Alchemy and Protochemistry in the History of TCM

Paul L. Reller L.Ac. / Last Updated: August 03, 2017

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The history of Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, is not only a record of mankind's search for safe and effective holistic cures in nature, but a rich and complex story of science, civilization and philosophical development of our understanding of natural science. In this history of medical science and discovery there was intertwined a search for the fundamental substance of our living being. This subject was a part of what was called alchemy in the West at a later date, and in modern times has been maligned and ridiculed as merely a fantastical search for a means to turn lead into gold and find a fortune through wizardry, yet this early scientific discipline created theories, practice and medical results that were integral to the development of holistic medicine in China, as well as modern allopathic chemistry, with such developments as the first synthetic insulin and other hormonal therapies, live vaccines, and many more important discoveries. The study of alchemical science also produced a vast array of technologies in developing metals, weapons, industrial products, scientific instruments, and of course, most of our important scientific concepts and theories for a thousand years or more. To describe alchemy today in the ubiquitous deriding manner we see is ridiculous. 

This alchemical science in ancient China, Shen Dan, emerged from strong intellectual concepts in what was finally called Daoism, based in the holistic philosophical natural science and civilization elucidated by Lao Zi (Li Er / Lao Dan 6th century BCE) and Chuang Tzu (4th century BCE), and continuing in the Huang Lao philosophy (inspired by the patriarch Huang Di and Lao Zi). Chinese alchemy and the specialty of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), or Zhong Yao 中药, are intimately linked, yet this alchemical science is also linked to many modern scientific discoveries and disciplines that we now take for granted, in many scientific fields. In fact, there is a host of therapeutic approaches used in modern medicine that may be traced to the broad alchemical and protochemical sciences developed in China. Novel uses of metal minerals in liquid and gaseous medicines have shown a history of significant success with difficult autoimmune disorders, but this is actually just the most obvious of examples, and Chinese alchemical sciences are responsible for the development of concepts of live vaccines, nutritional medicine, laboratory science, and the science of chemistry itself. 

Medicines developed over thousands of years in Chinese alchemical laboratories were more than simple mineral concoctions. Indeed, herbal medicine was always integral to alchemical elixirs, even later in European alchemy of the 17th century, and the same herbs that were used in ancient alchemy are still commonly used today. Alchemy in China, or Shen Dan, also involved a host of health practices of daily life that are still part of TCM holistic practice today as well, such as Qi Gong mind-body practices. Our simplistic and narrow depiction of alchemy is absurd when looking at the history of this science and practice. A serious look at both the history of the mineral and herbal medicines and the subsequent complete attention to public health concerns in Chinese civilization that resulted from the study of alchemy, as well as the integrated disciplines of alchemy, Daoism, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), may shed light on the present struggle to integrate effective holistic medicine and policy into our own standard medical protocol. In a sense, we could say that alchemy is still practiced today. Alchemy is a term with a rich meaning and history, yet a neurotic attitude of derision still resonates widely through human culture and scientific circles. Only in recent years are we again seeing respected scholars finally again acknowledging this fact and prompting a new look at our rich human history in the alchemical sciences. 

The great challenge in finally looking at the history of alchemy realistically is to finally get past the strong historical bias and misinformation concerning this broad science. When one actually goes to the roots of alchemical study and experimentation we see that many great inventions and scientific ideas came out of exploration of the building blocks of life, which humans tried to replicate in a laboratory at a very early time in human civilization. Just like today, as our scientists continue to explore theoretical physics and astrophysics to understand better who we are and how we ended up the way we are in the universe, and in so doing discover a wealth of useful concepts, devices and products in industrial use and daily technology, our human ancestors created laboratories to try to replicate the forces inside our planet and reactive to the radiation of the sun that they assumed were the answer to how life began. These early mineral and chemical experiments produced refined metals, gunpowder, the compass, porcelain, and of course many medicines, and later alchemical experiments provided Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle the observations that largely defined modern physics and chemistry, yet we still talk of alchemy as nothing more than a belief in the magic of making gold from lead and creating imaginary elixirs of immortality.

"Let us remember, please, that the search for the constitution of the world is one of the greatest and noblest problems presented by Nature." Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 AD), one of the greatest scientists in human history.

