An introduction to the history of sacred sexuality in the ancient Chinese and Taoist tradition.
This article is based on a presentation I made at the Sacred Sexuality Summit in Melbourne in 2017. The video of this talk can be viewed here. Part 1 is a brief outline of the history of sacred sexuality in China from ancient times to the late medieval period.
Taoism was a philosophy that had its roots in the world of ancient China before the unification under the Qin Emperor in 221 BCE. It wasn’t until the 2nd Century CE (four centuries later) that it became a religion with many branches and schools of thought and practice. It contributed to the development of medicine, mediation, and martial arts over the span of the ensuing two millennia.
One field that is not known or discussed much are the sacred sexual practices, similar in essence to those found in the tantric traditions of India and the Himalaya.
The purpose of this article is to introduce you to the history of these practices; the second part to this article will offer the practices of Taoist sexual alchemy as an inclusive model for sacred sexuality. In that story I will explain how this is a framework for combining sexuality, sacredness, and good health/wellbeing.
In 1972 excavations of three tombs in Mawangdui (Changsha) began. Notable of these was the third tomb which was sealed in ~168 BCE. It contained a number of silk scrolls containing texts on a number of topics including health, medicine, herbal prescriptions, versions of the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching, as well as a number of Sex Manuals (referred to as “bedroom texts”).
One of these texts — called the Ten Questions — concerns itself with what to do to live a long and healthy life. I have summarised the contents of that text in an article I previously wrote for LivingNow Magazine. One of the keys to longevity mentioned in this text is to “engage in plenty of sexual intercourse” (Cleary 1999: 5). For the ancient Chinese, longevity was a pragmatic concern; living as long as possible was only possible if you were as healthy as possible.
The Mawangdui sex manuals provided details on how sexual intercourse would lead to long and healthy life. In one such text it states:
No human energy is more essential than sexual energy. When sexual energy is stifled, the hundred channels become ill… Longevity is all a matter of sexual energy.(Cleary 1999: 12)
In this same section, the writer explains the stretches and calisthenics that complement intercourse and assist in the energetic alchemy of sexuality:
The preservation of sexual energy goes along with its development. Therefore masters of the Way discovered exercises such as extending the hands downward, massaging the arms, and rubbing the belly to follow yin-yang.(Cleary 1999: 12)
Sex for health
A lack of sexual practice was linked with chronic illness, thus linking sexuality to wellbeing, and describing it as having a therapeutic benefit:
Those who suffer from chronic ailments invariably have leakage of sexual vitality, congestion of energy channels, and emotional instability. They do not understand the Great Way, so living energy leaves them.(Cleary 1999: 12)
China at this time was a highly patriarchal culture, and in some eras brutally so. It’s clear that these manuals were written for men, so the practices described in these texts are very useful in the field of Men’s Health and Andrology. It forms the basis for the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach to improving sperm quality/quantity and other Men’s Health issues, such as prostatitis, low testosterone and libido, and male depression. The reason for this is given below, and the concept is introduced in the 3rd Question:
The way to extend life involves watching over the closing off of the flow of semen.(Cleary 1999: 6)
Pleasuring the woman
However this work was not just for men. It was made clear that how good a lover a man is, is good for a woman’s experience of sexual pleasure also. These early texts were rife with instructions on how the man should treat the woman in these instances:
The way to embrace a woman requires peaceful serenity of heart, so the body and the mood calm one another.(Cleary 1999: 6)
Another text found in the same tomb was titled Joining Yīn & Yàng, it provides very clear instructions for how the man should please the woman.
Hold hands, and begin stroking from the wrists, following the arms up to the armpits, then up to the shoulders and to the neck area. Stroke around the neck, then down the hollow of the collarbone, over the nipples, across the belly, and up to the ribs. Reaching the vulva, massage the clitoris. Suck in energy to vitalise the spirit, and you can see forever and survive as long as the universe.
The clitoris is the vessel of intercourse… stroke it from below upward, causing the whole body to be pleasurably excited and the feelings to be joyfully delighted. Even though you want to, do not perform the act yet; hug and kiss, to loosen up and have fun.(Cleary 1999: 25)
Meanwhile, the instructions given in another text titled Talk On Supreme Guidance For The World describe such things as foreplay being mutually satisfactory, gliding in and out gently and with control, withdraw while still having an erection, and not having intercourse if she is experiencing pain.
Doing it breathlessly and inwardly out of control is called emotional disturbance. Forcing it when there is no desire causes alienation. Doing it too fast means waste.(Cleary 1999: 44)
Vitality, Essence, & Energy
If the man could with-hold from ejaculation long enough to allow the woman to orgasm, then both parties would preserve 精 Jīng (Essence or Vitality), and their 氣 Qì (Energy or Life-force) would flow freely.
The act of sex was considered to cultivate and preserve this sexual/generative energy, which was considered the Vitality that, when preserved, led to longevity. In later centuries, it was considered the answer to immortality.
