Chinese alchemy

Chinese alchemy

Chinese alchemy, a part of the larger tradition of Taoism, centers on the tradition of body-spirit cultivation that developed through the Chinese understandings of medicine and the body. These Chinese traditions were developed into a system of energy practices. Chinese alchemy focuses mainly on the purification of one's spirit and body in the hopes of gaining immortality through the practice of Qigong and/or consumption and use of various concoctions known as alchemical medicines or elixirs, each of which having different purposes.

Pao zhi (Pao chi) refers to the alchemy of processing Traditional Chinese medicines, such as honey or wine frying and roasting with toxic metals such as mercury, lead, and arsenic.[1]

According to J.C. Cooper's "Chinese Alchemy: The Taoist Quest for Immortality," Taoism had two distinct parts, the classical Tao Chia, which was mystical and stemmed primarily from Laozi and Zhuangzi, and the more popular Tao Chiao, which was the popular, magical and alchemical side of Taoism. Cooper states that a common viewpoint is that "classical Taoism [Daoism] was original but was too austere and rarefied for the general populace ... [but] Tao Chiao fulfilled the day-to-day needs of the people."


Process and purpose

By refining bases into gold, the alchemist believed that immortal life would be delivered if the "fake" or synthetic gold was ingested. The idea that fake gold was superior to real gold arose because the alchemists believed the combination of a variety of substances (and the transformation of these substances through roasting or burning) gave the final substance a spiritual value. It possesses a superior essence when compared to natural gold. (Cooper, 1990. Pg. 65) Gold and cinnabar (Jindan in Chinese) were the most sought-after substances to manipulate and ingest. They were believed to have longevity and could elongate the life of the consumer. Cinnabar is a mineral with a reddish brown colour and is often found near deposits of mercury, and so assumed to be related, which is correct, as Cinnabar is mercuric sulfide. It was used in the search for immortality because of the special significance of its colour, and the difficulty with which it was refined.

The colour of the cinnabar is significant to symbolic belief as well. The colour red in Chinese culture is considered to be the "zenith of the colour representing the sun, fire, royalty and energy." (Cooper, 1990. Pg 70) Cinnabar could also be roasted which produced a liquid form of silver known as quicksilver, which we know to be mercury. This substance was ingested but it could also be combined with sulphur and burned again to return to its natural form of cinnabar. "Cinnabar was the yang to quicksilver's yin" (Cooper, 1990. Pg 70). In China gold was quite rare, so it was usually imported from other surrounding countries. However, cinnabar could be refined in the mountains of Szechuan and Hunan Provinces in central China.

Although the majority of hsien (immortality) elixirs were combinations of jindan, many other elixirs were formed by combining metallic bases with natural herbs or animals bi-products. The rhinoceros' horn was commonly used in medicines and elixirs and was held to have fertility-increasing abilities. Elixirs were composed of metallic compounds such as gold and silver, but they could also be made of more lethal components like arsenic, and sulphur.

Eastern vs Western views

Both the Eastern practice of alchemy and the later Western practice are remarkably similar in their methods and ultimate purpose. To be sure, the desire to create an elixir of immortality was more appealing to the Daoist cult, but European alchemists were not averse to seeking out formulas for various longevity-boosting substances. The secret of transmuting one element into another, specifically base metals into gold or silver, was equally explored by both schools for obvious reasons.

In the European outlook, the ability to turn relatively worthless materials into gold was attractive enough to allow medieval alchemy to enjoy extensive practice long after the Chinese form had been forgotten. Alternatively, transmutation was also a means of accruing the precious metals that were key in making life-extending elixirs, and were otherwise expensive and difficult to obtain. Alchemical knowledge in the East and West favor different opinions of the true form of alchemy due to different theological views and cultural biases, however these disputes do not lessen the integrity of alchemy's canonical nature. What was started in China as an extension of Taoist principles, was continued by the western civilizations in a purely scientific state, stripped of any real theological significance.

Chinese alchemy specifically was consistent in its practice from the beginning, and there was relatively little controversy among its practitioners. Definition amongst alchemists varied only in their medical prescription for the elixir of immortality or perhaps only over their names for it, of which sinology has counted about 1,000. because the Chinese approach was through the fundamental doctrine of Yin and Yang, the influence of the I Ching, and the teachings of the Five Elements, Chinese alchemy had its roots considerably more in obtaining a higher mental-spiritual level.

In the West there were conflicts between advocates of herbal and "chemical" (mineral pharmacy), but in China, mineral remedies were always accepted. In Europe there were conflicts between alchemists who favored 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.


Despite much research, many scholars are still unable to marshal conflicting evidence in order to determine when exactly Chinese alchemy started. It was thought that China was making gold about one thousand years before Confucius' time, but this is contradicted by other academics stating that during the 5th century there was no word for gold and that it was an unknown metal in China (Sivin 1968. Pg. 21.)

