In martial art we use the word dantian 丹田 a lot, what does it mean, why do we call it that?

The word 丹dan has many meanings. For example the earliest reference is to the red sands found in Ba Yue (southern China). For the purpose of our discussion here, the most relevant definition is this one “丹者、石之精。故凡藥物之精者曰丹。” – “dan, [is] the essence of stone; hence for any medicine, its [pure] essence is called dan” (from Eastern Han dynasty reference work Shuo Wen Jie Zi 说文解字).

Traditional belief about relationship between qi and lifespan is as follows: we were born with qi, which is called xian tian qi (pre-birth qi). The experience of living in this material world, the assault from both outside (pollution, injury, etc) and inside (seven emotions) all reduces this qi. When this qi is exhausted, we die. But this world also provide us with ways of making up for the lost qi – from heaven (air), earth (food, water, …), and human sources. The qi obtained this way is called hou tian qi (post-birth qi).

One fundamental difference between Chinese and non-Chinese religious/spiritual traditions is that in religions like Christianity and Buddhism, the physical body is not regarded as important, soul is considered the essence (the eternal aspect) of our being. In Daoist practices (at least low and middle level), while soul/spirit is also regarded as the essence, the goal of practice is to achieve immortality of both body and mind. This is called 性命雙修 xing ming shuang xu – cultivation of both mind and the body.

Early efforts to achieve immortality were crude. It was based on one hand the simple observation that things in nature can change states – even hard metal can be melted down to liquid, then evaporated into air (seemingly to nothingness). So the thought was, if we can melt down metal and rocks to their essence (dan) in liquid form, if we ingest that, then maybe we can transform ourselves to a higher-state pure being. The assumption here is we are like other earthbound things, are heavy with impurities. And that immortals, up there, in the air/heaven, are clean, light, and pure. The process of cultivation then is to remove impurity. A process which, of course, is man’s biggest secret.

This goes hand in hand with the other basic idea that “we are what we eat” – here that means whatever quality you want to enhance in your body, you want to ingest something of that quality. So if you have liver trouble, you eat livers of other animals. If you want to have an incorruptible body, you ingest something in nature that is known to be highly incorruptible. The most visible examples of which are heavy metals like gold, lead, mercury, which rust (oxidation, technically same as combustion) very slowly.

So during the time Shuo Wen Jie Zi was written (100AD), dan was basically abbreviation for jin shi dan yao 金石丹药. Yao mean medicine. Jin (gold, metal) Shi (rock) has several meanings. If people say they collect jin shi, it’s referring to engraved seals. But in this context, it meant heavy metal.

From Journey to the West: the gods threw Monkey King inside a vessel for forging dan, hoping to kill him and create dan (his body’s made of divine rock) in the process. Here he freed himself and knocked the vessel over.

Unfortunately, in liquid form most of these things are highly toxic for humans. So several hundred years and many poisoned emperors later, people realized this approach represented a deadened. So they started looking inward. Within the body it was thought there are three essential treasures: jing, qi, and shen. Shen of course is the spirit, the highest level. So over thousands of years, nei gong practices were developed to first transform jing to qi, then qi to shen. What we call qi gong is actually a basic skill in nei gong. If you can’t move and manipulate qi around the body, then none of this can be accomplished. Using qi gong, people transport jing from lower dantian (hui yin point) to middle dantian (what most people in martial art refer to as dantian, right below the navel). In the middle dantian ‘cultivation’ is done to harvest the jing, transforming it into qi. Afterward, this qi product, is transported to upper dantian (eyes) to supplement shen. Since this qi product is thought to have the same effect as external magic elixir (transformation into shen), it’s also called dan.

That’s the basic idea behind all neigong practices. Each school differ in the manipulation/cultivation, and transport methods. This approach, using raw materials from within the body rather than from the outside world, is called nei dan gong, or simply nei gong. The previous one is called wai dan gong. Since the method of immortality is still the biggest secret, people retained the same terminologies used for wai dan gong, terms like dan (elixir, herb/medicine), field, cauldron, picking, etc, to keep things secret from outsiders.


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