Ge Xuan

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Ge Xuan
Ge Xuan.jpg
A Qing dynasty portrait of Ge Xuan
Born 164
Linyi, Shandong
Died 244 (aged 80)
Other names Xiaoxian (孝先)
Occupation Taoist

Ge Xuan (164–244), courtesy name Xiaoxian, was a Chinese Taoist who lived in the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220) and Three Kingdoms period (220–280) of China. He was the ancestor of Ge Hong and a resident of Danyang Commandery in the state of Eastern Wu during the Three Kingdoms period. Ge Xuan's paternal grandnephew, Ge Hong, gave him the title "Ge Xuan Gong", which translates into "Immortal Lord" or "Transcendent Duke". Ge Hong wrote at length about his great uncle, and claimed that some alchemical texts from the Baopuzi originally came from him. Ge Xuan is also portrayed by his descendant Ge Chaofu as having been the first recipient of the Lingbao scriptures. He is remembered as a mythological member of the Chinese Ge family and a prominent figure in the development of early Chinese Daoism.

Early life[edit]

Ge Xuan was a legendary figure who was associated with various Taoist traditions. He belonged to a family of great official status and was considered intelligent since birth. During his early childhood, Ge Xuan was depicted as an inquisitive learner as he read several books such as the Confucian classics (and commentaries) plus numerous other philosophical and historical records. Due to his keen fascination for the philosophies of Laozi and Zhuangzi, he attained a great deal of spiritual wisdom about how the Dao worked in daily life. Consequently, at age sixteen, Ge Xuan obtained great fame on the North banks of the Yangtze River.[1][permanent dead link]

Ge Xuan's parents died while he was an adolescent. In effect, this initiated his obsession with the study of the Dao (the ways in which life works). Ge Xuan's pursuits led him to live in utter isolation in areas such as mountains and forests. This secluded environment allowed Ge Xuan to strictly discipline himself mentally, spiritually, and physically. The Dao requires intense discipline for its followers because the focal purpose is to achieve longevity or even better, immortality. Ge Xuan visited places like Lingyue Mountain, Chicheng Mountain, and Luofu Mountain. Furthermore, he also visited extraordinary individuals, ate ganoderma lucidum (a type of mushroom), setose thistle and relentlessly tried to engross himself in self-refinement.[2][permanent dead link]

Upon encountering the Immortal Zuo Ci, Ge Xuan obtained various mythological scriptures such as the Immortals' Book of Liquefied Gold of the Nine Elixirs. When he received this scripture, Ge Xuan incessantly practiced the art of fasting and abided the commandments that were laid down by the Ultimate. This subservience enabled him to meander through mountains and seas, thereby constructing many selves and altering forms. The spiritual capability of "Ling" also assisted Ge Xuan to implement exorcisms and restore the ill (Campany (2002), p. 64). This marked the start of his professional career, in which he tried ailing the sick by offering magical potions that ultimately resulted in immorality. This pleased the Gods, which allowed the Perfect Man of the Ultimate (Zuo Chi) to descend to the Tiantai Mountain and pass on more scriptures; namely the Numinous Treasure (36 volumes).[3][permanent dead link]

Professional career[edit]

Ge Xuan's grandnephew Ge Hong, a renowned alchemist who wrote the Baopuzi, also wrote a thorough biography about Ge Xuan in the Shenxian zhuan (Biographies of Divine Immortals). In this biography, Ge Hong states that Ge Xuan was summoned to the court of the Eastern Wu ruler, Sun Quan. However, a flotilla of boats capsized causing numerous deaths. Many presumed that Ge Xuan was one of the casualties but Ge Xuan miraculously returned a few days later, apologizing for not being present. Ge Xuan excused himself by claiming he had been detained by the Water-Deity, Wu Zixu. Ge Xuan was able to stay submerged by holding his breath for a lengthy period of time due to a mastery of "embryonic breathing" and his legendary faculty to manipulate the wind, rain, and rivers (Bokenkamp (2008), p. 444–445).

Many Mahayana Buddhists deem Ge Xuan to be one of the Taoism founders, along with Zhang Daoling. Ge Hong stated that Ge Xuan was a member of the lineage of alchemical texts, including Tai Qing Jing (Scripture of Great Clarity), Jiudan Jing (Scripture of Elixirs of the Nine (Tripods), and Jinyejing (Scripture of the Golden Elixir), which he transmitted to Ge Hong. Although, Ge Xuan did not concoct any elixirs himself. According to Ge Chaofu, Ge Hong's grandnephew (who was the forefather of the Lingbao school of Daoism), Ge Xuan was also the person who received the Lingbao scriptures directly from the deities. Ge Xuan's descendants gave him the title "The Transcendent Duke of the Left of the Great Ultimate" (Taiji Zuo Xian Gong) because of his beliefs (Bokenkamp (2008), p. 444). (Campany (2002), p. 152). Ge Xuan remained an imperative figure in Taoism until the Middle Ages, receiving many posthumous titles bestowed upon him from the emperor (Bokenkamp (2008), p. 445).


Ge Xuan breathing fire as depicted in a 1503 painting by Guo Xu

Ge Xuan became a distinctive "Master of Esoterica" (excelled at breathing exercises). These exercises were dependent on a particular diet that avoided consuming grains and alcohol. There are numerable unearthly tales in the hagiographical life of Ge Xuan. The most common legends include his supernatural gifts. For example, Ge Xuan could replace his body. Often during his hosted parties, he would talk with some of his guests and welcome or send others off at the same time (Campany (2002), p. 154). Ge Xuan also had the gift of telekinesis. He could point at an object and cause it to move, disappear and even cause unseen objects to appear. At one particular party, the drinking cups arrived and filled themselves with liquor (Campany (2002), p. 155). Additionally, Ge Xuan had the talent to hover three or four feet above ground and saunter in the air (Campany (2002), p. 156).