However, despite the uncertain origins, there are enough similarities in the ideas of practices of Chinese alchemy and the Daoist tradition so that one can conclude that Laozi and Chang Tao Ling are the creators of this tradition. In her article, Radcliffe tells that Chang Tao Ling rejected serving the Emperor and retreated to live in the mountains. At this time, he met Laozi and together they created (or attempted to create) the Elixir of Life (Radcliffe, 2001), by creating the theory that would be used in order to achieve the making of such an elixir. This is the starting point to the Chinese tradition of alchemy, whose purpose was to achieve immortality.

One of the first evidence of Chinese alchemy being openly discussed in history is during the Ch'in's First Emperor's period when Huan K'uan (73-49BC) states how modifying forms of nature and ingesting them will bring immortality to the person who drinks them (Pregadio. 1995.) Before Huan K'uan, the idea of alchemy was to turn base metals into gold. Conflicting research on the origins of alchemy are further demonstrated by Cooper, who claims that alchemy "flourished well before 144 BCE, for at that date the Emperor issued an edict which ordered public execution for anyone found making counterfeit gold" (Cooper, 1991). This suggests that people were well aware of how to heat the metals in order to change them into a desired form. A further counter to Pregadio from Cooper is the latter's contention that an emperor in 60 BCE had hired "a well-known scholar, Liu Hsiang, as Master of the Recipes so that he could make alchemical gold and prolong the Emperor's life." All of these conflicting origins considered, it is nearly impossible to claim any absolute knowledge on the origins of Chinese alchemy. Today, if one looks at the teachings in Daoism one can find alchemical practices in these texts. Most of which posit the existence of an elixir or the Golden Elixir that when ingested gives the drinker eternal life. Since one can make a direct and certain connection between Daoism and Laozi, it is a fair statement to suggest that he played a major role in the creation of Chinese alchemy.

Tsau Yen is said to have written many of the alchemical books although none of them have ever been found, nor have the existing ones been credited to him (Sivin 1968. Pg. 22.) The likeliest proponents of Chinese alchemy are as previously stated, Laozi, and Chang Tao Ling as well as Zhuangzi. Each of these men are major icons in Daoist teachings. Although these three are credited with the creation of alchemy, there is no definitive proof to suggest or dispute that they were responsible for its creation.

Yin and Yang

Yin-Yang is an important concept in the ideas of Chinese alchemy. Cooper points out that the idea is pervasive throughout alchemical theory, as the metals were categorized as being male or female, and mercury and sulphur especially were thought to have powers relating to lunar and solar respectively.

Davis posits that, prior to the Taoist tradition, the Chinese already had very definitive notions of the natural world, especially involving the Five Elements, which were Water, Fire, Earth, Metal and Wood. These were commonly thought to be interchangeable with one another; each were capable of becoming another element. The concept is integral, as the belief in outer alchemy necessitates the belief in natural elements being able to change into others. The cyclical balance of the elements relates to the binary opposition of yin-yang, and so it appears quite frequently.

Outer alchemy (Waidan)

Chinese alchemy can be divided into two methods of practice which are [Waidan] or "external alchemy" and [Neidan] or "internal alchemy". Doctrine can be accessed to describe these methods in greater detail; the majority of Chinese alchemical sources can be found in the Taozang, the "Taoist Canon".

The term Waidan can be divided into two parts: Wai meaning outside or exterior and Dan referring to alchemy, elixir and cinnabar (mercury). Waidan is performed using an elixir often containing herbal or chemical substances found outside of the body. Waidan not only involved the use of an elixir but included oral instructions, the building of a laboratory, kindling the fire used to produce the elixir, as well as observing rules about seclusion and purification and performing ceremonies to protect the ritual area. Waidan can also include following certain dietary regiments including the avoidance of specific foods. Taking medicines and elixirs can be referred to outer elixir or weidan; these practices occur outside of the body until they are verified by the ingestion of medicines, herbs, and pills to bring about physical changes within the body, separate to the soul.

Inner alchemy (Neidan)

The term Neidan can be divided into two parts Nei meaning inner and Dan referring to alchemy, elixir and cinnabar (mercury). Neidan uses techniques such as: composed meditation techniques, visualization, breathing and bodily posture exercises. Breathing exercises were used to preserve jing or "life essence" and bodily postures were used to improve qi or "energy" flow in the body. Neidan comprises the elixir from the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the cultivation of substances already present in the body, in particular the manipulation of three substances in the body known as the "Three Treasures".

The three treasures are:

  1. Jing which can be translated as "life essence". A person is born with Jing and it governs the developmental growth processes in the body. Since people are born with a certain amount of Jing, it is taught that a person can increase their Jing through dietary and lifestyle practices.
  2. Ch'i which can be translated as "energy" or "vital energy". Ch'i energy results from the interaction of yin and yang. A healthy body is constantly circulating Ch'i.
  3. Shen can be translated as "spirit" or "mind". Shen is the energy used in mental, spiritual and creative functioning (Lu, 30).

The three treasures are also associated with locations in the body where the alchemical firing process can take place, known as the three dantians (Lu, 10):

  1. Jing or "life essence" is found in the adrenal glands.
  2. Ch'i or "vital energy: is found in the lower dantian, which is located just below the navel.
  3. Shen or "spiritual energy" is found in the upper dantian located between the eyebrows, also known as the Third eye (Jefferson (1982)).


