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Chinese alchemy

Both the origin and source of Chinese alchemy are uncertain, if not unknown. Perhaps two or three centuries before the Greek writings on alchemy there appeared Chinese literature describing beliefs and processes which might be called alchemical. Even with the previous statement, there remains a question whether such knowledge migrated from East to West, or vice versa.

Unlike its Western counterpart, Chinese alchemy had one pursuit which was longevity and gradually immortality. The mentioning of a drug that could function as an elixir to promote immortality is found in Indian literature as early as 1000 BCE, as well as indications of alchemy in the Atharva-veda. But it is impossible to say whether these are sources of Chinese alchemy.

Evidence indicates that alchemy was practiced in China in the fourth century BCE by Dzou Yen. This evidence seems conclusive by the existence of a law enacted against counterfeiting gold by alchemical methods in 175 BCE; thus alchemy existed some time before then and became scandalous. From thenceforth no alchemical practice could be performed except to obtain longevity. It was even thought gold made from cinnabar that composed vessels for eating and drinking would help prolong life.

However, such practices were at least discussed in the Imperial Court from about 130-120 BCE. In 60 BCE the Emperor Susan who had became interested in the immortals and appointed a famous scholar, Lu Hsiang, as Master of Recipes to make gold and silver to prolong life. Susan believed like his former successor Emperor Wu, that the goddess Stove must be worshipped in order to gain spirituality within himself. The goddess Stove, a beautiful old lady dressed in red garments with her hair done in s knot atop of her head, was the patroness of cooking and brewing medicine, so naturally she would oversee alchemy too. So he had the prescribed sacrifices made to the five sacred mountains and four great rivers, which the "possessors of recipes" or magicians said that was required; they personally had seized upon this plan to get him to officially establish worship of other divinities. Lu Hsiang was to make the gold from the recipes of Dzou Yen and others contained in two ancient books entitled The Great Treasure and The Secrets of the Park. With the Emperor's approval he spent a vast amount of the treasury before admitting failure. He was convicted of trying to make gold, imprisoned and sentenced to death. But the Emperor valued his ability and was easily persuaded to commute the sentence after Lu Hsiang's brother offered a handsome ransom.

There are many other legends showing this attitude of Chinese alchemical masters toward their art. One, possibly in the first century CE, concerns anther gentleman of the Imperial Court. He loved alchemy, and having married and acquiring a servant, he attempted making gold from recipes in The Great Treasure. His wife watched as he fanned the ashes to heat the retort containing quicksilver. His desired result did not appear. His wife the said, "I want to show you something," and took some drug from a bag and threw a very little into the retort. It was absorbed and soon there was silver. Her husband was astonished and asked why she had not told him she possessed this secret sooner. She answered, "In order to get it, it is necessary for one to have the proper fate." This was the foretelling of favorable astrological conditions which later alchemists would deem necessary. The drug also foreshadowed the indispensable philosopher's stone of the future.

In the Document Concerning the Three Similars" possibly written in the second or third century CE, there is mentioned, possibly, star-shaped or hexagon alchemy based on Taoism. The story concerned the preparation of the "pill of immortality," which is made of gold and required a tiny bit to be effective. Another story in Complete Biographies of the Immortals is how Bo-yang tested the faith of his disciples in himself and his gold medicine.

Bo-yang (and his white dog) entered the mountains to make efficacious medicines. With him were three disciples, two of whom he thought were lacking in complete faith. When the medicine was made, he tested them. He said, "The gold medicine is made, but it ought first to be tested on the dog. If no harm comes to the dog, we may take it ourselves; but if the dog dies of it, we ought not to take it. Bo-yang fed the medicine to the dog, and the dog died an instantaneous death. Whereupon he said, "The medicine is not yet done. The dog has died of it. Doesn't this show the divine light has not been attained? If we take it ourselves, I am afraid we shall go the same way as the dog. What is to be done?" The disciples asked, "Would you take it yourself, Sir?" To this Bo-yang replied, "I have abandoned the worldly route and forsaken my home to come here. I should be ashamed to return if I could not attain immortality. So to live without trying the medicine would be just the same as to die of the medicine. I must take it." With these final words he put the medicine in his mouth and died instantly.

On seeing this, one of the disciples said, "Our teacher was no common person. He took the medicine and died of it. He must have done that with special intention." The disciple also took the medicine and died. The other two disciples said to one another, "The purpose of making this medicine is to attempt at attaining longevity. Now the taking of medicine has caused deaths. It would be better not to take the medicine and to be able to live a few decades longer." They left the mountain together without taking the medicine, intending to get burial supplies for their teacher and their fellow disciple.

