Nei-yeh (Chinese Self-Cultivation Manual)

1. Sages have Life Force (Jing) in their Core (Zhöng)

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1   The vital essence (jing) of all things:

2   It is this that brings them to life (shêng).

3   It generates the 5 grains below

4   And becomes the constellated stars above.

5   When flowing amid the heavens and the earth

6   We call it numinous (shên) and ghostly.

7   When stored within the chests of humans,

8   We call them Sages (sheng).1


The Nei-yeh is an ancient Chinese self-cultivation manual. Its focus is upon maximizing the interactions of a holistic network of integrated, yet separable, energies and processes. The work identifies each of the key word-concepts and then offers suggestions as to how to best maximize their operations and interactions. The 26 verses can be read and studied randomly in similar fashion to the I Ching, the Chuang Tzu or even the Lao Tzu.

However, these song-poems, while loosely organized, certainly do seem to have an order. The earlier verses of the Nei-yeh provide context for the later verses. Rather than isolated bits of wisdom, the song-poems appear to be developmental. The following exposition attempts to elucidate this order.

The Nei-yeh’s first 4 verses set the stage by introducing some key Chinese word-concepts and some rudimentary, yet fundamental, relationships. Verse 1 speaks about jing2; Verse 2 ch’i; Verse 3 hsin; and Verse 4 the Tao. These early verses introduce the basic relationships between these four word-concepts. Subsequent verses elucidate a fuller understanding of jing, ch’i, hsin, and the Tao. Their relationships are a central focus of the Nei-yeh.

Let us now proceed to a line-by-line analysis of the 26 verses of this self-cultivation manual. In the Nei-yeh, the first line frequently clearly identifies the verse’s focus. In this the first verse, the topic is jing, which Roth translates as ‘vital essence’.


Lines 1-4:

   1   The vital essence (jing) of all things:

   2   It is this that brings them to life (shêng).

   3   It generates the 5 grains below

   4   And becomes the constellated stars above.


The first 4 lines of Verse 1 report that jing is a generative force that brings things to life. It is the source of life/vitality (shêng). As a source of living vitality, jing is not merely mechanical energy. Chinese medicine continues to associate jing with an individual's life force all the way into the 21st century. Indeed jing, along with ch'i and shen, are considered to be the 3 jewels of Chinese medicine. The Nei-yeh invests a considerable amount of its terse text on the relationship between these '3 jewels', vitality and the Tao.

Lines 5 & 6:

   5   When flowing amid the heavens and the earth

   6   We call it numinous (shên) and ghostly.


When jing flows between Heaven and Earth, it is called ‘numinous and ghostly’, i.e. heavenly and earthly spirits. For the Chinese, the heavenly spirits were very likely associated with nature, such as a particular hill or river.  Earthly spirits probably took the form of human ghosts, such as those that have died prematurely. Jing seems to be the animating force of the spirit world as well the life force of biological creatures (lines 1-4). As the animating force of individual humans, jing seems similar to the life-giving energy that many associate with the concept of a soul.


Lines 7 & 8:

   7   When stored within the chests of humans,

   8   We call them Sages (sheng).3


Those that have jingstored in their chests’ are considered Sages. Line 7 includes the highly significant ideogram for zhöng, i.e. center or core. The meaning of this particular ideogram locates jing, not merely in the general chest region, but more particularly in the core (zhöng) of the chests of Sages. The chest’s biological and metaphorical center is the heart (hsin). Sages have jing stored in their core or heart. 

Due to its association with human vitality, jing seems to be a cosmic energy source that we want inside of us. Verse 1 poses an unspoken question. How do we get jing’s generative energy into our core (zhöng) and become Sage-like?

Zhöng (the middle or core): Ideogram

Jing, Sage and zhöng (core) are important word-concepts in the Nei-yeh in particular and for the Chinese in general. Due to their significance both for this text and culturally, let us examine these word-concepts in more detail.

Let us begin with zhöng4. In this verse, Roth translates zhöng as ‘within’. I prefer ‘center’ or ‘core'. It is most commonly translated as ‘middle’.

The word

In the Chinese/English Dictionary, zhöng is translated as:

      1) center, middle;

      2) in, among;

      3) between two extremes;

      4) medium;

      5) China.


Zhöng’s overlay of meanings indicates that being in the ‘middle’ or ‘among’ or ‘within’ or even in the Middle Kingdom (China) also includes a context of dynamic tension ‘between two extremes’.

Ideogram for zhöng, arrow hitting target, attaining the center

Zhöng’s ideogram is simple and yet instructive – a vertical line through the center of a box.