In later life, one of Ge Xuan's responsibilities was to regale the Emperor. When he grew tired of this, Ge Xuan informed his disciple Zhang Gong that he was arranging to leave the mortal world at noon on August eleventh. Ge Xuan primed himself for transcendence by dressing up in his finest clothing and laid down on his bed. After some time, Zhang Gong saw that his master still had color in his face, but was no longer breathing. Over the next three days and nights, Zhang Gong proceeded with the vital after death rituals. However, at midnight on the third night, a mighty wind blew through Ge Xuan's room and snuffed out the candles. When the candles were relit, Ge Xuan's human body had disappeared leaving only his clothes with the waistband still tied around them. The next day, it was discovered that the mighty wind had only blown through Ge Xuan's room and not through any of the neighboring houses.[4][permanent dead link]

Literary contributions[edit]

One of Ge Xuan's literary contributions was "The Classic of Purity," in which he quoted, "The Inner Spirit of people loves purity, but the mind of people is often rebellious". (This book was published in a poetic paraphrase by Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), the infamous British magician, who claimed to be the reincarnation of "Ko Yuen" as he interpreted it, following Legge.) The reason why people do not possess the competence to achieve this, is because their minds are not clear and their desires are unrestrained 6  . Ge Xuan claimed that desires are what bind individuals to become selfish and dishonest. Furthermore, he also quoted, that our minds create illusions which make us suffer throughout life. Ge Xuan stated that if we want to gain control of ourselves, we must first control our wandering mind. Ge Xuan, was recognized as the true Supreme Immortal when his scripts were passed onto his great-nephew Ge Hong. Although Ge Hong began composing the Ling-Pao Ching ("Classic of the Sacred Jewel") about 379 CE, he claimed that they had been first revealed to his own ancestor, Ge Xuan (Robinet (1997), p. 80). Ge Xuan wrote a book in which his notions are uncovered. Furthermore, in Daoism, Ge Xuan is called "the Perfect Sovereign and Protector" in Correspondence with the eternal Dao (Bokenkamp (2008), p. 444). In addition, common individuals address him as the "Immortal Elder Ge of the Supreme Ultimate." Ge Hong alleged the Ling-Pao Ching ("Classic of the Sacred Jewel") at about 379 CE. Ge Xuan's scripts were given the recognition because of his nephew's success in writing.

The Immortal Lord Ge Xuan received texts from Zuo Yuanfang, who himself received them from a divine man that came to him while he was devoting himself to the practices of the purification of thought (Jingsi) on Mount Tianzhu.[5][permanent dead link] Then Ge Xuan passed "The Book of The Nine Elixirs" on to his great-nephew Ge Hong. The Lingbao account for Ge Xuan endured in which an anonymous preface written during the Six Dynasties' period to the Heshang Gong annotated version of the Dao De Jing, the "Preface and Secret Instructions" are attributed to him.[6][permanent dead link] According to the Biography of Transcendent Duke Ge of the Great Ultimate, composed by Zhu Chuo in 1377 stated that almost all revealed literature in early Taoism might be retraced to Ge Xuan 5 . However, Ge Xuan was thought to become immortal after his body had vanished.

Overall significance[edit]

Ge Xuan's significance can be directly attributed to the Lingbao school which was founded by Ge Chaofu, the grand nephew of Ge Hong. While this school contained dissolved teachings which were handed down to Ge Hong and in turn to Ge Chaofu, both of these figures are important in the history of Daoism today. Ge Xuan's life was dedicated to reading and following the various scriptures handed to him from various spirits after his parents passed when he was the age of sixteen. Ge Xuan is known for many other feats, as he was an accomplished Alchemist. He had many gifts such as mind control, the power to levitate, heal the sick, and also the ability to exorcize evil spirits. Ge Xuan would occasionally use these gifts to entertain at various social events. Throughout history he received many names and titles, often denoting his beliefs or skill set. Ge Xuan finally achieved immortality in true style, disappearing in the night with a gust of wind leaving only two things, his clothes as he was wearing them and enough legend to last many centuries.

See also[edit]


  • Bokenkamp, Stephen. "Ge Xuan." in Fabrizio Pregadio, ed., The Encyclopedia of Taoism (London: Routledge, 2008), 444–445.
  • Campany, Robert Ford. "To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong's Traditions of Divine Transcendents." (California: University of California Press, 2002), 152.
  • Campany, Robert Ford. "Two Religious Thinkers of the Early Eastern Jin: Gan Bao and Ge Hong in Multiple Texts." Asia Major (third series), 2005.
  • Doniger, Wendy . Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions: An A-Z Guide to the World's Religions. : Merriam-Webster, 1999.
  • Encyclopædia Britannica. (2008). Ko Hsüan. In Encyclopædia Britannica Online [Online]. Available:  [2008, Oct. 27].
  • Hsuan, Ko. "The Classic of Purity." The Classic of Purity. Retrieved 23 Oct. 2008< >.
  • Kohn, Livia. "Daoism Handbook." BRILL, 2000.
  • Kohn, Livia. "The Taoist Experience: An Anthology".SUNY Press, 1993.
  • Kohn, Livia. The Daoist Monastic Manual. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • The Qingjing Jing of Ge Xuan. Toronto: Chroniker Press, 2011.
  • Robinet, Isabelle. "Taoism: The Growth of a Religion". Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1997.
  • Sheng, Jiang. "Ge Xuan (Immortal Elder Ge)." Taoist Culture and Information Centre. Retrieved 25 Oct. 2008. .