Disciplined Desire: the Taoist Ars Erotica and ‘Technologies of the Self’
Dr. Ron S. Judy
National Chung Hsing University
The Tao De Jing states that “exchanging the semen to supplement the brain, [one can]
achieve agelessness” (huan jing bu nao, ke de bu lao, TDJ 283). Later generations of Taoist
authors would interpret this passage as an injunction to develop sexual practices for
manipulating the semen (jing) to achieve sagehood. The manuals and descriptions of these
practices, many of them documented by the British sinologue Joseph Needham in his Science
and Civilization in China (Vol 5, 1960), make up the core texts of the ars erotica tradition
which scholars today struggle to interpret. Needham, a chemist by training, considered the
practices mainly within the frame of the Taoist alchemical tradition and its interest in making
an “inner elixir of life” (nei dan). For this reason he classified them as “Physiological
Alchemy” and discussed them mainly from the standpoint of bio-chemistry and the practice
of experiments on the body using herbs, drugs, and sexual calisthenics. From the same
generation but from a much different perspective, the Dutch sinologist Robert van Gulik
studied and translated numerous texts in the Taoist ars erotica canon while composing his
Sexual Life in Ancient China (1961). For van Gulik the ars erotica of medieval Taoism
developed as a doctrine for creating, maintaining, and prolonging healthy (repression-free)
lives. For a subsequent generation of sinologists interested in Taoist sex practices religion was
the key theme, and in the work of Strickmann (1980), Kohn (1989), and Schipper (1993) the
emphasis is on alchemy and doctrines of health as part of the Taoist pursuit of religious
enlightenment. In more recent studies, especially those done by scholars working mainly in
the area of comparative literature and philosophy—notably Heubel (2004), Shusterman
(2007), Jie Guo (2010), and Rocha (2010)—the Chinese ars erotica is frequently interpreted
trans-culturally, in terms of how Western theorists (e.g., Foucault and Lyotard) and
sinologists (van Gulik and Needham) have interpreted and appropriated the Chinese ars
erotica tradition for their own discursive ends. This paper surveys this Western dialogue with
the Taoist ars erotica and argues that the they are analogous to what French classicist Pierre
Hadot (1995) and others have called “spiritual practices”—i.e., those techniques aimed at
self-transformation and deemed necessary for the mastery of the “arts of living” (techne tou
bios) in the ancient world. My comparative approach thus looks mainly at the discursive
innovations in sexual method achieved by the Shangqing (Great Clarity) sects and then
concentrates on a close reading of the Record of Cultivating Human Nature and Prolonging
Life where I argue that the work should be read in terms of Foucault’s “technologies of the
Keywords: Taoism, Foucault, the body, history of sexuality, ars erotica, epimeleia, Tao

Disciplined Desire: the Taoist Arts Erotica and