Yoga is essentially spiritual alchemy. Yoga and alchemy are both concerned with the ultimate balancing of the soul. Cooper writes that "the aspirant neither renounces life in the world nor is caught up in the realm of the senses" essentially reiterating the yin and yang values of balance that Daoism and Chinese alchemy were originally derived from. The name yoga means "yoke"; it uses practices that cultivate health of both the psyche and physical body. Drawing on Mircea Eliade, Cooper states that "yoga requires perfect discipline of body and mind, the object being to rouse the spiritual powers ... and to attain realization or immortality." Chinese alchemical yoga depended on exercises, breathing techniques, and an ordered and balanced diet which was designed to increase longevity. The diet was often vegetarian, and some diets removed onion and garlic, others removed grains, and still other removed fish and other meat (Cooper, 109).

Associated risks

When ingested, these compounds did not always result in the desired outcome. Many individuals died or had psychological difficulties after taking certain elixirs. However, the loss of life may not have seemed a large risk, when compared with the promise of the afterlife. Although these elixirs were lethal or dangerous, there is some contention that these individuals were not ignorant of the fatality of some of the materials they were ingesting. Cooper states that "there seems to be little doubt, however, that some of these lethal preparations were taken with full knowledge of their effects and that the subsequent death was a deliberate journey to the next world, in full faith of attaining immortality." (pg. 55).

There were certain grades of immortality, so if the practiced alchemist died - as they all inevitably did - the level of immortality they achieved was determined by their corpse. If their corpse was sweet-smelling, it was said that they had achieved immortality in an ephemeral state. Likewise, if their corpse disappeared, leaving behind only the clothes, such as in the death of an adept named Ko Hung, this was another form of immortality known as shih chieh hsien (corpse-free immortals) (Cooper, 14).

Conception of medicine

Medicines can be used to heal ailments on the exterior or interior of the body, to control the ageing of the body, or even to prevent death. The term medicine and elixir are virtually interchangeable because of the array of ailments they can influence. The difference between defining an elixir from a medicine was that many medicines were composed mainly of all natural products like herbs and animal products. Never the animals themselves, only their products, which could consist of dung or fur. Although metal compounds are more potent when curing ailments, herbs were used because they were easier to combine and more abundantly available. To make medicines one would use ingredients like: Kolo nuts, which would be used in famous longevity pills like "Fo-Ti-Ti"; Asparagus, which was used because it was known to increase strength; sesame, which prevents senility; and pine which has over 300 different uses. (Cooper, 1990. Pg. 62) Mushrooms were and still are very popular, they are known as the "magic fungus" and have thousands of purposes within Chinese Alchemy.


  1. ^ Medieval Transmission of Alchemical and Chemical Ideas Between China and India, Vijay Deshpande, Indiana Journal of History of Science, 22 (1), pp. 15-28, 1987


  • Cooper. J.C., Chinese Alchemy: the Daoist Quest for Immortality. Sterling Publishing Co., 1990, pp. 55–70.
  • Davis, Tenney L., and Lu-Ch'iang Wu, "Chinese Alchemy". In The Scientific Monthly, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Sep., 1930), pp. 225–235.
  • Jefferson, R.B., Doctrine of the Elixir. Coombe Springs Press 1982. ISBN 0900306157.
  • Miller, James and Elijah Siegler, "Of Alchemy and Authenticity: Teaching About Daoism Today". In Teaching Theology and Religion, Vol. 10 (2007): 101-108. ISSN 1368-4868.
  • Pregadio, Fabrizio. The Seal of the Unity of the Three: A Study and Translation of the Cantong qi, the Source of the Taoist Way of the Golden Elixir. Mountain View: Golden Elixir Press, 2011. ISBN 9780984308286.
  • Pregadio, Fabrizio, "Taoist Alchemy". 2009.
  • Radcliffe, Jeannie, "Alchemy and Daoism". 2001.
  • Rouselle, Irwin, "Spiritual Guidance in Contemporary Taoism". In Spiritual Disciplines, Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks. Princeton University Press, 1985. ISBN 0691018634.
  • Sivin, Nathan, Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies. Harvard University Press, 1968.
  • Sivin, Nathan, "The Theoretical Background of Laboratory Alchemy". In Joseph Needham et al., Science and Civilisation in China, vol. V, part 5. Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 210–305.
  • Sivin, Nathan, "Comparing Greek and Chinese Philosophy and Science". In Medicine, Philosophy and Religion in Ancient China. Variorum, 1995, chapter 1.
  • Smith, Huston, The World's Religions. Harper Collins, 1991.
  • Wang, Mu. Foundations of Internal Alchemy: The Taoist Practice of Neidan. Golden Elixir Press, 2011. ISBN 9780984308255.
  • Wilhelm, Richard, Secret of the Golden Flower. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1931. ISBN 0156799804.
  • Yu, Lu K'uan, Taoist Yoga, Rider 1970. ISBN 0712617256.

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