Sex combined with Qigong (a kind of yoga) would free the flow of 氣 Qì through the channels which criss-cross the body, thus maintaining flow of bio-chemical and neurological substances and information throughout the physiology.
The beginnings of Taoism as a religion is in the revolutionary Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion against the Han Dynasty in 184 CE. Establishing an independent theocratic state in southern China (Sichuan), they evolved the ancient teachings of Lǎo Zǐ, Zhuāng Zǐ and other proto-Taoist teachings from the Late Zhou/Early Han period into a formal religious practice, building temples and effigies which influenced how Taoism was expressed and practiced from this point on, and was known as the 天師道 Tiānshī Dào, the “Celestial Masters” school.
Whilst some sources claim it was not part of the Celestial Masters school (Bokencamp 1999: 84), it is known that some Taoist sects at this time introduced ritualised communal sexual practices called 閤氣 Hé Qì, “combining energies” under the direction of a senior healer/teacher. Celestial Masters Taoism was a revolutionary movement, challenging the Confucian aristocratic hegemony of four centuries of Han rule; Cleary (2003a: 4‒5) claims this practice cut across long-established class lines, and served as a social and psychological disruption to notions of paternity and possessiveness, with men and women from different socio-economic strata being brought together under the auspices of a ‘sacred union’.
The Middle Ages in China spanned the 10th‒17th centuries CE, across the Sòng (960‒1279 CE) and Míng (1368‒1644 CE) Dynasties.
During these centuries, Taoism evolved no different to every other aspect of Chinese culture over 1000+ years. As well as having developed a religious, ritual-focussed aspect, the original philosophy had also evolved and changed, adopting elements of Confucian Virtue ethics and Buddhist notions of consciousness and compassion. Various schools formed around prominent sages and their teachings, all with subtle differences in theory and praxis.
Supported by rulers and the aristocracy who sought immortality, Taoist alchemists were employed to find the medicines that would help one live forever. It was these endeavours that led to the complexity of Chinese Herbal Medicine (Unschuld 1985: 111‒116). Eventually however, the Alchemists soon found that some of the substances they were preparing were toxic and leading to the opposite effect of living forever. So many began to consider applying the principles of alchemy into the practices of meditation and mindfulness, thus developing the practices of Internal Alchemy — 內丹 nèidān.
One such sect was 全真道 Quán Zhēn Dào, the “Complete Reality” school, which emerged during the Jìn Dynasty (1115‒1234 CE) and inspired by the earlier work of Zhāng Bóduān. This sect matured considerably during the later Míng Dynasty. It synthesises Taoist philosophy and mysticism with both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, as well as the Virtue ethics and personal cultivation ethos of Confucianism.
The school in time developed two main branches: the Northern branch was mainly comprised of monasteries where the monks devoted themselves to enlightenment — “attaining the Dào“. These practices focussed on keeping the “monkey mind” still in order to discipline and tame the physical body. It is this branch which gave rise to the amazing martial arts traditions of China we would all be familiar with. They preached moderate sexual activity, and never spoke of sexual practices for cultivating energy or healing (Cleary 2003a: 8)
The Southern Sect on the other hand was different. This branch was interested in making this work available to normal every day people, in normal everyday life. This was not a school for people to remove themselves from society to ‘perfect themselves’. As such, it was normal that the ‘laypeople’ came to the practices later in life, and were considered to already have lost a considerable amount of 精 Jīng (especially if they had already had children, for example). In other words, normal life had taken its toll, and the physical body had been subject to the normal ageing process.
Drawing on the ideas found from the ancient Chinese sex manuals, a practice called ‘dual cultivation’ was encouraged in this branch, as it was recognised that it would be easier to generate the necessary ‘sexual energy’ for Internal Alchemy practices if done with a partner.
The extant texts from this school don’t describe the practices they used, only describing the theory in highly metaphorical, alchemical language. The reason behind this was similar to the Tantric schools in India and Tibet, in that the student required to learn via transmission directly from the teacher. The texts outline this explicitly; if learned incorrectly, these practices could cause more harm than benefit. So the texts were meant only as a type of ‘lecture notes’ to teachings that had been verbally explained and demonstrated (Wong 2012).
The theory and praxis of Taoist sacred sexuality will be continued in Part 2
- Bokencamp, Stephen (trans.), (1999), Early Daoist Scriptures, University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Cleary, Thomas (trans.), (1999), Sex, Health, & Long Life: Manuals of Taoist Practice, Shambhala, Boston & London.
- Cleary, Thomas (trans.), (2003a), The Taoist Classics: Volume Three, Shambhala, Boston.
- Unschuld, Paul U., (1985), Medicine In China: a History of Ideas, University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Wong, Eva (trans.), (2012), Holding Yin, Embracing Yang: Three Taoist Classics On Meditation, Breath Regulation, Sexual Yoga, and the Circulation of Internal Energy, Shambhala, Boston & London.