The core of all cultivation is the transference and refinement of the fundamental energies of the world. To advance, a cultivator must take in external qi and through various methods purify or otherwise transform the energies to be compatible with their own bodies and spirits. Once this initial infusion of external qi has activated the cultivators own spiritual organs, it becomes possible to generate internal qi in small amounts. However, internal generation is useful only for replenishing and expanding the internal reservoir. In order to refine the body and spirit, or practice arts and techniques requires additional infusions of external qi.
Early cultivation methods, and indeed the ways practiced by the barbaric peoples outside of the empire, achieved this in various unpleasant fashions. The Cloud Tribes of the southern mountains for example, perform a barbaric rite in which young men and women have their souls fully merged with a partner beast, trading away some portion of their humanity identity to catalyze their internal energies with the strength of beasts. This self mutilation is among the more tame non-imperial methods.
The barbarians of the western jungle are much more foul. Ritually excising their own blood and flesh, these veritable beasts would invite evil spirits to inhabit the gaps left behind, and merge these entities with themselves, cultivating through further blood sacrifice and rites most vile. Distant tales of barbarians across the northern seas speak of men who devour one another for power, becoming soulless abominations of mutable flesh. There are more terrible ways such as these than even this scholar can count.
Pre-Imperial methods, the methods of our ancestors, were not typically so unpleasant, however they remain inferior. Most require entering into pacts with spirits and beasts through any number of methods, both exotic and mundane, but almost universally do so from a position of weakness rather than strength, placing them always under the thumb of non human entities. Even those who bargained from strength were forced into an unseemly reliance upon capricious forces.
These ways are inevitably deadly and unstable. They offer a route to power, this is true, and our most esteemed ancestors cannot be blamed for using them in the face of our deadly world when no better methods existed, but they cannot be condoned in the modern day. Though the occasional throwback might arise, swiftly accumulating power in these primitive methods on the back of great luck, one must not forget that for every success there will be a thousand dead or crippled in the attempt, and that is this scholar being somewhat generous with the numbers.
It is a hallmark of civilization that the imperial method, if practiced properly will never cripple or kill the user. The untalented may find themselves progressing slowly or not at all, but they will never find themselves choking on their own blood as their own qi turns against them and poisons their organs.
The core of the imperial method lies in the use of spirit stones. First discovered and put into use by the peoples of Celestial Peaks, the exact nature of spirit stones remain somewhat mysterious to this day. Unlike other minerals, there seems to be no logic to where veins of spirit stones appear. They are most prevalent in Celestial Peaks, but smaller veins occur throughout the empire and indeed expeditions into barbarian lands have turned up signs of their presence even there. Also, unlike other minerals, if not over harvested, spirit stone veins will replenish themselves over the course of decades.
There are many competing theories as to their origin; that they are the remains of the fallen Dragon Gods, that they are the milk of the Nameless Mother, rising from the earth to nourish her children, that they are the last vestiges of ascended beasts so ancient that they have become one with the land, etc. Speculating on the origins is not the purpose of this document however.
Spirit Stones contain a qi that was unique in all of nature at the time of their discovery. ‘Pure’ or ‘Blank’ qi which contains no trace of elemental or spiritual nature. Perfectly mutable, this qi may be used by any person, no matter their temperment or descent, no matter which elements they favor. Pure qi is able to transform into any other type, making it perfect for cultivation whether one is at the very beginning of their way, or nearing its peak. The use of pure qi to cultivate outstrips all other methods in both reliability and efficiency.
That is not to say that the cultivation of other types of qi is useless. Clans the empire over practice cultivation arts which refine environmental qi as a supplement. The more impressive arts even allow for the refinement of various types of qi back down into pure qi for use in cultivation, bypassing the need for spirit stones somewhat. However, it was only the use of spirit stones and generation upon generation of imperial study that allowed such arts to come into existence. In addition such arts are universally difficult to cultivate.
A certain degree of spiritual potency must be achieved before such refinement even becomes possible, let alone efficient. For the vast majority of the empire’s cultivators, spirit stones remain the source of self improvement.
It should be warned however that attempting to cultivate pure qi itself is a mistake. It is largely impossible for those of lesser cultivation and attempting to maintain the purity of the qi after absorption will only slow and hinder if one is capable. However, over the millenia some have performed trials in forcing the cultivation of pure qi. The results of these efforts have never been positive. For those who are already well advanced on the path of cultivation, the results are a damaged foundation and domain, or even losses in cultivation. For those in the lower realms, the results are more dire, typically involving mental degradation or even permanent catatonia.
This resulted in these efforts being banned by imperial decree under the reign of Emperor Wu of the Second dynasty…
-Excerpt from On Cultivation