Nei-yeh (Chinese Self-Cultivation Manual)

Historical Context

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At the end of the 20th century, Western scholars became aware of an ancient Chinese text that provides exciting possibilities for those of us who are attracted to Far Eastern philosophies1. This text, titled the Nei-yeh, shines a light on the practices that bring these philosophies into everyday life. In some ways, it could be considered a practical guide to day-to-day living.

Scholars generally agree that the Nei-yeh was produced during China’s Warring States Era (403-221 BCE). The Warring States Era was a particularly fertile time period for the production of classic works that later became classified as Taoist or Confucian. These texts include the Tao-te Ching (the Lao-tzu) and the Chuang-tzu from the Taoist tradition and the Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean as well as other significant texts from the Confucian tradition. Each of these documents and philosophies exerted a tremendous influence upon subsequent Chinese culture.

While the subject matter has a wide range, many of the texts and philosophies from the Warring States Era stress the importance of self-cultivation as a means of optimizing existence. Both Confucians and Taoists practiced self-cultivation.2 But what does this mean? What type of practices does self-cultivation entail? None of the aforementioned classics from either tradition address these questions. In contrast, the prime focus of the Nei-yeh is upon the fundamentals of this Chinese behavioral technology.

Many scholars3 believe that the Nei-yeh belongs in the Taoist tradition, as it shares many themes and verbiage with Taoist literature. However, the Nei-yeh also focuses upon many themes and word-concepts that are consistent with Confucian literature, as we shall see in the second part of this work. Due to this ideational mixture, we suggest that the Nei-yeh is a text that belongs to the greater Chinese self-cultivation tradition that includes both Taoism and Confucianism.

Rather than duplicating the information in other classic works, the Nei-yeh fills in some significant gaps. The Tao te Ching and the Chuang Tzu are typically viewed as preeminent Taoist classics by Western culture. These two works seem to be focused upon describing the insights and behaviors of a ‘true’ human, i.e. a Sage. These texts, while full of what it is to be a Sage, only hint at the practical knowledge that disciples require to attain mastery. The unique contribution of the Nei-yeh may very well be its particular focus upon the practices that can lead one to become a Sage. Only the Nei-yeh clearly states the prerequisite state of mind and type of purposeful self-cultivation processes that lead to this exalted state.

Nei-yeh, Lao Tzu & Chuang Tzu: the same Self-Cultivation Tradition

Harold Roth wrote a landmark book on the historical significance of the Nei-yeh. He translates the title as ‘Inward Training’. Russell Kirkland, another noted Taoist scholar, translates it as ‘Inner Cultivation’.

In Kirkland’s work, Taoism, an enduring tradition, he identifies certain important themes that have run through Taoist tradition from prehistoric to current times. The Nei-yeh is one of the works that Kirkland finds to be deeply entrenched in this ‘enduring tradition’. In fact, the Nei-yeh seems to be more overtly connected with this tradition than are other prestigious Taoist texts.

“[The Nei-yeh’s] continuities with later elements of Taoism are far more easily discerned than is the case with the Chuang-tzu or even the Tao te ching.”4

Why? Because it concerns practices rather than wisdom. Generally speaking, Taoists, past and present, have been less interested in refining understanding, and more interested in processes that maximize the operations of both body and mind. Rather than the explicit goal, wisdom is a byproduct of careful practices performed over a sufficient period of time.

How does the Nei-yeh compare with the other more acclaimed classics of the Taoist literary tradition? A more careful comparison of these 3 works will provide a clearer understanding of why scholars generally agree about their common heritage.

The Nei-yeh,like the Lao Tzu, consists of rhymed lines that are 4 and 5 characters in length. Most scholars suggest that these rhymed phrases facilitated memorization in a pre-literate society5. Perhaps the master would recite some passages that the disciple would memorize. This practice continues unto the present day.6 Due to the striking similarities between the Lao Tzu and the Nei-yeh in terms of both content and form, most scholars believe that they belong to a common genre and tradition.

Most scholars believe that the Nei-yeh, like the Lao Tzu, was an accumulation of the wisdom of multiple authors over an unspecified length of time, rather than the work of a single author. In other words, an ancient self-cultivation tradition probably inspired the books rather than vice versa. Rather than a single individual, it is most likely that a line of masters passed on the practices and wisdom from generation to generation.

The Chuang Tzu, the ‘other’ Taoist classic, consists of short narratives rather than rhymed verses. Despite this difference in form, it employs phrases that are identical to those in Nei-yeh.7 The question arises: which text was first? Roth argues convincingly that the Nei-yeh could easily have been a foundational source for the Chuang Tzu, as well as other Taoist texts written around the same time.

Due to such evidence, it seems highly likely that the Chuang Tzu, the Lao Tzu, and the Nei-yeh, all belong to the same tradition of self-cultivation that was eventually called Taoism. Why didn’t the compilers of the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu feel impelled to delineate these practices? The very existence of the Nei-yeh, as an instruction manual for self-cultivation techniques, perhaps provides a plausible reason why they felt no need to include this information.