After the departure of the two disciples, Bo-yang revived. He placed some of the well-concocted medicine in the mouth of the disciple and in the mouth of the dog. In a few minutes they both revived. He took the disciple, whose name was Yu, and the dog, and went the way of the immortals. By a wood-cutter whom they met, he sent a letter of thanks to the two disciples. The two disciples were filled with regret when they read the letter.

A few lessons of this story later appeared as beliefs in Western alchemy. There is the faith or belief in the art itself. Like Bo-yang, the European alchemists had faith in what they did. Also like Bo-yang they considered it a worthy cause which was noble and held in high esteem. Later alchemy came to symbolize death and rebirth just as in the story; Bo-yang, his dog, and his disciple died, and were revived by the medicine, made new to go the way of the immortals. The medicine foreshadowed the philosopher's stone.

Since most Chinese alchemy was concerned with the attainment of longevity and immortality, it was primarily based on the Tao philosophy. This philosophy, or Taoism, is concerned with being in harmony with the universe, which is perfectly reasonable because anyone seeking a long life should want to live it harmoniously. This harmony could only be achieved by men with great spiritual gifts. It might be supposed one such gift was feeling superiority over women who were incapable of such gifts. Men not possessing such gifts probably took short cuts trying to get longevity.

Longevity or immortality was obtained though the use of a drug, made on the Chinese theory of matter based on the yang (male element) and yin (female element) principle. Substances rich with yang supposedly imparted life and longevity. The most highly prized of these was cinnabar (native red mercuric sulphide), next in potency was gold. Most probably the favoring of the color of red for life and longevity was an association with red blood of health, and that its power to for liquid mercury ("living" metal or "quick" silver) also entered into it. From deduction, it must have gradually appeared that cinnabar was not going to yield longevity and then, in typical alchemical fashion, the goal was transferred to manufacturing a drug or elixir, which underwent the same changes in color, from white to red, as the philosopher's stone of the West.

The Chinese idea of transmuting cinnabar into gold appeared around the second century BCE. They, like all men in the pre-scientific age supposed all minerals matured in rocks gradually becoming more precious. The enrichment of cinnabar was thought to follow this progression: cinnabar to lead, lead to silver, and silver to gold. It never seemed unreasonable that this process could not be achieved in a laboratory. The Chinese method of transmutation differed from that of the West. They chiefly used boilings and fusions; they certainly knew about sublimation with which they made vermilion. They also developed some sort of distillation process.

As can be seen from preserved accounts it is difficult to exactly describe all of their processes. For example, the Chinese alchemist, Go-Hung, said a man may prolong his life by taking medicine made from plants, but can become immortal only by the use of a Divine Elixir made from metals and minerals. The substances composing this elixir are difficult to identify. Though there is evidence of the use of red and yellow arsenic sulphides, sulphur, cinnabar, alum, salt, white arsenic, oyster shells, mica, chalk, and the resin of the pine tree. This resulting elixir when thrown on onto mercury or a mixture of lead and tin, converted the metal into gold or silver-gold from mercury, and silver from lead-tin alloy. As a medicine, if taken one hundred days man would become immortal. This is probably the earliest description of mosaic gold (stannic sulphide, yellow sulphide of tin).

Another intriguing fact about Chinese alchemy is the attached importance to the number 5. There were five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, five zones of space; five directions: north, south, east, west, and centre; five colors: yellow, blue, red, white, and black; and the five stones from which man was first taught to extract copper. In the Chinese alchemical theory the five elements, directions, and colors were associated with one another and to the five metals gold, silver, lead, copper, and iron; thus earth was connected to the color yellow, the direction centre, and the metal gold. The other linked groupings were wood, blue, east, and lead; fire, red, south, and copper; metal, white, west, and silver; and water, black, north, and iron. A further connection was between these groupings and the five planets: water corresponding to Mercury, fire to Mars, wood to Jupiter, metal to Venus, earth to Saturn. These equations foreshadow future supposed correspondences.

By the 11th CE Chinese alchemy had almost been abandoned; the realization that immortality obtained from metals and minerals was impossible had settled in. Alchemical vocabulary and terminology had turned toward spiritual and mystical pursuits as it would eventually do in the West. The pursuit of immortality was raised to a higher plane without abandoning alchemical thinking which still proved useful. A.G.H.


Holmyard, E.J. "Chinese Alchemy" Alchemy. New York. Dower Publications. 1990. pp. 33-42
Taylor, F. Sherwood. "Chinese Alchemy" Alchemists, Founders of Modern Chemistry. Kessinger Publishing.
pp. 68-75

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