The Essential Nature of Alchemy

Although it was eventually maligned and discounted as a pseudoscience, alchemy was in fact a broad interdisciplinary science that was initially exploratory and philosophical, and that, in a sense, could be compared, in its goals, to the present day building of the large Hadron particle accelerator, or collider (LHC), albeit with less technology. It sought to replicate the forces of nature that were observed to create life on our planet, and to transform the human organism to its highest state. Early humans saw that the forces deep in our planet created enormous pressure and heat that appeared to transform one earth material into another, as well as creating gases and liquids, even water, and many chemical mixes. In working with earth metals they of course sought to replicate these processes. The alchemy labs were invented, and basic scientific methodology. In our laboratories today we still are seeking the answer to how life on this planet came about, and we are still failing, perhaps because of a narrow-minded attitude and failure to grasp the holistic perspective. If the ancient alchemists were so wrong, why haven't we come up with an alternate proof of these fundamental, or essential, questions of life itself?

In this search for understanding of how living beings came into existence, and how to improve the organism through science and medicine, a complex technology of medicinal substances, the Daoist approach of preventive medicine integrated into standard care, and even the science of stimulation with metal needles, eventually called acupuncture, were further developed. Wonderful documentation of the history of alchemical development is found in the works of Joseph Needham, perhaps the foremost English language historian of Chinese history in the twentieth century. Needham, a renowned Cambridge professor, devoted his life to this work, entitled Science and Civilisation in China, and the third volume of this extensive work covers chemistry and chemical technology, and starts with a continuation of his documentation of the origins of alchemy and protochemistry, which he considered very important in the development of world science and civilization. Late in life, Dr. Needham published the sixth volume of his life's work, devoted to the history of biology and biological technology, including herbal and nutrient medicine. Further research, if he had lived longer, was to document the rich history of the physiotherapies of Chinese civilization, such as Tui na, Dao Yin, Qi Gong and Tai Chi therapies and practices.

Modern medical and scientific approaches that resemble the aims of the early Daoist alchemical sciences include anti-aging medicine as well as the research into further application of metal isotopes and allotopes, and now metal nanoparticles, particularly utilizing the most important bridge between the organic and inorganic, gold. Longevity practices were of particular concern to early Chinese alchemists, called yang sheng, or nurturing life, and became a complex holistic science of diet, lifestyle, conceptual mind-body approaches, physical mind-body practices, herbal medicine, and of course, alchemical elixirs. This alchemy was much broader than we now make it appear, but it is the experiments with mineral transformations and macrobiotic transmutations in the organism that still hold our attention, as well as our negative historical bias. 

Alchemy is still alive in our civilization and science, though. Our present day advances with pure metal compounds that bridge to organic molecules in computer chips are analogous to the mindset of the early alchemists, who sought to use inorganic elixirs to stimulate organic transformations within the body. Gold, the chief metal of the early alchemists in China, is integral to this development of organic computing. Gold nanoparticles have also been found to be an integral bridge in biologic medicine to guide recombinant antibodies to fight cancer. Gold nanoparticles have been bonded with a chemical called phthalocyanine, found in an anticancer Chinese herb, Indigofera tinctoria, or Qing Dai, and Isatis indigotica, or Da Qing Ye, to guide these organic toxins to cancer cells in research of novel anticancer therapies. This certainly sounds like early alchemy. Gold nanoparticles have also been found to be an important component in Rapid Diagnostic Tests in recent years, which could revolutionize medical testing and care. The use of gold in ancient Daoist alchemical medicines was not without scientific basis, but this small part of the whole of Chinese alchemical science continues to be derided unfairly as simply ignorant primitive belief in "magic". We must expand our focus beyond this one aspect of alchemical science, though, if we are to truly appreciate and learn from this important part of human science and civilization that we call 'alchemy'.

Later alchemical development in China expanded the theories of natural order (Daoism) that were integral to these alchemical laboratory experiments with gold elixirs of longevity and produced a holistic health regimen that could be considered the roots of the present practice of Complementary and Integrative Medicine (CIM), and especially the integrated mind-body, or psycho-physiological approach, that is becoming increasingly accepted by standard medicine. Holistic approaches in protochemical macrobiotics resemble new strategies of biologics in pharmaceutical research today. The early experiments with mineral transformations and macrobiotic transformation in the body themselves are proving sound in theory, though, and the chief mineral, gold, is regaining prominence today in medicine as a biologic conductor in new technology used by diabetics to monitor blood sugar without a needle stick, as we further integrate biological computing into our medical science and technology. This article is intended to shed some light on the historical development of our holistic medical approaches today. In order to grasp this amazing concept we must put aside our historical bias and not view the intelligence of our early ancestors as primitive, but see that a type of scientific perspective had developed that was complex and possibly lost in the mindset of modern scientific perspective. A long history of fear of the unknown and a Eurocentric attitude still affects us today, with a resonance of the derision of ancient Chinese thought and philosophy, as well as Arab and European concepts that are hard for us to grasp. We need to finally move on.

