo in modern Fujian province to live in seclusion with a few select disciples. Ge Hong did not accompany him, and, in the following year, at the age of 20, Ge Hong began his official career by serving in the military, swept up in a tide of rebellion and warfare. He was appointed to the position of defender commandant and raised a militia of several hundred to fight Shi Bing, who sought to overthrow the Western Jin. Ge Hong’s autobiographical postface is unusually forthcoming in its depictions of his battlefield heroics and abilities as a commander. Such accounts of his bravery are made all the more startling by his insistence elsewhere that, in his youth, he was so weak that he could not even draw a bow. Such self-deprecating physical descriptions are probably best seen in the same light as his claims of early poverty. Based on his service record, it is more likely that Ge Hong received military training in his youth, and was skilled in both the use of arms and strategy.
After Shi Bing’s force was destroyed, Ge Hong was discharged with the honorary title "General Who Makes the Waves Submit." Around 306, he entered into the service of Ji Han (c. 262–306), a relative of the poet and essayist, Ji Kang. At the time, Ji Han was fighting several rebel groups in the south, and had just been appointed regional inspector of Guangzhou. Ge Hong states that he saw employment with Ji Han as a means to move south, and escape political and social chaos. It may also be that the two shared a bond of friendship, based on mutual interests and literary aspirations. Like Ge Hong, Ji Han was a military official that also excelled in literature and dabbled in esoteric studies, having written at least two treatises on alchemical subjects ("The Rhapsody on Cold Victual Powder" and the "Description of Herbs and Plants of the Southern Region").
Unfortunately, Hong’s term of employment with Ji Han was extremely brief, for his new superior was killed while en route to his new position in Guangzhou. Ge Hong, who had traveled ahead of his new employer, was left in the south with neither job nor political patron, precipitating an abrupt and unexpected end to his early official career.
Rather than return north, Ge Hong refused other honors and remained in the south, living as a recluse on Mount Luofu for the next eight years before returning to his native Jurong around 314. The decision meant that he avoided much of the political upheaval that ravaged the Jin state, as various contenders for the throne pillaged Luoyang over the next several years.
It was probably during this time on Mt. Luofu that Ge Hong began his friendship with Bao Jing (260–327 C.E.). According to the biographies of both Bao Jing and Ge Hong, Bao Jing was an adept in a wide variety of esoteric studies, including medicine, and transmitted his techniques and knowledge to Hong. Likewise, Bao Jing "valued Ge [Hong] very much, and married a daughter to him." Evidence for the precise timing of their initial meeting is largely circumstantial. Around 312, Bao Jing was appointed governor of Nanhai prefecture, not far from Mt. Luofu. Some sources suggest that Bao Jing often traveled to Mt. Luofu to study esoteric arts, during which time he would have met Ge Hong. While such accounts may be apocryphal, timing and proximity raise the possibility that the two men began their friendship while Ge Hong lived in the far south.
This bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbperiod appears to have been a time of great literary productivity for Ge Hong. In addition to a remarkable body of writing that is now sadly lost, he also composed those extant works for which he is known today, the Baopuzi and the Shenxian zhuan.
In 314, shortly after emerging from reclusion and returning to his family home in Jurong, Ge Hong received an appointment as clerk to the Prince of Langya (Sima Rui, 276–322), who served as prime minister from 313 until 316. Sima Rui used this position, which was for the most part an honorary appointment, to woo talented officials and bring them into the fold of his administration. He appointed over one hundred people in this way, with these appointments a likely indication of his growing political power. In 317, after the collapse of the Western Jin, Sima Rui stepped into the resultant power vacuum, moving the Jin court south to Jiankang (near present day Nanjing) and taking the title "King of Jin" as a preliminary step towards claiming the mantle of emperor.
The refugee court in Jiankang was eager to solidify its position among the southern gentry families upon whom it now depended for its survival, granting numerous official appointments and honorary titles. Ge Hong, for example, was recognized for his previous military service with the honorary title of "Marquis of the Region Within the Pass" and awarded an income of two hundred households. These ingratiating ploys evidently succeeded, as in 318 Sima Rui was able to proclaim himself Emperor Yuan (reigned 318-323), becoming the first ruler of the Eastern Jin (317-420). Under this new dynasty, Ge Hong was summoned to fill a variety of appointments, including recorder of Yangzhou, secretary to the minister of education, and administrative advisor to the minister of defense.
