Monday, September 22, 2008

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. The magical drug, namely the "elixir of life" , is mentioned about that time, and that most potent elixir, "drinkable gold", which was a solution of this corrosion-resistant metal, as early as the 1st century BC — many centuries before it is heard of in the West. The ''Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic'' which is the basis for Traditional Chinese Medicine details the search for methods to increase health and longevity and was reputed to have been written during the legendary Xia Dynasty ca. 2100 BC–1600 BC

Although non-Chinese influences 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 , 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'' .

The oldest known Chinese alchemical treatise is the ''Chou-i ts'an t'ung ch'i'' . In the main it is an apocryphal interpretation of the ''I Ching'' , an ancient classic especially esteemed by the Confucians, relating alchemy to the mystical mathematics of the 64 hexagrams . Its relationship to chemical practice is tenuous, but it mentions materials and implies chemical operations. The first Chinese who is reasonably well known was Ge Hong , whose book ''Baopuzi'' contains two chapters with obscure recipes for elixirs, mostly based on or arsenic compounds. The most famous Chinese alchemical book is the ''Tan chin yao ch├╝eh'' , probably by Sun Ssu-miao . It is a practical treatise on creating elixirs 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 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" 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 has three major aspects, firstly the doctrine which involves explanation and commentary of various methods, and then two practical types of method which may be classified as Waidan or 'external elixir' method and Neidan or 'internal elixir' method. Although the symbolism of the two methods have many similarities the basic difference is that Waidan compounds an elixir often from herbal or chemical substances outside of the body whereas Neidan compounds the elixir from the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine and involves cultivation of substances internal to the body through practises such as breathing exercises, Taoist Yoga and meditation, in particular the manipulation of three substances in the body known as 'the three treasures'. The three treasures are:

1. the generative force or Jing sometimes translated as 'essence'

2. the breath, sometimes translated as internal energy or Ch'i

3. the spirit or shen.

These substances are also associated with locations in the body where the alchemical firing process can take place known as the 3 dantians:

The lower dantian is located 1.3 inches below the navel and is also called the golden stove.

The middle dantian is in the heart

The upper dantian is in the brain just behind a point directly between the eyebrows, also known as the Third Eye.

This method of achieving immortality was passed on by the patriarch Lu Tung-ping:

Lu Tung-pin and his teacher, Chung-li Ch'uan, were two of the "Eight Immortals”, pa-hsien. While a fugitive after an abortive Chinese military expedition against Tibet, Chung-li Ch'uan encountered Master Tung-hua. He "earnestly begged for the secrets of immortality. Master Tung-hua thereupon imparted to him not only an infallible magic process for attaining longevity, but also the method to produce the Philosopher's Stone."

The original stone tablet which graphically describes the method can be found at the White Cloud Temple in Beijing.

Another account of Lu Tu-ping's method can be found in The Secret of the Golden Flower:

"The Tenet of the Golden Flower of Great Duality" is one of the most important Taoist classics on the theory of cultivating the elixir. The author of this classic is attributed to the famous Chinese immortal Lu Dongbin who is believed to have lived on earth for more than 800 years.


*Taoist Yoga by Lu K'uan Yu, Rider 1970, ISBN 0712617256
*Doctrine of the Elixir by R.B.Jefferson, Coombe Springs Press 1982, ISBN 0900306157
*Spiritual Disciplines, Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks the Paper entitled ‘Spiritual Guidance in Contemporary Taoism’ by Irwin Rouselle, published by Princeton University Press 1985, ISBN 0691018634
*Secret of the Golden Flower Wilhelm, Harcourt 1970, ISBN 0156799804
*Sivin, Nathan.
**"Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies", Monographs in History of Science, Harvard University Press, 1968.
**, from Medicine, Philosophy and Religion in Ancient China", Variorum, 1995, chapter 1.
**, from Joseph Needham et al., "Science and Civilisation in China", Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 210-305.

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