Taiyi jinha zongzhi does not mean “The Secret of the Golden Flower”. What does it mean?

The Taiyi jinha zongzhi has been a prominent Taoist text ever since Richard Welhelm published his translation in 1929, on the initiative of Carl Jung. The work appeared under the title The Secret of the Golden Flower. To give you an idea of its success, the American paperback shown at right has been in print continuously since 1962.

The title begins with the words tai yi. This should alert you to an important fact: the title does not mean The Secret of the Golden Flower. However, is is tài yǐ or tài yī ?

This is a critical difference. 太 乙 tài yǐ means something like Ultimate Unity, an important concept in early Taoism. 太 一 tài yī on the other hand means Great One or Great Monad (Campany 2002).

Wilhelm’s translation has been criticised for its use of Jungian terminology such as animus and anima to render Taoist concepts such as hung and po spirits. Thomas Cleary’s 1993 translation avoids these mistakes, but still has the same title.

However the text, translated in verses, brings enlightenment. On page 10 we read:

Now I am bringing to light the source message of the Golden flower of absolute unity… The absolute unity refers to what cannot be surpassed (vv. 8-9)

This indicates 太 乙 tài yǐ rather than 太 一 tài yī, so the title is tài yǐ jīn huā zōng zhǐ 太 乙 金 華 宗 旨.

Let’s have a look at the academic references.

Moria Yura, writing in Daoist Identity: History, Lineage, and Ritual (Paperback) (2002) ISBN: 0824825047Daoist Identity (edited by Livia Kohn and Harold D Roth) (2002) has Great Unity’s Instructions on [Developing] Golden Floresence. He also makes some interesting comments on the worth of the text, which has been relegated by scholars, quoting the work of Monica Esposito (1998) which demonstrates that the work originates with the Jingming (Pure brightness) tradition (see p165).

Fabrizio Pregadio, in his monumental The Encyclopedia of Taoism (2008) has on page 961 The Ultimate Purport of the Golden Flower of the Great One. Pregadio, who has the Chinese characters in his text, has tài yī 太 一 rather than tài yǐ 太 乙. Pregadio references both Yura and Esposito but without mentioning this discrepancy. Update: Fabrizio posted a comment to say that these two terms have always been used interchangeably in Taoism texts, and that the meaning has to be determined by context. I was surprised to learn this.


~ by scalambra on August 4, 2009.

2 Responses to “Taiyi jinha zongzhi does not mean “The Secret of the Golden Flower”. What does it mean?”

  1. Your view is interesting but might be developed in more detail. What is the difference between “Ultimate Unity” and “Great One”? If you mean that “great unity” is an abstract concept, while “great one” is the personal name of a deity, I substantially agree with you, but I am not sure this is what you mean.

    Anyway, whatever translation you may want to use, the Chinese term is the same. The two forms of the name “taiyi” (太 一 and 太 乙) have always been used interchangeably in Chinese texts. So the clue is not in the name, but in its sense, and the sense depends on the context.

    Concerning the translation of the title used in the Encyclopedia of Taoism, a few things could be added:

    (1) “Jinhua” can be translated as “golden flower” or (if anyone prefers) “golden efflorence”. But “jin” also means “metal”, so the name also refers to the “flower of Metal” (True Lead), which is the Elixir.

    (2) “Zong” also means “general”, and for “zhi” I personally would use “teaching” instead of “purport”, but in the Encyclopedia we tried to make English translations as uniform as possible throughout the book. Therefore “zongzhi” means anything between “general purport” and “ultimate teaching”. In any case, “secret” (used by Wilhelm and by Cleary) is not at all a translation.

    • Fabrizio, thanks for taking the time to reply. I am not an academic but just a practitioner who is trying to make sense of all this stuff. It does seem to me that “great one” is the personal name of a deity and “great unity” a concept, but I am surprised to read that these two terms have always been used interchangeably, which implies that this is so even in the oldest texts.

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