Celestial Immortals

Zhi Xian Tang or the Celestial Immortals formula has an intriguing name and I am often asked who these immortals are and, why is the formula named for them.

Two of the main ingredients in this formula have xian (immortal) in their names: Curculigo (xian mao) and Epimedium (xian ling pi), explaining, most simply, how the formula got its title. Other formulas are named in a similar way, such as Er Dong tang, comprised of Ophiopogon (mai men dong) and Asparagus (tian men dong). But, in that case, the name is not quite as interesting: dong (winter) was used in the name for Ophiopogon because the plant can be used through the winter and was used in the name for asparagus because of similarities in its uses to that of Ophiopogon. In the case of Curculigo and Epimedium, the common term xian (immortal) applies to an interesting and important part of Chinese culture.

Xian mao was named in the book Ben cao gang mu (Li Shizhen; 1596) as one of the herbs believed to contribute to immortality. This property was described as ‘making the body lighter’ when taken over a period of time. Xian ling pi alludes to the immortals’ intelligent nature (pi refers to the spleen, which is, according to the Chinese, a source of wisdom); this name appears to have been a popular designation for the herb that was originally called yin yang huo (which describes it as a sexual tonic).

The Daoists who undertook the effort to become immortals were thought to become lighter and lighter, through meditation, cultivation and herbal medicines, until they could float up into the clouds. The Chinese character for xian (immortal) is the combination of man and mountain referring to those mountain dwelling Daoists.
Around 400 BCE, a poem about attaining immortality, the ode Yuan Yu (Roaming the Universe) was written. It depicts the transition to immortality thus:

Having heard the precious teachings, I departed
And swiftly prepared for my journey.
I met the feathered ones at Cinnabar Hill
I lingered in the Land of Immortality.
In the morning, I washed my hair
In the Hot Springs of Sunrise.
In the evening, I dried myself where the suns perch
and sipped the subtle tonic of the Flying Springs,
I held in my bosom the radiant jade.
My pallid countenance flushed with brilliant color,
Purified, my essence began to grow stronger;
My corporeal being dissolved to soft suppleness,
And my spirit grew lithe and ready for movement.

The writer then describes clinging to a cloud and riding it aloft, to “the very spheres of the storied heavens” where he entered the court of the Supreme Ruler (Heavenly Emperor), and entered the precincts of the Great Beginning. The various stops along the way, at Cinnabar Hill, Land of Immortality, Hot Springs of Sunrise, etc., are the meditative goals in his efforts at cultivating his qi and jing. The tonic of the Flying Springs is his alchemical herbal potion of immortality. Jade was his amulet of spiritual freedom. First among immortality tonic stones is Yu Xue or jade dust whose attributes are to limber the sinews, strengthen the bones quiet the ethereal and corporeal soul, boosts the qi and combined with the appropriate practices helps one to become ‘a non aging immortal’. Though he began pallid, his complexion became radiant, and his jing (essence) was supplemented. Then his physical weight dropped away, allowing his spirit to roam free. The removal of corporeal weight is one of the signs that immortality is at hand and is mentioned frequently in the Shen nong ben cao jing as a property of certain herbs. Epimedium, listed in that text, was not included among the herbs that caused the body to become light, but it apparently gained a reputation as valuable for the immortals at some later date. Even in the ancient text, it was noted the Epimedium boosts the qi and strengthens the will, important contributors to the path to immortality.

Stories of the immortals date back to at least 4000 BCE and have continued through to the 21th century though their halcyon days were during the period from the Han Dynasty up to the first part of the Tang Dynasty. The early Chinese Emperors were quite interested in gaining immortality; but tending to lack the discipline to pursue the Daoist mental and physical exercises, they supported the study and development of tonics that they could take.

The term xian, with the meaning of an immortal, appears in several other herb names, aside from xian mao and xiang ling pi, including

Xian He Cao: Agrimony (hemostatic)

Xian Mao Shen: Scorzonera (qi tonic)

Xian Ren Zhang: Opuntia (vitalize blood)

Jiu Xian Cao: Thesium (clear heat purge fire)

Tian Xian Teng: Aristolochia (vitalize blood)

These herbs have varying uses and their linkage to immortality tonics, if any, is unclear. Dozens of herbs that had names established prior to their use in attaining immortality or named by other methods to designate their origins have been used in alchemical tonics. So, this designation is not necessarily the only indication of the importance of the herb in relation to this rarified use by the Daoists.

The term xian also appears in some names of well-known formulas, such as Xian Fang Hou Ming Yin (Immortal’s Formula for Preserving Life; Angelica and Mastic Combination), which is not an immortality formula per se, but one that was said to have been relayed by the immortals. Indeed, there are numerous stories of herbs and formulas being handed down from or influenced by mystical sources. For example, Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan was said to come from the Heavenly Emperor (Tian Wang) and Si Shen Wan, often translated as Four Immortals Pill, makes reference to the intervention of divine spirits to yield a miraculous recovery. So, the formula Zhi Xian tang takes part in this ancient tradition of connecting to China’s spiritual and mythic icons.

Zhi Xian tang imbeds the formula Er Zhi Tang Ligustrum plus Eclipta, a formula for yin deficiency. The pair of herbs, Ligustrum and Eclipta, can be used as a standalone formula, but more commonly they are incorporated into somewhat larger prescriptions like Zhi Xian tang. The formula name, Er Zhi Tang might be better translated as Two Solstices Pill and refers to when the herbs are customarily collected. Each of the herbs is picked near the time of the solstice, the ultimate manifestation (zhi) of the annual cycle of yin and yang. Specifically, Ligustrum is picked at the winter solstice (ultimate yin, the end of winter, before the weather warms) when its fruits are ripe, while eclipta is picked at the summer solstice (ultimate yang, at the end of summer, before the weather cools) while still in flower.
These and other herbs that are picked or processed at particular phases of the sun and moon or under the auspices of other celestial phenomena are part of the great legacy of Daoist medicine. These practices, along with Lunar Tidal Balance Acupuncture are part of the continued application of Daoist medicine in the 21st century.

Yours in good health,
Robert Kienitz, DTCM