A Eurocentric Bias Creates an Impediment to Objective Historical Analysis

To truly grasp the historical development of early science, and the part of that science that we now know as alchemy, we must shed a strong historical bias and Eurocentricity that pervades our human culture in modern times. Some of the most amazing aspects of our present-day sciences and technology were developed in ancient Chinese civilization, and other highly developed civilizations of Asia, yet given no credit. It is time that we finally grasp the global aspect of civilization and quit clinging to regional and ethnic bias.

An a priori belief that our science originated with the Greeks, and prior to this period in Greek history there was not a substantial understanding of complex science and mathematics, is at the heart of modern science education. In addition, holistic naturopathic medicine in Greek, Roman and European history mirrored that seen in China, but was systematically downplayed in the dominant historical view of European medical history. Alchemical and iatrochemical medicine also played an important role in shaping modern European medicine, but this too was eventually downplayed. The distortion of the history of medical science and philosophy is blatant, yet systemically supported by the modern medical establishment, even discounting the central views of Galen, Hippocrates and other acknowledged founders of modern medical scientific method, who espoused a type of medical philosophy that is more aligned with Complementary and Integrative Medicine in the twenty first century than allopathic medicine. These modern scientific theories did not originate with these renowned historical medical scientists, though, but can be traced back to early civilization across the globe. Let's take just one example of the complexity of the knowledge of civilization that preceded the Greek philosophers, and try to understand why we have trouble acknowledging this ancient knowledge. In 2010, clay tablets surviving from the culture of Sumer, a historical region in present day Iraq, or ancient Mesopotamia, have gone on public display because they show the amazing mathematical knowledge of this ancient Early Bronze Age civilization. Unlike other forms of historical record from this early period, such as paper made of papyrus reed, hemp, or bamboo, or even stone tablets, these clay tablets survived with relatively clear writing and symbols intact. Most of these clay tablets, though, were previously damaged or discarded as early excavations sought more valuable artifacts of precious metals and stones.

Archeological findings in the last decade or two are showing that human science was highly developed thousands of years ago, laying a sound foundation for early alchemical study and theories. These Sumerian cuneiform clay tablets, finally on display at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World of New York University, have been determined to be student exercise tablets in the study of basic mathematics of the time. They are written in cuneiform and represent a written language that was common to various regional cultures that spoke different languages. Now, these Sumerian tablets date to about 2500 BC, and represent a mathematical system based on the root of 60, that is seen in tablets and stone from a more complex system dating to 3200 BC. Today, we still adhere to this naturalist system in our mathematics of time, but modern scientists have a hard time understanding why this system was developed. The student exercises on these tablets of Sumer, show columns of numbers and geometric diagrams. Across one of the geometric divisions of a square is scrawled the sexagesimal number 1,24,51,10, which corresponds to the decimal number 1.41421296, or the square root of 2, and below it is its reciprocal, the answer to the problem of calculating the diagonal of a square whose sides are 0.5 units. These students were apparently using mathematical theories that we date to Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher from 500 BC. Complex mathematical theory was being taught to students in Sumer at a time similar to the origins of modern Chinese civilization in 2800 BC in Western China, just across Iran, Afghanistan, and the Indus valley. A relatively short time later in this part of the world, Zoroastrian Magi utilized advanced mathematics to form their world view (and Thus Spake Zarasthustra).