The fact that Ge Hong’s official biography and his autobiographical writing do not mention any actual duties performed in these positions suggests that the appointments may have been honorary to some degree. It is also possible that he omitted mention of these positions in order to preserve the veil of eremitism that colors his autobiographical account. Fortuitously, Wang Dao, his bureaucratic superior, seems to have been a collector of famous recluse’s biographies, perhaps out of a desire to project an image of virtuous authority. Thus, in addition to his past services on behalf of the Jin court, Ge Hong’s self-consciously crafted eremitic image may have contributed to his success within Wang Dao’s administration.
During his tenure with the Eastern Jin bureaucracy, Ge Hong also came to the attention of the historian, Gan Bao, who recognized his literary acumen and offered him several positions on his staff. Specifically, he recommended Ge Hong for either the office of senior recorder, a position within the Bureau of Scribes (shi guan), or the office of editorial director, which would have involved Ge Hong writing state-sanctioned historiography. These recommendations may have come about as a result of Gan Bao’s charge to introduce talented men to high office, as well as a mutual admiration between two decidedly eclectic scholars.
According to his official biography, Ge Hong refused these positions on Gan Bao’s staff. However, as with many details of his official life, it is difficult to separate fact from literary persona. The bibliographic treatise of the Sui shu (History of the Sui Dynasty) contains an entry for a now-lost work entitled Hanshu chao (Notes on the History of the Former Han) by a senior recorder named Hong. Likewise, authorship of the Xijing zazhi (Miscellanies of the Western Capital)—a collection of historical anecdotes that probably originated in the Han period—was long ascribed to Ge Hong. As a result, it appears that Ge Hong possessed some reputation for historical writing during his own lifetime. Consequently, the possibility that he accepted an appointment on Gan Bao’s staff is not entirely out of the question.
Two events during the final period of Ge Hong’s public life may have contributed to his eventual decision to relocate once again to the far south. The first was the political instability highlighted by Su Jun’s rebellion (328 C.E.), which exposed the fragility of political life under the Eastern Jin regime. The second was the death of Ge Hong's much-admired contemporary, Guo Wen, in the same year. This event likely impressed upon him the fleeting nature of life in uncertain times, which became a recurring theme in his surviving writings.
At this time, Ge Hong's ultimate goal changed, as he decided to follow the tradition of cultural icons and seekers of immortality (such as Chi Songzi, “Master Red Pine”) by living in seclusion and concocting elixirs of transcendence, a rededication that is attested to in several passages of the Baopuzi. Although retirement for the purpose of pursuing transcendence was both a popular literary trope and a widely-used avenue of political retreat, works such as the "Inner Chapters" of the Baopuzi and the Shenxian zhuan demonstrate that Ge Hong was relatively sincere in this desire. According to his official biography, at the age of 49 (331 C.E.) he requested an appointment on the periphery of the Jin state as district magistrate of Julou (modern-day Vietnam), an area that was purported to possess the raw materials required for elixirs of immortality. When the emperor finally assented to his request, Ge Hong departed for the south with his sons and nephews.
His party never reached their destination. In Guangzhou, a career military official named Deng Yue—who had become regional inspector of Guangzhou the year before (330 C.E.)—detained him indefinitely. The reason for Deng Yue’s interest in Ge Hong is unclear, though he may have been reluctant to allow an honored member of the gentry to pass beyond the limits of Jin state or, conversely, may simply have been attracted to Ge Hong’s experience in civil and military matters and desired his services. Sources are inconclusive, stating only that Ge Hong was not allowed to continue south, and that he settled once again on Mt. Luofu.
His residence on Mt. Luofu marks the end of his public career. All sources indicate that he refused all requests to further government service, instead devoting his remaining years to scholarship, writing, and pursuing elixirs of transcendence.
The nature of Ge Hong’s literary activity during this period is unknown. Making such a determination is rendered especially difficult due to the large percentage of his output that has since been lost. However, it is reasonable to assume that he continued to be a prolific author even in retirement. The Tianwen zhi (Treatise on Astronomy) in the Jinshu reports that around the year 342, a certain Yu Xi from Kuaiji authored a work called Antian lun (Discussion on Complying with Heaven), which Ge Hong supposedly criticized. No other information is available regarding Ge Hong’s disagreement with the contents of this work, but the anecdote suggests that he was not living in an intellectual vacuum, despite his retirement from official life.
In 343 Ge Hong died on Mt. Luofu, but the account of his passing (as found in his official biography) is more hagiographical than historical. Supposedly, he sent a letter to Deng Yue, hinting at his approaching end. Deng Yue rushed to Ge Hong’s home, but found him already dead. Strangely, his body was light and supple, as if alive, and his contemporaries all supposed that he had finally achieved transcendence with the technique of shi jie, sometimes translated as "corpse liberation." Also, his biography follows hagiographic tradition by claiming that he was 81 when he died, an important number in Daoist numerology. However, there is little doubt among modern scholars that this tradition is ahistorical and that Ge Hong actually died at the age of 60.
The fact that this biographical anecdote adopts the tone of religious hagiography suggests that Ge Hong was primarily seen in terms of his esoteric studies as early as the Tang period. However, he also possessed a legacy as a capable official who had the courage to serve in office during uncertain times. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 C.E.), the scholar Zhao Daoyi lauded Ge Hong for "disregarding favor, but not forgetting his body." Also, Zhao Daoyi admired him for continuing to occupy official positions during a period when scholars "hid away and did not return."
A temple dedicated to Ge Hong stands in the hills north of West Lake (Xihu) in Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province). According the monks and nuns who live at the temple, it was on this site that Ge Hong wrote Baopuzi and eventually attained transcendence. Still possessing de, he supposedly continues to answer prayers from Daoist worshippers who possess healthy minds and bodies. An additional location (further south, near Ningbo), also claims to be the site of Ge Hong’s transcendence. Visitors to this eco-tourist destination are rewarded with an exceptional hike through a narrow gorge of remarkable natural beauty.
These multifaceted evaluations and claims, together with conflicting historical sources, reflect the complexity of Ge Hong’s legacy as a figure of continued religious, historical, and literary importance.
Despite Ge Hong's prolific literary accomplishments in a variety of styles, the bulk of his output, which included rhapsodies (fu), verse (shi), biographies, and historical commentary, has been lost. His surviving works consist of:
In the Neipian (Inner Chapters) volume of the Baopuzi, Ge Hong vigorously defends the attainability of divine transcendence or "immortality" through alchemy. The Waipian (Outer Chapters) volume, on the other hand, is almost entirely devoted to social and literary criticism.
Recently, the richness of Ge Hong’s work has inspired many different avenues of academic research and popular interest. Not surprisingly, most studies of his writings, both in Chinese and in English, focus on his contributions to Daoist esoterica, such as the "Inner Chapters" of the Baopuzi and Shenxian zhuan. Recent surveys of Chinese intellectual history have also emphasized his importance in the development of natural science in China, as his detailed descriptions of alchemical processes can be seen as antecedents of modern chemistry. Although the significance of Hong’s alchemical and religious writing is widely acknowledged, little energy has been invested in his "Outer Chapters," despite their considerable length and complexity. Beyond the incomplete translation and analysis performed by Jay Sailey, other serious work on the "Outer Chapters" is haphazardly scattered throughout general studies of literary criticism, political theory, and social history.
Ge Hong states that the Baopuzi, taken as a whole, constitutes his attempt to establish a single school (yi jia) of thought. The division of the Baopuzi into "Inner" and "Outer Chapters" speaks to his interest in both esoteric studies and social philosophy. According to his own account, Ge Hong wrote the "Inner Chapters" to argue for the reality and attainability of divine transcendence, while the "Outer Chapters" blend Confucian and Legalist rhetoric to propose solutions for the social and political problems of his era. For a long time, the two parts of the text circulated independently, and were almost always categorized under different headings in officially sanctioned bibliographies.