"It represents a square target, pierced in its center by an arrow."5 By extension, some other translations of the word zhöng include, "To hit the center, to attain."6

While the Nei-yeh tends to employ zhöng as a location, this symbol, in certain contexts, does not just represent the center, but instead has the connotation of achieving the center. ‘Attaining the center’ is a significant feature of Tai Chi practice as well as Chinese thought. This is not a passive state. Attaining the center in the context of the dynamic tension of life requires a constant redefinition and re-attainment of the center.

Zhöng combined with other key ideograms represents some very significant concepts in Chinese culture. For instance, the Chinese refer to their country, not by a formal name, but simply as the Middle Kingdom (zhöng guo), i.e. the core of the empire. Asian martial arts focus upon minimizing both movement and energy expenditure by maintaining central equilibrium around the center-line, i.e. the spine, and even the center point. Further when zhöng is combined with the ideogram for heart (hsin), it means ‘one’s center’.

To further indicate the importance of the word-concept zhöng to the Chinese, this ideogram is also used extensively in Chinese calligraphy to construct other more complicated ideograms.

The Ideogram for Sage (sheng)

Let us look at the ideogram that the Nei-yeh employs for Sage (sheng) to get a better notion of this important Chinese concept.

In most contexts, the small box at the upper right signifies a mouth and often connotes speaking. In similar fashion, the window-like structure at the upper left generally signifies ears or listening. Likewise, the 3 horizontal lines with a vertical line through the center at the ideogram's bottom typically symbolizes a master or mastery.

Viewing the ideogram’s 3 elements holistically, the Sage is an individual who has mastered both speaking and listening. The Sage both ‘listens’ carefully to the workings of the universe, and ‘speaks’, i.e. communicates his/her insights to others. The Sage is more than a recluse that exclusively seeks personal enlightenment. Instead the Sage can be viewed as a wise individual who works for the good of humanity.

Let’s look at the bottom symbol in more detail to determine what kind of master the Sage represents. The powerful Chinese metaphor of the Sage King gives us additional insight into the connotations of mastery found in the Sage ideogram. The ideogram’s base element also can mean ruler or king. This suggests that mastery may be connected to the notion of leadership.

The three horizontal lines in the pictogram are suggestive of the trigrams in the I Ching. In this classic Chinese text, the top line of the three represents Heaven; the bottom line Earth; and the middle line Humanity. This fundamental metaphor is a primary feature of the Chinese worldview – both past and present. In Verse 7, the Nei-yeh reveals what it considers to be the  ‘ruling principles’ and ‘significant features’ of the metaphor and then applies these relationships to self-cultivation in Verse 8.

In the king symbol, a vertical line intersects the three horizontal lines. This spine-like element presents an apt symbol for the king. As a whole, the symbol indicates that the Sage King joins Heaven and Earth in order to lead humanity towards harmony. In other words, the master in this ideogram is a political man of action.

We recognize that earlier versions of the Sage ideogram didn’t include the king/mastery pictogram. However, we find that at least one of these ancient pictograms was also suggestive of governing. This particular pictogram represented the ‘courtyard of a palace’7. The meaning of this ideogram was closely associated with the notion of ‘manifesting’.

Both of these meanings are in line with the role of the Sage King. The Sage King may have issued directives from the courtyard. In broad terms, ‘manifesting’ implies revealing hidden meaning – making the unseen apparent. He may have even revealed the ‘laws of the universe’ – the innate workings of the Tao.

This earlier version of the ideogram eventually evolved into the current ideogram for Sage. While the king pictogram may also be viewed by scholars as a phonetic loan, the ancient Chinese readers must have surely associated the visual image of this pictogram with leadership.

In prehistoric times, it is very likely that the leader of the people was also a type of mystic or shaman. As a shaman, he or she probably pursued mystical insights by entering altered states of consciousness. Physical or mental practices might have catalyzed these transcendent states. It is also possible that early shamans could have attained these mystical experiences by ingesting organic substances, such as psychedelic mushrooms.

These altered mental states presumably led to deep insights into the nature of reality that enabled the king/shaman to better lead his subjects. While shamans may have sometimes relied upon psychedelic substances, the Nei-yeh is silent on this subject. Some scholars believe that the Nei-yeh does however delineates the types of practices that lead to a mystical experience. They believe that these experiences may have played a significant role in heightening the insights of a Sage.

The notion of becoming an actual Sage might suggest an elevated state that may seem unattainable for most of us. The same could be said for becoming an actual king. Yet when we view the Sage or king metaphorically, we can interpret the Nei-yeh as applicable to all women or men of action.

‘Becoming a Sage’ could also be taken as a metaphor for realizing our potentials, as both personal and especially social human beings. Put another way, the process to Sagehood represents becoming the best human that we can be, individually and interpersonally. According to the Nei-yeh, this process depends upon having jing (life force) in our core.

Jing: Ideogram & Definitions

Verse 1 introduces jing, one of the Nei-yeh’s mysterious cosmic energy sources. To gain a better understanding of jing, let us examine first the ideogram itself and then a sampling of a modern definition.