Scientific and mathematical understanding that we insist is the property of modern European civilization was well understood in ancient civilizations. The documentation of this knowledge did not survive the deterioration of materials that recorded it, and only with a more modern record of history, beginning in about 900 BC, and modern technologies of durable records, such as silk, imported from China, as an example, did this record of complex human scientific and mathematical understanding survive, although most of it did not. The earliest preserved records of ancient science and mathematics do not reflect the actual history. This is an assumption that we must get past if we are to understand ancient science, and recover some of the complex understanding of these early scientist philosophers so that we may apply it to our modern culture. The Cambridge historian Joseph Needham spent his life trying to counter this scientific Eurocentricity and elucidate the Science and Civilization of ancient China in his life work. His record of the history of Alchemy is part of this process. Adhering to the historical bias that early experiments in alchemy were primitive quackery based purely on superstition and a belief in magic and sorcery is absurd. In reality, early civilizations had developed complex mathematics and physical sciences, especially in China and the surrounding regions and civilizations, centuries before these same sciences were developed in European cultures.

The science of alchemy in ancient China, and it's historical development

The science of alchemy, called Shen Dan in China (literally vital mercury), most likely originated in China, or at least in the broad mountainous areas that extended from Eastern Europe to Western China, where a number of early developed civilizations arose. The reasons for the science to assume mercury as its title are as esoteric as the science itself. Mercury is the only metal that can assume a liquid form at room temperature in certain states, and encompasses gold in the earth. The red mercurial color, the color of blood, surrounding the brightest of metals, gold, the color of the sun, may have contributed to lore surrounding these fundamental alchemical minerals. This lore may have, in part, led to the search for the importance of these metals, and the belief that the origins to life may be contained in their transmutations. As we know now, life on the planet did come about by the forces of heat and gaseous transformations of metals, such as iron oxide, that rose from the core of the planet, creating atmospheric oxygen, water, and conditions required for carbon-based life. Sages in early history may have had some knowledge of these scientific principles by observing nature and experimenting with the elemental forces. In modern science, observation of nature and contemplation have been largely replaced with measurement, and we may have lost some of this rich perspective as we have grown dependent on mechanical observation rather than the complex data gathering and analysis our own organism is able to generate. We may be finally regaining a more holistic perspective in science today, that was at the heart of ancient civilization.

The term 'vital mercury' (Shen dan) also reflects the unique nature of this mineral element, considered the key to life force in alchemy, and later in this article this uniqueness is documented. Today, we see mercury described simply as a toxic substance, a poison, with no positive effect in the human organism, yet thousands of years of study of this mineral prove otherwise. Three fundamental substances described basic processes in the organism, mercury, sulfur, and salt, that combined to support life. Mercury was considered the volatile, or stimulating element, sulfur the combustible, or energetic element, and the naturally balanced mineral compound salt the element of stability for the biochemical processes. A salt is a balanced ionic compound with a neutral electric charge, or a balanced number of positively charged cations and negatively charged anions. The nature of the sulfur atom in biochemistry is still elusive, but the sulfur containing amino acids cysteine, homocysteine, methionine and taurine are integral to important peptide hormones, the ubiquitous glutathione, and inorganic sulfur compounds are integral to steroid metabolism, soil fertility, and the evolution of life. As late as 1970, the modern acknowledgment of the importance of sulfur biochemistry had hardly been acknowledged, and today we are only starting to measure the role of sulfur in enzymatic processes. Sulfur and oxygen belong to the same group in the Periodic Table, and the two most electronegative and combustible elements are indeed sulfur and oxygen. Activation of sulphate ions, or molecules of sulfur and oxygen, across cell membranes, does create energy that could be called combustion. These fundamental, or essential, concepts in ancient alchemical science cannot be denied. These concepts did fit into modern chemical theory, though, which preferred to see chemical activity as an isolated and static process, rather than a holistic and quantum fluid equation. The relationship of fundamental elements in biochemistry was what interested alchemists, and the patterns seen in the whole field of existence was what interested the Daoists. In the nineteenth century, physics took on this quantum and holistic view of existence, but chemistry chose to ignore it.

"The heirarchy of relations, from the molecular structure of carbon to the equilibrium of the species and ecological whole, will perhaps be the leading idea of the future." - Dr. Joseph Needham (Li Yuese) Ph.D. and Professor of History at Cambridge University, U.K. (1900-1995), expressing his appreciation for the empirical scientific view in Daoist history, and its place of importance in our future as we realize a more holistic worldview and quantum perspective.

As the Old Stone Age, or Paleolithic Period, gave way to the age of Bronze, a copper alloy from which the earliest metal needles were made, the metallurgists gathered knowledge of these metals that was both complex and esoteric. Copper is a metal that is much more abundant than gold, and is almost always found with gold. These early metallurgists must have surmised that within the earth, these metals could transform one into the other, and set about replicating this process within the alchemical laboratory. At some point in this experimentation, medicinal elixirs were created, and the formation of a gold-like metal was accomplished, if not the transmutation to gold itself. Thus, the emergence of this specialty of alchemy became almost an obsession of small governments throughout the world. Why gold became such an important metal is still somewhat of a mystery to us, since the metal is soft and its industrial application is minimal. It was perhaps the allotopic transformation of gold that made gold such a prized metal. The creation of gold from base metals, and the search for the supposed 'elixir of immortality' are the most well known concepts of ancient Chinese alchemy, but certainly comprise a small part of the sum total of this science, and are grossly misunderstood in popular history and belief. The health benefits noted from the daily use of gold eating utensils by the rich, as well as the ingestion of gold leaf, may have played a large part in the time and expense devoted to the discovery and mining of gold.

The history of gold as the most precious of metals is still obscure today. The 'gold standard' was a system under which nearly all countries fixed the value of their currencies for international trade on the price of gold on the world market, but this system did not start until 1870, and appeared to be initiated after the United States government collected a substantial amount of gold. Today, most international currency is based on the value of the U.S. dollar, as the gold standard demanded that banks be able to readily convert any world currency into gold if demanded, and the value of world currency now greatly exceeds that of the total gold in the world. Between 1871 and 1914, almost all countries in the world used the 'gold standard' except for China. This adoption of gold as a standard of value was initiated by Germany in 1871, with all of Europe quickly following suit. The amount of gold in a central bank determined the financial stability of the country at this time to some extent. The history of the gold coin dates back to the about 700 BCE with the minting of officially stamped coins by King Pheidon of Argos, Greece, but the mineral used was Electrum, a natural alloy composed of both gold and silver, and prior to this, cast bronze cowrie shells in China in Zhou dynasty were used in 1000 BCE, and bronze coins were cast in India and the Aegean by 700 BCE. Coins made of electrum and silver became widely circulated, and a number of terms for currency in Europe still have their root in the terms for silver (e.g. the Pound Sterling). The widely used currency name, the franc, derives from an ancient word for genuine, and was widely based on a silver standard that may have its origins in controversy of fake silver created by alchemists. Gold fell out of favor as the standard for mint currency, though, until is re-emergence in Europe in the 13th century, coinciding with the first use of the word alchemy. The linking of gold to currency as the highest standard after this was certainly tied to the alchemical sciences.

The concept of a currency in European history begins with Aristotle, who wrote that every object has two uses, its primary purpose, and a secondary purpose as an object of barter. Aristotle, and Plato, also wrote that the purest of the base metals was gold, referring to its density and uniformity as the best of the metals that can be melted and cast, and that is apparently hardened in a pure form, not an alloy or compound, by processes natural in the earth. As gold and silver emerged as world currency, the science of alchemy emerged, and the laboratory experiments created to transmute base metals into gold and silver, although the term alchemy was not to be created for another 2000 years. Not only the use of gold and silver as currency, though, but gold and silver as the basic ingredients of medicinal elixirs became popular. It must be kept in mind that in China, the earliest source of the development of the gold and silver elixirs, continued to use the bronze, and then the copper coin, and never adopted the gold and silver currency as did Europe. In China, the copper currency was officially declared the only Chinese currency by Qin Shi Huang in 210 BCE, and continued to be the official standard until the 19th century, and the introduction of the yuan in 1889, after the world adopted the 'gold standard' in international currency exchange. Silver became a source of currency in southern China, along with the copper coin, in 1423, but most of the silver had to be imported from the Americas, and was never minted, but circulated as ingots. We see that the value of gold, and even silver, lay mainly in their use as valuable ingredients in the elixirs, as well as ornaments that perhaps had some value as a symbol or talisman of health and longevity due to their importance in the elixirs. In India, gold is still highly prized as a commodity of ornament and dowry, and is still used extensively as gold leaf on delicacies in the cuisine on special occasions.

