“Cores” appear quite often in Chinese cultivation novels (Xianxia, Xuanhuan, etc).
But what exactly are they?
There are generally two types of Cores – the type belonging to beasts/monsters, and the type belonging to cultivators. While they share some superficial similarities, the two types of Cores are actually fundamentally different!
In these novels, Beasts are animals capable of cultivation. Some are innately magical and simply grow stronger over time, while others must actively practice a cultivation method. They tend to be much more intelligent than mundane animals, and some are capable of speaking in human languages. Beasts which have reached a high stage of cultivation may even be able to take on a human form.
The Beasts are referred to differently from novel to novel. They are sometimes called Monstrous Beasts, Profound Beasts, Spirit Beasts, Divine Beasts, and so on. But perhaps the two most common varieties are Magical Beasts (魔兽 móshòu) and Demonic Beasts (妖兽 yāoshòu).
These Beasts often possess a Core within their bodies which contains their magical energy and essence (basically “lifeblood/lifeforce”). Cultivators highly prize these Cores and hunt the Beasts to obtain them. The Cores are generally either sold for money, used to craft magical items, or consumed by a cultivator to boost their cultivation
The Cores are typically named similarly to the Beasts. So, for example, Magical Beasts possess Magical Cores (魔核 móhé) and Demonic Beasts possess Demonic Cores (妖核 yāohé).
Take note of the character 核 !
核 can be translated as: nucleus / stone / pit / core
- (Like the stone of a fruit, the pit of a peach, or the core of an apple.)
Makes sense, right?
Cultivators are practitioners of martial & mystical arts who strive to become powerful and increase their longevity. (See the glossary for more information.)
In some novels, the path of cultivation eventually requires Cultivators to forge a Core within their lower dantian by using the dantian as a crucible and their Qi as raw material. This process is often called Core Formation (结丹 jiēdān) – sometimes left in pinyin as Jiedan. It is a difficult and advanced stage of cultivation, and only a small minority of Cultivators are able to succeed.
This is markedly different from the Beasts. Even very weak Beasts are often said to possess (low-quality) Cores, and it may be the case that Beasts are simply born with them. Keep this in mind.
The Cores belonging to Cultivators are sometimes referred to by varying names, but by far the most common is the Gold Core (金丹 jīndān). Many translators in the community disagree on how to translate this term – some simply leave it in pinyin (Jindan), while others use Gold Core, Golden Pellet, or some other translation.
Take note of the characters:
- 金 = gold / metal
- 丹 = red / cinnabar / pill / pellet / elixir / medicine
That’s a lot to consider! And strangely… “core” is missing from the list. So why is 金丹 often translated as Gold Core? I’ll give my thoughts on this shortly.
But first, it’s important to understand that 金丹 is actually a term derived from Daoismand Chinese internal alchemy.
Much like how European alchemists once sought after the Philosopher’s Stone, alchemists in ancient China attempted to create pills of immortality and the elixir of life. However, external alchemy slowly fell out of favor, perhaps (partially) because ingesting alchemical ingredients such as gold, cinnabar, realgar and liquid mercury led to premature deaths rather than eternal life. And so the search for the elixir of life turned inward.
The Archaic 丹 Character – a Pill in a Cauldron?
In internal alchemy: cauldrons and pill furnaces are replaced by the dantian, alchemical ingredients are replaced by the three treasures (Essence, Qi & Spirit), and the elixir of life is referred to as the Golden Elixir (金丹 jīndān).
Internal alchemy is much more esoteric and philosophical compared to external alchemy. It involves cultivating one’s Essence, Qi and Spirit through Daoist cultivation practices and then fusing the three (through a laborious process) to create the Golden Elixir.
The cultivation systems seen in Chinese novels (particularly in the Xianxia genre) are heavily inspired by the above process, although the novels greatly simplify it.
But there’s a question here… If scholars and professional translators who study Chinese internal alchemy translate the term 金丹 as “Golden Elixir”, then why is it translated differently in Xianxia novels?
Jindan / Gold Core / Golden Pellet
The answer is that Xianxia novels tend to portray the 金丹 not as a liquid (elixir), but rather as a small, golden orb crystallized from the condensation of Qi.
With this being the case, out of the possible translations of 金丹, wouldn’t “Golden Pill” or “Golden Pellet” make the most sense? Why “Gold Core”?
I can’t say for certain, but my speculation is that whoever first translated it as Gold Core in a Xianxia/cultivation novel ran into a dilemma. These novels very commonly feature both external alchemy (alchemy which produces medicinal pills 丹药) and internal alchemy (simply called cultivation). I think the translator might have been hesitant to translate 金丹 as Golden Pill or Golden Pellet for fear of confusing readers.
Plus, there was an easy solution at hand. These kinds of novels almost always feature Beasts as well, and the Cores of Beasts are superficially similar to the 金丹 of Cultivators (since they both contain the energy and lifeforce of the owner). So… why not translate 金丹 as Gold Core?
This is the thought process the original translator might have gone through, although again, I can’t be sure. At any rate, the translation of “Gold Core” has caught on since then, with multiple translators electing to use it. But of course, “Jindan” and “Golden Pellet” are still used quite often as well.
Here are just a few examples of the diversity in translation:
- Wyhcwe, the translator of World of Cultivation, uses Jindan.
- Deathblade, the translator of I Shall Seal the Heavens, uses Gold Core.
- RWX, the translator of Desolate Era, uses both Jindan and Golden Pellet.
- Scrya, the translator of My Disciple Died Yet Again, takes a unique approach and uses Azoth Core.
I find it interesting that these all refer to the same thing: the 金丹 !