The original ideogram for jing, life force, had two parts. On top was the original symbol for shêng (vitality), to be discussed. It is the pictogram for a young sprout. Some of the connotations are: the beginning stages of life and natural generation. On the bottom was a pictogram for a well. Taken together, the 2 symbols indicate that jing is the foundation of living vitality – the well-spring of life. 

Jing’s modern ideogram has 3 parts. The 2 symbols on the right probably morphed from the original pictograms, i.e. shêng (vitality) and the well. Added later on, the radical on the left is the symbol for mi, uncooked rice. The great importance of rice in the nutritional history of the Chinese people is indicative of the significance of this symbol. The ideogram, which combines the symbols for rice, vitality and a well, suggests that jing is a universal energy source that nourishes human life.

The Concise English-Chinese Dictionary, 1999, p. 233, provides a number of definitions for jing that support and refine these perspectives.

  Jing:   1. energy; spirit

            2. essence; extract

            3. sperm; semen; seed

            4. goblin; spirit; demon


Definition 2 broadly introduces the notion of ‘vital essence’. Roth, as well as other scholars, typically rely upon this as a traditional translation for jing. The other definitions listed above suggest to us that it is also useful to view jing from more than this abstract perspective.

Definitions 1 and 4 suggest a metaphysical perspective that is focused upon a ‘spirit’ world. There is an implication that there are aspects of reality that go beyond the purely physical.  It suggests that living beings could potentially tap into sources of universal energy. 

Definition 3 indicates a physical perspective that emphasizes our reproductive energy. Biologically, jing is sperm/semen, i.e. the seed of life. In this context, jing is frequently associated with our sexual energy, at least on the individual level. Extrapolating from the other definitions, jing becomes a universal generative force.

Jing as Generative Life Force

At one level of meaning, jing’s sperm-like aspect links it to our reproductive system. On the physical level, sperm is integral to creating offspring and as such is closely linked to the propagation of the species. The notion of procreation can be viewed as a generative energy that reaches beyond the here and now towards the future. In this sense, jing is a biological energy that encompasses more than merely existing. Rather it is also possesses a creative power.

On the symbolic level, jing could be likened to our fundamental human urge to reverse entropy – the desire to organize our world. In this sense, we can think about jing as a creative energy that motivates our attempts to promote order amidst the tendency towards chaos. When jing is compromised or flagging, we can lose the urge to organize or create.  In extreme cases, we may even find it very difficult to clean our abode or person.

Alternately, when jing is thriving, not only are we alive and healthy, but we are motivated to actively engage in living. For instance, jing would be the energy that motivates me to write these articles, practice the organ, and teach Tai Chi. For the Sage, jing could even be the urge to help out the community – to harmonize the planet.

We should never underestimate the blessing of ‘merely existing’. However, most of us also aspire to be enthusiastic about living. Presumably, if jing is in our core, we will feel motivated to be proactive rather than reactive – to ‘generate’ rather than ‘vegetate’. In this sense, jing is the energy that provides our lives with greater meaning.

As a generative life force, jing is connected with our personal vitality. As we age, attracting jing to our core is even more significant. While youth have an abundance of jing that they seem to burn promiscuously, those of us who have passed the half-century mark would love to have jing energize our being on a more consistent basis. Tapping into and cultivating life force is relevant to every human, but is particularly important for those of us who are getting on in years. How do we attract jing to our core to tap into this generative life force?


Verse 1: Jing is the source of life/vitality (shêng). Sages have jing in the center (zhöng) of their chests. On the individual level, jing is traditionally associated with sexual energy.


1 Harold Roth, Original Tao, Inward Training (Nei-yeh), Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 46. The translations of the Nei-yeh's verses comes from Roth’s book. To elucidate the text, I include Chinese words in brackets.

2 Ching is the older Wade-Giles spelling for jing. Ching is also the Chinese word for tranquility, a concept that will also be a prominent part of this discussion. Although they have the same spelling, their ideograms are completely different. To avoid confusing the 2 words, we will use the newer Pinyin spelling for jing. In this document, I am deliberately mixing two different romanization systems: Wade Giles ch’i, ching, Tao; Pinyin qi, jing, Tao.

3 Harold Roth, Original Tao, Inward Training (Nei-yeh), Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 46. The translations of the Nei-yeh's verses comes from Roth’s book. To elucidate the test, I include Chinese words in brackets.

4 The dictionary shows zhong with a flat line over the 'o'. Due to the limitations of my keyboard, I employ the umlaut to represent the straight line.

5 Chinese Characters, Dr. L. Wieger, S. J. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, translated into the English by L. Davrout, S. J., 1965, 1st published 1915, p. 260

6 Chinese Characters, p. 260

7 Bernard Karlgren, Grammatica Serica Recensa, 1957, p.223


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