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Three Treasures (traditional Chinese medicine)

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The Three Treasures or Three Jewels (Chinese: ; pinyin: sānbǎo; Wade–Giles: san-pao) are theoretical cornerstones in traditional Chinese medicine and practices such as neidan, qigong, and tai chi. They are also known as jing, qi, and shen (Chinese: 精氣神; pinyin: jīng-qì-shén; Wade–Giles: ching ch'i shen; "essence, breath, and spirit").

The French sinologist Despeux summarizes:

Jing, qi, and shen are three of the main notions shared by Taoism and Chinese culture alike. They are often referred to as the Three Treasures (sanbao 三寶), an expression that immediately reveals their importance and the close connection among them. The ideas and practices associated with each term, and with the three terms as a whole, are complex and vary considerably in different contexts and historical periods.

— Despeux 2008, p. 562

Etymology and meaning


This Chinese name sanbao originally referred to the Daoist "Three Treasures" from the Daodejing, chapter 67: "pity", "frugality", and "refusal to be 'foremost of all things under heaven'".[1] It has subsequently also been used to refer to the jing, qi, and shen and to the Buddhist Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha). This latter use is misleading, however, as the Three Jewels in Buddhism is a completely different philosophy. The Buddha is the teacher, the Dharma is the teaching, and the Sangha is the community. The Three Jewels of Buddhism are the external supports for achieving realization, while the Three Treasures of Daoism are interior qualities or attitudes to be cultivated.

In long-established Chinese traditions, the "Three Treasures" are the essential energies sustaining human life:

  • Jing () "nutritive essence, essence; spirit, sperm, seed; extract; refined, perfected yin in nature, lower abdominal cavity"
  • Qi () "vital energy, life force; breath, air, vapor; vitality, vigor; attitude, abdominal cavity"
  • Shen () "spirit; soul, mind; god, deity; supernatural being and yang in action, upper thoracic cavity"

This jing-qi-shen ordering is more commonly used than the variants qi-jing-shen and shen-qi-jing.


Woodcut illustration of the 'Great and Small Cauldron and Furnace' from Pointers on Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life Xingming guizhi, a Daoist text on internal alchemy published 1615. In the figurative language of neidan, the 'cauldron' (ding) refers to the head and the 'furnace' (lu) to the abdomen; the 'great cauldron' is the place of the refinement of jin, qi, and shen
Woodcut illustration of the practice known as 'Refining form in the True Void' (zhenkong lianxing) from 1615 Xingming guizhi
The Three Vitalities Meeting 三家相見圖, 1615 Xingming guizhi

The Daoist "Mind-Seal Scripture of the Exalted Jade Sovereign" (Gaoshang yuhuang xinyin jing (高上玉皇心印經), or the "Imprint of the Heart" (Xinyin jing), is a valuable early source about the Three Treasures.[2][3]

Probably dating from the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), this anonymous text presents a simple and concise discussion of internal alchemy (neidan 內丹). In particular, it emphasizes the so-called Three Treasures (sanbao 三寶), namely, vital essence (jing ), subtle breath (qi ), and spirit (shen ).

— Komjathy 2004, p. 29

Frederic H. Balfour's brief 1884 essay about the "Imprint of the Heart" (Xinyin jing) contains the earliest known Western reference to the Three Treasures:[4]

"There are three degrees of Supreme Elixir – the Spirit, the Breath, and the Essential Vigour."

Four stages


In neidan ("internal alchemy") practice, transmuting the Three Treasures is expressed through the sequence:[5][6]

  1. zhuji (築基)
    "laying the foundations"
  2. lianjing huaqi (鍊精化氣)
    "refining essence into breath"
  3. lianqi huashen (鍊氣化神)
    "refining breath into spirit"
  4. lianshen huanxu (鍊神還虛)
    "refining spirit and reverting to emptiness"



Both Neidan, Neo-Confucianism and Traditional Chinese Medicine distinguish the between "pre heaven" (xiantian 先天), referring to what is innate or natural, and "post heaven" (houtian 後天), referring to what is acquired in the course of life.[7][8]

The former are the "three origins" (Sanyuan 三元):[6]

  1. "Original essence" (yuanjing 元精)
  2. "Original breath" (yuanqi 元氣)
  3. "Original spirit" (yuanshen 元神)



The Huainanzi (c. 2nd century BCE) relates qi and shen to xing ("form; shape; body"):[9]

The bodily form [xing] is the residence of life; the qi fills this life while shen controls it. If either of them loses their proper position, they will all come to harm.

— Huainanzi 1, translated by Engelhardt 2000, p. 99

Chinese culture


The Journey to the West (late 16th century CE) novel refers to the Three Treasures when an enlightened Daoist patriarch instructs Sun Wukong ("Monkey") with a poem that begins:

Know well this secret formula wondrous and true:
Spare and nurse the vital forces, this and nothing else.
All power resides in the semen [jing], the breath [qi], and the spirit [shen];
Guard these with care, securely, lest there be a leak.
Lest there be a leak!
Keep within the body!

— Journey to the West, translated by Yu 1977, p. 88


  1. ^ Waley (1958), p. 225.
  2. ^ Olson (1993).
  3. ^ Komjathy (2004), p. 29.
  4. ^ Balfour (1880), p. 380-381.
  5. ^ Despeux (2008), p. 563.
  6. ^ a b Wang (2011), p. 13.
  7. ^ Despeux (2008), pp. 564–565.
  8. ^ Maciocia, Giovanni (1996). The Three Treasures. Peony Press. ISBN 9780952574576.
  9. ^ Engelhardt (2000), p. 99.


  • Balfour, Frederic H. (1880). "Three Brief Essays" (PDF). The China Review. 9: 380–382.
  • Despeux, Catherine (2008). "Jing, qi, shen; 精 氣 神; essence, pneuma (breath, energy, vital force), spirit". In Pregadio, Fabrizio (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Taoism. Routledge. pp. 562–565.
  • Engelhardt, Ute (2000). "Longevity Techniques and Chinese Medicine". In Kohn, Livia (ed.). Daoism Handbook. Brill. pp. 74–108.
  • Komjathy, Louis (2004). Daoist Texts in Translation (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2005-05-26.
  • Olson, Stuart Alve (1993). The Jade Emperor's Mind Seal Classic: A Taoist Guide to Health, Longevity, and Immortality. St. Paul: Dragon Door Publications.
  • Waley, Arthur (1958). The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought. Grove Press. ISBN 0802150853.
  • Wang, Mu (2011). Foundations of Internal Alchemy: The Taoist Practice of Neidan. Translated by Pregadio, Fabrizio. Golden Elixir Press. ISBN 9780984308255..
  • The Journey to the West. Translated by Yu, Anthony. University of Chicago Press. 1977.