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Chinese alchemy

Neither in China nor in the West can scholars approach with certitude the origins of alchemy, but the evidences in China appear to be slightly older. Indeed, Chinese alchemy was connected with an enterprise older than metallurgy — i.e., medicine. Belief in physical immortality among the Chinese seems to go back to the 8th century BC, and belief in the possibility of attaining it through drugs to the 4th century BC. The magical drug, namely the "elixir of life" (elixir is the European word), is mentioned about that time, and that most potent elixir, "drinkable gold", which was a solution (usually imaginary) of this corrosion-resistant metal, as early as the 1st century BC — many centuries before it is heard of in the West.

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Although non-Chinese influences (especially Indian) are possible, the genesis of alchemy in China may have been a purely domestic affair. It emerged during a period of political turmoil, the Warring States Period (from the 5th to the 3rd century BC), and it came to be associated with Taoism — a mystical religion founded by the 6th-century-BC sage Laozi — and its sacred book, the Daodejing ("Classic of the Way of Power"). The Taoists were a miscellaneous collection of "outsiders" — in relation to the prevailing Confucians — and such mystical doctrines as alchemy were soon grafted onto the Taoist canon. What is known of Chinese alchemy is mainly owing to that graft, and especially to a collection known as Yün chi ch'i ch'ien (“Seven Tablets in a Cloudy Satchel”), which is dated 1023. Thus, sources on alchemy in China (as elsewhere) are compilations of much earlier writings.

The oldest known Chinese alchemical treatise is the Chou-i ts'an t'ung ch'i ("Commentary on the I Ching"). In the main it is an apocryphal interpretation of the I Ching ("Classic of Changes"), an ancient classic especially esteemed by the Confucians, relating alchemy to the mystical mathematics of the 64 hexagrams (six-line figures used for divination). Its relationship to chemical practice is tenuous, but it mentions materials (including sal ammoniac) and implies chemical operations. The first Chinese alchemist who is reasonably well known was Ge Hong (AD 283–343), whose book Baopuzi (pseudonym of Ge Hong) contains two chapters with obscure recipes for elixirs, mostly based on mercury or arsenic compounds. The most famous Chinese alchemical book is the Tan chin yao chüeh (“Great Secrets of Alchemy”), probably by Sun Ssu-miao (AD 581 – after 673). It is a practical treatise on creating elixirs (mercury, sulfur, and the salts of mercury and arsenic are prominent) for the attainment of immortality, plus a few for specific cures for disease and such other purposes as the fabrication of precious stones.

Altogether, the similarities between the materials used and the elixirs made in China, India, and the West are more remarkable than are their differences. Nonetheless, Chinese alchemy differed from that of the West in its objective. Whereas in the West the objective seems to have evolved from gold to elixirs of immortality to simply superior medicines, neither the first nor the last of these objectives seems ever to have been very important in China.

Chinese alchemy was consistent from first to last, and there was relatively little controversy among its practitioners, who seem to have varied only in their prescriptions for the elixir of immortality or perhaps only over their names for it, of which one Sinologist has counted about 1,000. In the West there were conflicts between advocates of herbal and "chemical" (i.e., mineral) pharmacy, but in China mineral remedies were always accepted. There were, in Europe, conflicts between alchemists who favoured gold making and those who thought medicine the proper goal, but the Chinese always favored the latter. Since alchemy rarely achieved any of these goals, it was an advantage to the Western alchemist to have the situation obscured, and the art survived in Europe long after Chinese alchemy had simply faded away.

Chinese alchemy followed its own path. Whereas the Western world, with its numerous religious promises of immortality, never seriously expected alchemy to fulfill that goal, the deficiencies of Chinese religions in respect to promises of immortality left that goal open to the alchemist. A serious reliance on medical elixirs that were in varying degrees poisonous led the alchemist into permanent exertions to moderate those poisons, either through variation of the ingredients or through chemical manipulations. The fact that immortality was so desirable and the alchemist correspondingly valued enabled the British historian of science Joseph Needham to tabulate a series of Chinese emperors who probably died of elixir poisoning. Ultimately a succession of royal deaths made alchemists and emperors alike more cautious, and Chinese alchemy vanished (probably as the Chinese adopted Buddhism, which offered other, less dangerous avenues to immortality), leaving its literary manifestations embedded in the Taoist canons.


  • Sivin, Nathan. [1]
    • "Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies", Monographs in History of Science, Harvard University Press, 1968.
    • "Comparing Greek and Chinese Philosophy and Science", from Medicine, Philosophy and Religion in Ancient China", Variorum, 1995, chapter 1.
    • "The Theoretical Background of Laboratory Alchemy", from Joseph Needham et al., "Science and Civilisation in China", Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 210-305.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Chinese_alchemy". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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