The population in China that could not afford to collect gold eventually found a way to synthesize gold, as well as silver, utilizing vital mercury, and numerous writings in China, dating to about 300 A.D., document the long history of benefits of alchemical creation of a new type of gold, called genuine (fei chen), that was purported to be much more beneficial to one's health than the mined gold. When the alchemical process failed, it still produced a type of gold the Daoists called counterfeit gold, or (cha wei), that could be used in commerce, until Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the short-lived Qin dynasty, declared that all official commerce be conducted with the copper coin. The Qin Emperor, trying to consolidate power, may have declared copper as the metal of the state currency to discourage this practice of producing the alchemical counterfeit gold. The Emperor (Huangdi) Qin Shi Huang, became obsessed with holding onto the whole of a unified China after conquering all during the Warring States Period, and invested much wealth into alchemical labs to create the Elixir of Life (longevity), though, believing perhaps that some long extension of his life span could be achieved. He also visited the famed Zhifu Island in the Shandong (mountain in the East) Province three times, visiting Mount Tai, the most revered mountain of the early Daoists, called the mountain of the Xian. These early alchemical works spurred much interest in the science of Daoism and alchemy. Such state labs were highly financed by the various Chinese governments until the 12th century, and much technology was created in them, not only the prized elixirs, but weapons of war, especially utilizing gunpowder, which originally was a chemical concoction used medicinally.

In time, the science of alchemy, or Shen Dan, eventually a popular science worldwide, was transformed in China. At first, Shen Dan was primarily concerned with transmutation of metals, especially aurifaction and aurification, the transmutation of mercury and base metals into fake gold or gold itself. This allotopic transformation must have seemed natural to the early metallurgists, since gold in the earth composes a center of a sphere of mercury ore. Out of this study of alchemical process arose the science of protophysiology, or chemical transmutation within the human body, called macrobiotics, or Nei Dan, as well as the science of altering the physiological health and function by outward practices such as dietary medicine, physiotherapy, meditation, breathing techniques, and Qi Gong. This, combined with the elixirs of life prolongation by the Xian, or Daoist sages, was originally called Wai Dan. By the 7th century, the practices of Nei Dan dominated, and Wai Dan fell out of favor, but by this time this practice of Nei Dan had taken on a different meaning, and incorporated much of the practices of Wai Dan, such as the meditation, breathing, Dao yin physical forms, dietary protocols, and sexual habits.

Of course, today, practices and concepts such as macrobiotics and Qi Gong, rooted in this practice and philosophy of Nei Dan, have taken on popular definitions that are far from the original concepts and practices. 'Official' belief in the mineral elixirs to prolong life disappeared during this later development of Nei Dan, and the external health practices became the popular form of alchemy, or Shen Dan, in China by the Sung Dynasty (Song) of 925 AD, far removed from the early experiments of the mineral transformations and elixirs. Between this time and the 17th century, the alchemical laboratories working on the mineral transformations and elixirs were kept secret. In the Arab cultures, and then Europe, Wai Dan was taken up, and Nei Dan practices ignored. This practice of Wai Dan in the Arab and European cultures, though, largely ignored the disciplines of the Daoist Xian to prepare the human organism for the safe ingestion of more toxic mineral elixirs. The development of this Wai Dan in Europe bifurcated into parallel courses of medical utilization and industrial application, as specialization became the norm. The holistic approach to science faded. In China, the practice of Wai Dan was continued in somewhat secret laboratories maintained by the various governments, but the practice was evolved into protochemistry and advanced metallurgy for the most part. The creation of fake gold and silver, aurification and aurifaction, which was widely practiced across China in government labs, was officially discontinued. It was only one thousand years later that these same early alchemical experiments in aurifaction and aurification became popular in Europe, with most local governments purportedly hiring scientists to run these types of alchemical laboratories, and eventually taken up by Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle as well. The government in Great Britain appointed Sir Isaac Newton as a minister of the coin because of his knowledge of these practices, purportedly to find ways to test gold and silver currency to weed out the practice of creating fake gold and silver in the laboratory.

Protochemistry, foundations of chemical theory in China and its relationship to Daoism and energetic medicine

Daoism, or the science of the way of nature, natural science, dominated scientific development in China, as well as cultural development. The classic text Hui Ming Ching begins with the words: "The subtlest secret of the Dao is human nature and life." The foundation text of Daoism, the Dao De Jing by Lao Zi, the historian, outlines the Dao, fundamentals of natural science, and the De, foundations of cultural adherence to the ways of nature. Daoism was thus integral to the development of protochemistry (roots of chemistry) and chemical theory in China, both as a fundamental natural science and as a guiding cultural science determining or guiding many of the decisions of government. This science of Daoism is inherently holistic and relies on a scientific perspective much like modern quantum mechanics, in that all of nature is seen as an interrelated and constantly changing group of elements that relies on the complex balance of all of its parts. This perspective integrated the study of protochemistry with public health, economic prosperity, and even the success of military defense. The Daoist perspective also guided the research in protochemistry to advance medicinals that sought overall health and balance of homeostasis over allopathic control of individual and isolated disease processes. Allopathic means were not set aside in the Daoist protochemical approach, but rather integrated into the whole.