The Chia-hsia Academy

The Nei-yeh was probably first transcribed into ideograms from its oral form at the Chia-hsia Academy in the state of Chi during the Warring States Era. The Chia-hsia Academy was a ‘think tank’ comprised of Chinese philosophers from both north and south of the Yangtze River. An enlightened Chi leader, King Wei founded and began funding this scholarly institution about 320 BCE. According to historical records, King Wei provided 76 noted scholars ‘official positions without specific administrative duties and comfortable living quarters8. The king presumably gathered these scholars together to discuss how to prevent social disintegration and the breakdown of traditional Chou society. The Chia-hsia Academy lasted from about 320 BCE to about 264 BCE with only a few interruptions.

The scholars included many famous personages, including influential Confucians: Mencius (390-305 BCE) and Hsün Tzu (330-245 BCE). As an indication of the freedom of expression, Mencius argued that humans are inherently good, while Hsün Tzu argued the opposite – that humans are basically evil. Also at the Academy were many northern and southern philosophers in the Huang-Lao tradition, which eventually became a significant strain of Taoism.

The renowned Tsou Yen (305-240 BCE), the systematizer of ‘naturalist’ (yin-yang and Five Phases) cosmology’9 also resided for a time in this fertile intellectual atmosphere. He is said to have extracted the structure of his system from the writings of Academy scholars who belonged to local shamanic traditions, rather than philosophical, traditions.

Individuals from self-cultivation traditions, many from the southern state of Ch’u, were also at the Academy. It was this last group who might have transcribed oral traditions to produce the Nei-yeh.

The better-known Taoist classics could have also reached a mature form at this time. Earlier, abbreviated versions of the Lao Tzu have been discovered in tombs. However, it was at the Academy that the much-discussed feminist layer probably found its place in the Tao te Ching, as we now know it. In turn, these interrelated Taoist classics may have exerted a heavy influence upon the author and/or compilers of the Chuang Tzu, who may have also resided at the Chia-hsia Academy.

“Some scholars have … argued that the Nei-yeh was produced by people from Ch’u who had traveled north to Chi [to be at the Academy]. … Scholars generally agree that it came into being during the period 350-300 BCE … and apparently predates the Tao te Ching as we know it.”10

In the catalyzing environment of the Chia-hsia Academy, the Nei-yeh probably exerted an influence upon Mencius, a prominent Confucian. The cultivation of the heart-mind is a prominent feature of Mencius’ philosophy that was picked up by later Confucians. This concept is central to the Nei-yeh.

At one point in his writings, Mencius also speaks of the importance of cultivating a ’flood-like ch’i’. The context of this phrase has mystified generations of scholars. But the phrase is a direct quote from verse 15 of the Nei-yeh. The verse provides a more complete context for an understanding of Mencius’ meaning. Scholars are in agreement that both Mencius and the compilers of the Chuang Tzu borrowed concepts and actual verbal content from the Nei-yeh. This evidence exhibits how influential the text was to members of the Academy.

Many profound thinkers from a diversity of traditions were able to discuss, debate and refine their ideas in the unguarded intellectual atmosphere of the Academy. These extraordinarily high level interactions led to the crystallization of philosophical ideas belonging to a wide range of Chinese traditions. During the decades of the Academy’s existence, many of these concepts attained a permanent or at least a more complete written form that was to last until current times. For these reasons, it is hard to overstate the importance of the Chia-hsia Academy in the development of Chinese philosophy.

In 212 BCE, China’s First Emperor slammed the door shut on the tolerant conceptual environment that was engendered by the Academy. It is no wonder that Chinese scholars formed a permanent animosity for this man.

Nei-yeh: ‘Lost’ for Millennia, then ‘Found’

It seems that the Nei-yeh was an incredibly influential work that circulated among important scholars at the highly significant Chia-Hsia Academy. Yet during subsequent centuries, the book was somehow lost to future generations. What happened?

The Nei-yeh seems to have reached its final form, perhaps at the Academy, in the second half of the fourth century BCE. It “fell out of general circulation sometime before the middle of the second century BCE, when it was incorporated into a larger collection known as the Kuan Tzu.”11 Han bibliographers placed the Kuan Tzu in a ‘miscellaneous’ category due to the diversity of its works.

The ‘miscellaneous’ categorization stigmatized the collection as unimportant to later researchers because it lacked focus on one particular topic. The Kuan Tzu was eventually included in the enormous Taoist Canon. Because of the general content of most of the Kuan Tzu texts, the entire collection was eventually labeled ‘Legalist’ during the Sui Dynasty. Due at least in part to the Nei-yeh being buried in a large collection of unrelated works and this mis-categorization of the Kuan Tzu, the work was ‘lost’ to Taoist thinkers of the Modern Era.

“This later classification [Legalism] further buried the text of Inward Training because most people who consulted the Kuan Tzu were interested in it for its political and economic thought. Scholars and adepts looking for material on Taoist cosmology and self-cultivation would have –and generally did– turn to works like the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu for their inspiration.”12

It was only late in the 20th century when scholars began plumbing the contents of these miscellaneous collections that the Nei-yeh was ‘rediscovered’ and ultimately deemed a significant text in the self-cultivation tradition that was eventually labeled Taoism.

The Tao: Differing Perspectives

Due to shared themes, common vocabulary, and similar styles, the Nei-yeh definitely seems to belong to the same self-cultivation tradition as the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu. For instance, each of the texts speaks about the importance of aligning with the Tao and cultivating te, which is most commonly translated as virtue. However, the Nei-yeh, while using the same vocabulary as the classic texts, employs these words in a very different manner. Due to these differences, it is evident that the terms do not have a specific definition that is common to those belonging to the self-cultivation tradition that was eventually named Taoism.13

The Lao-tzu provides a theoretical discussion as to the nature of the Tao and the Chuang Tzu refers to the positive features and interactions of those who have aligned with the Tao. The Nei-yeh reveals the type of self-cultivation practices that will attract and retain the Tao.

“While the Lao Tzu has general descriptions of the Way’s activities, there is virtually nothing in the Lao Tzu to parallel the concrete representation of the Way [Tao] in terms of the early physiological concepts of vital energy [ch’i] and vital essence [ching] found in Inward Training [Nei-yeh]. Perhaps also related to this is the strong emphasis on the mind and on the practice of inner cultivation in Inward Training, an emphasis with few parallels in the Lao Tzu.”14

While the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu refer to those who have ‘attained the Tao’, the Nei-yeh tells us how to ‘attain the Tao’. ‘Attaining the Tao’ is not a permanent state that is achieved in an instant of self-realization. Instead, the Nei-yeh stresses the importance of daily practices, both mental and physical, for renewing the vitality that is associated with the Tao. Unlike the practices of Mahayana and Zen Buddhism that presumably lead to enlightenment and release from suffering, the purpose of the Nei-yeh’s self-cultivation practices is sustained vitality in our day-to-day lives.

“In the Nei-yeh, the Taoist life … is a very active life of specific practices, which must be carefully learned and properly performed if one is ever to bring such elusive forces as tao into one’s being. In this context … the Taoist life involves personal responsibility, dedication to a life of constant self-discipline, and conscientious daily practice. Moreover, it involves purification and proper ordering of one’s body as well as one’s ‘heart/mind.’[hsin].”15

Students work to understand the material in their classes. With enough study, they grasp the concepts on a more or less permanent level. For instance, the ability to perform basic computations is a relatively permanent life long talent.

In contrast, housecleaning is never permanent. Instead it must be performed on a daily level to keep the ever-falling dust under control. In similar fashion, we must engage in daily mental practices to keep the ever-falling ‘red dust’ of cultural conditioning from distorting the ‘mirror of our mind’. Plus we must engage in regular physical practices to keep our bodily channels open so that the ch’i, our vital energy, can flow freely.

This discussion indicates that the Nei-yeh does not merely provide descriptions of the Tao and those who have attained it. Instead the Nei-yeh describes the necessary processes that we must utilize in order to attract the Tao. The general aim of these self-cultivation practices is a tranquil mind and an aligned body. This emptying provides a place for the Tao to settle.


Compiled in the 4th century BCE, the Nei-yeh is an inner cultivation manual that exerted a significant influence upon both Taoists and Confucians of the Warring States Era. The texts and philosophies from this time stress the importance of self-cultivation. Both Confucians and Taoists engaged in practices that are intended to align an individual with the Tao. Confucians and Taoists had slightly different perspectives on what sort of self-cultivation practices led to alignment with the Tao.

We suggest that both types of self-cultivation practices can be viewed as attempts to develop an individual’s abilities and attitudes in order to optimize their personal potentials. But what does this mean? What type of practices does self-cultivation entail? The Nei-yeh sheds a welcome light on these questions.

The manual delineates techniques that allow us to take deliberate advantage of a natural network of processes and energies. The practices are designed to maximize both our physical vitality and our mental acuity. The intent of the following articles is to examine the Nei-yeh in more detail in order to better understand the nature of these processes.


1 Although aware of the text, Chinese scholars had neglected it due, in part, to a Sung mis-categorization.

2 Taoism, the enduring tradition, Russell Kirkland, Routledge, 2004, p.xviii

3 Russell Kirkland and Harold Roth have both written books in which they present compelling evidence that supports the notion that the Nei-yeh is part of the Taoist tradition.

4 Russell Kirkland, p. 40

5 It is a common practice in many pre-literate traditions to finally transcribe oral teachings centuries after the origination. For instance, most scholars believe that Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey was recited over campfires for many centuries before the story reached written form. The same process holds true for India’s Mahabharata. The Buddha’s words were also transmitted orally for centuries before being transcribed into text.

6 Master Ni employed a similar technique to teach Tai Chi and Sword forms. Each week, he would teach a new sequence of movements that we, his students, were meant to memorize.

7 Harold Roth, Original Tao, Inward Training (Nei-yeh), p. 153, Columbia University Press, 1999

8 Roth, p. 21

9 Roth, p. 21

10 Russell Kirkland, p. 40

11 Kirkland, p.40

12 Roth, p. 19

13 Kirkland, p. 47

14 Roth, p. 147

15 Kirkland, p. 48


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