The two volumes of the Baopuzi differ in style, as well as in content. Both adopt the convention of a fictional, hostile interlocutor who poses questions to the author and challenges his claims, although the "Inner Chapters" employs this style to a more significant degree. His thesis in the "Inner Chapters" is extremely focused, pursuing a single argument with great discipline and rigor. In contrast, the "Outer Chapters" is more diffused, addressing a variety of issues ranging from eremitism and literature, to the proper employment of punishments and a pointed criticism of the then-current process of political promotion. The style of the "Outer Chapters" is very dense, reflecting the richness of the Chinese literary tradition through frequent literary and historical allusions, and makes use of a diction that at times recalls the most obscure rhyme-prose of the Han era.
As a single work of philosophy, the two sections taken together reflect Ge Hong’s desire to understand dao and ru, or Daoism and Confucianism, in terms of one another. In his terms, dao is the "root" and ru is the "branch." However, although he considered following the dao superior to the rules of social conduct (li) associated with the Confucian tradition, he viewed each as appropriate within its proper sphere. According to his paradigm, which he drew from pre-Qin and Han sources, when the sage kings followed the dao, society was well ordered, and the natural world proceeded without calamities. As the dao declined, the ethical prescriptions of the ru arose to remedy the resulting social ills and natural disasters. Thus, in his view, Daoism and Confucianism both possess an ethical and political dimension by bringing order to the human and natural world. However, because most people have difficulty following or understanding the dao, Confucianism (along with a healthy dose of legalism) is necessary to enact social order.
On an individual level, Ge Hong considered moral and ethical cultivation of the so-called Confucian virtues to be the basis of divine transcendence. His philosophy does not advocate a rejection of the material world on either an individual or a social level (as evidenced by the worldly, political critiques in the "Outer Chapters"). Seekers of longevity must first rectify and bring order to their own persons before seeking loftier ambitions. In his own life, Ge Hong appears to have made some effort to embody this ideal, as his quest for the elixir of immortality did not subordinate his call to political office.
In the Baopuzi, Ge Hong places a high value on literature, regarding writing as an act of social and political significance that is equivalent to virtuous action. At one point, he explicitly states, "the relationship between writings and virtuous actions is [like that of two different names for one thing]." This sentiment reflects a trend, begun during the later Han, which saw literature as an increasingly significant tool with which an individual could manifest a moral force in the world. In times of political uncertainty, when ambitious literati faced real dangers and obstacles to social or political advancement, this view of literature took on added significance.
The idea that writing was a fundamentally moral act may have contributed to Ge Hong’s high opinion of the literature of his era. Unlike the classical scholars of the later Han period, who revered the writers of antiquity with an almost fanatical reverence, Ge Hong regarded the works of his contemporaries (and by extension his own) as equal to, if not greater than, the writers of the past: "Simply because a book does not come from the sages [of the past], we should not disregard words within it that help us to teach the Dao." He concedes that the proliferation of writing in his own time had led to many works of poor quality; in particular, he criticizes contrived and overly ornamental prose that obscures the intentions of the author. However, he rejects the idea that established tradition (or textual antiquity) speaks to the quality, utility, or virtue of any literary work.
As with any received text, Ge Hong's Baopuzi and Shenxian zhuan have been intensely scrutinized, in an attempt to chart their respective sources and later accretions. For example, modern scholars (notably Chen Feilong) have speculated, based on close textual study, that Ge Hong revised or rewrote the alchemical section of the Baopuzi after his final retirement in 331, and that the "Inner Chapters" mentioned in his biography might be an altogether different edition of the work that exists today by that title. This notion, whether or not it is correct, points more generally to the difficulties of working in a textual tradition that is rich in editorial revision and forgery. Robert Campany’s (2002) painstaking attempt to reconstruct the Shenxian zhuan illustrates many of the problems confronting modern scholars of Ge Hong and other early medieval Chinese texts. According to Campany, the Shenxian zhuan, as it now exists, is riddled with amendments, errors, and later additions. None of the current editions, collected within various encyclopedia of early texts, can be said to be the Shenxian zhuan as it was written by Ge Hong. Campany’s study suggests that the many problems of authorship and editorial corruption in Ge Hong’s surviving work remain to be solved.
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