Modern chemistry still fails to incorporate quantum physics into the practice of biochemical practice and research. The theories governing covalent chemical bonds as electrostatic forces began with Erwin Schrodinger in 1887 and were applied to chemistry by Walter Heitler and Fritz London in the early twentieth century, yet the energetic and holistic nature of molecular chemistry continues to be ignored in favor of a static view. Instead of treating our molecules as constantly changing and constantly dependent on the energetic changes of the quantum of molecules around them, we still teach chemistry as a set of static biochemicals that largely affect each other, rather than transform into each other. The quantum chemical theories posit that biochemicals act in the same manner as small particles in physical reality, adhering to the natural laws of quantum mechanics. While this concept continues to be resisted, research in Europe in the late 1990's proved that the large protein insulin molecule in fact behaved according to the principles of quantum mechanics, and quantum chromodynamics was found to be a more accurate method of observing and predicting biological function. Slowly, a century after these theories of quantum mechanics were applied to our biochemistry, our scientists are finally applying them in actual application.

In the Daoist cosmology, this adherence of even large molecules to the same pattern as small particle in physics is the most fundamental concept, the concept of patterns that extend to all aspects of our physical reality, and in fact, link the physical and metaphysical planes of existence. These concepts are expressed in the terms Yin and Yang, Qi, and the 5 elements (wu xi) as universal patterns, or "The Way of Things" - Daoism. In the 21st century, these same concepts have emerged. For instance, Micro-Macro Duality was first laid out by Izumi Ojima, showing mathematically and with observed particle experiments that categorical adjunctions of mutuality exist between the microscopic quantum world and many classical levels of the macroscopic world. These are defined by correlations between systems of both spontaneous and explicitly broken symmetries, according to Ojima. Since this introduction of the concept by Ojima, many examples and applications have been created utilizing micro-macro symmetry, especially in the fields of plasmonics, photonics, optoelectronics, and nanotechnology. It seems that the concepts of Daoism, and the 'heirarchy of relations' have now come full circle.

The relationship of these twentieth century theories to early Daoist alchemical science is quite interesting and shows that the remarkable theories that established the historical progression of alchemy to protochemistry in China were rooted in the same Daoist ideas of natural science that we find in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a science still rooted in Daoism. The failure of Chinese chemistry to eventually adhere completely to the advances in modern European chemistry in about 1700, and eventually adopt the principles of applied modern organic chemistry, may also be rooted in the Daoist protochemical framework that adhered in China. This was both a modern failure of the Chinese state, but perhaps also its saving grace, and possibly important to the future of chemical and biologic science. We shall see whether China emerges as an intellectual force in the twenty-first century as quantum chemistry finally takes root in our modern world and the Chinese culture looks back to its rich theoretical history to help define its science, and the science of the world in a global network. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Micro-Macro Duality was substantiated by Izumi Ojima, with such mutuality defined by correlations between systems of both spontaneous and explicitly broken symmetries. Much like the concepts of Daoism, the natural laws and patterns of quantum physics are now found to extend to all of our reality, from energetic particles to the multiverse, and explored in the concepts of quantum entanglement and the holistic quantum approaches of the theoretical physicist David Bohm, described as an implicate order.

Early European protochemical theories that show similarity to the cosmological view of the early Chinese Daoist alchemists include the writings of Aristotle, who viewed chemical reactions as transformations of elements. The transformations of elemental substance, particularly in the energetic ionic material of mineral ores, and especially with the bivalent oxides of minerals that were discovered and used extensively in early alchemical experiments, are certainly the chief focus of the early Chinese alchemists. These theories, observations and experiments produced not only the allotropically transformed gold and silver, and the mineral elixirs, but led to the early development of an understanding of natural science that is remarkable in its application to modern theories of quantum biochemistry. The idea of elemental material as energetic is captured in the theories of Zhen Qi, Yuan Qi, and Zheng Qi, the 3 Vitalities noted in the early classics of Chinese alchemy, expressing the nature of all material as essentially energetic and in constant flux between the states called Yin and Yang. The only reason that modern science remains skeptical to this theoretical development is a stubborn adherence to the mindset of European science, which was dominated by such groups as Jesuit scientists, and whose agenda was historically to refer to these foreign ideas as religious heresy. The attitude toward historical science today still maintains such mindsets, and has led to the difficulty in understanding Traditional Chinese Medicine and early Chinese alchemy. A pure objective reasoning, which we see attempted by the historian Joseph Needham, is rare, and quick condemnation of foreign and ancient ideas as pseudoscience seems remarkably similar to the outcry of heresy that we heard so often in European history in reference to the alchemical sciences, called black magic. This condemnation of alchemy was seen in the early age of modern chemistry in Europe, from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, and still prevents us, as a culture, from viewing the history of alchemy with an objective perspective.

Other numerous examples of European chemical theories that were the foundation of protochemistry and modern chemistry can be found, and all of these early theoretical ideas are very similar to the Chinese naturalist scientific theories that preceded them on the historical timeline. As archeological and historical research becomes more global and integrated, we now are discovering more accurate accounts of the exchange of information in early history. The European beliefs that tied the development of protochemistry to Alexandria and the Arab cultures instead of Asia is slowly accepting revision as the proof of the influence of Asian sages and scholars and the exchange of information between continents is revealed. The influence of Chinese scholars and philosophers on Greek culture is now well documented, as is the influence of the Ethiopians. In Greece, the works of Democritus and his theories of atomic elemental physics, with the constant flow and exchange of energetic indivisible particles between living beings, also resembles the early theories of the Chinese. The Greek theories of the four elements, represented by earth, air, fire and water, are almost identical to the theories of the five elements in Chinese thought, and adding the element of aether completes the cycle of 5 elements. This basic cosmology of protochemistry persisted to the seventeenth century in Europe and the reconstruction of chemical theory by Robert Boyle. We now see from the uncovering of the notes of alchemical research from Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle that these most important chemists still practiced alchemical laboratory experiments almost identical to those described by the early Chinese alchemists. These two scientists, perhaps the most renowned in Western history, are now known to have devoted a larger part of their lives to the study of alchemy, yet we still continue to deride such study as attempts at magic.

In ancient China, the study of Daoist Wai Dan and Nei Dan, the yin and yang of what we in Europe later called alchemy, branched into the organic and inorganic in about 300 AD, as well as the corporeal and non-corporeal. This branching mirrors our later branches of organic and inorganic chemistry today. In the more famous inorganic branch of Chinese alchemy, the mineral medicines, or elixirs, eventually fell out of favor, as the organic medicines were much easier to reproduce and use as a common medicine. These elixir-like medicines persisted in modern Chinese history, though, particularly the synthesis of mercury and sulfur through sublimation. European Jesuit scholars in the 1600s derided Chinese belief in the alchemical elixirs, but noted that there were still imperial alchemical laboratories kept in relative secrecy. By the mid 1700s elixir-like protochemistry utilized fewer ingredients than the ancient elixirs, but more complicated chemical processes. Cinnabar was continuously utilized in medicine, often with preparations that calcined the mineral, cooled it in a vinegar bath, and then evaporated to dryness the liquid combined with plant extracts, as is recommended today with herbal use of mineral ores. Texts from this time, written by Europeans describe a retreat from the elaborate Materia Medica and use of fewer medicines that had broader applications, with more elaborate methods of preparation, and often the combination of minerals with plant extracts. The Daoist alchemical notion of a natural balance needed to achieve a holistic health as the root of true medical cures seemed to drive this demand for fewer, but more complex medicines. Search for medicines that would maintain health better and prevent disease also continued to be emphasized by the state.

The historian Joseph Needham has also found documents from this time, roughly the 18th century, or the time of the alchemical researches of Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton, describing the isolation of mercury from various plants, especially water lentils and other aquatic plants from marshes with a rich concentration of cinnabar in the earth. These historical texts note the belief that ancient alchemists often utilized mercury extracted from herbs, as well as a belief that the original 'elixirs of immortality' involved a plant. Needham notes that Chinese scholars believed that the use of the mineral elixirs followed the aims of medicinal herbal extracts. