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Female alchemy Tradition also known as “nüdan”, “女丹” Valussi, Elena


Female alchemy (nüdan 女丹) is a textual tradition of Daoist meditation and physiological exercises for women which emerged in China in the seventeenth century and developed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is part and parcel of the much older inner alchemy (neidan 內丹) tradition, which advocates the possibility to achieve immortality through the progressive refinement of the body, aided by meditation, breathing, visualization, and massage exercises. This process has the aim of reversing the normal course of life that ends with old age, decay, and death, with a rejuvenation enacted through the transformation of bodily fluids into energy. This refined energy concentrates inside the body to form an embryo of immortality that is subsequently released through the top of the head. The neidan process had been formalised (within the Daoist tradition) for an un-gendered audience of practitioners as early as the Song (960–1279) dynasty. It involved three steps, the transformation of jing 精(seminal essence or essence) into qi 氣 , the trans- formation of qi into shen 神 (spirit), and the transformation of shen into xuwu 虛無 (nothingness). Until the emergence of nüdan in the late Ming and Qing dynasties, neidan was considered a genderless practice, available to men and women alike, though there was, for social and historical reasons, much less participation by women. In the Qing dynasty, this non-gendered process was adapted and applied to a specific female audience, and nüdan was born. The first individual nüdan texts started appearing at the end of the Ming dynasty, and the first full-fledged collections appeared in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is still practiced in China today. These scriptures were often, but not always, transmitted through spirit writing at a lay Daoism altar from a god or goddess. Differently from neidan, nüdan adapts its theory and practice specifically to the female body. Unlike a man, a woman needs first and foremost to refine her exterior form, her bloody and impure constitution, and her sexual characteristics. This attention to her exterior form directly relates to the structure of the female cosmological and physiological body that is yin and impure in nature. Blood (xue 血) is the central element of female physiology, and what needs to be transformed. The physical starting point for female practice is the qi cavity, a point between the breasts; through breast massage and visualisations, the blood that regularly descends from the qi cavity to the uterus, or sea of blood (xuehai 血海) in the form of menses, is sent upward in a backwards motion. in the traditional alchemical refinement triad jing-qi-shen, it stands in for the essence jing, resulting in a slightly different (female) triad, xue-qi-shen. Practitioners achieve the thinning and eventual disappearance of the menstrual flow, a process called Beheading of the Red Dragon (zhan chilong 斬赤龍). When this happens, other sexual characteristics change: the breasts shrink and the body becomes more androgynous. At this point, the woman has completed the first stage of the practice, the more gendered xue to qi. Once the female bloody constitution is transformed, and the gender and external sexual differences almost eliminated, the woman, having reached a state of prepuberty or androgynity, can progress towards the final goal of immortality in the same way as the man.

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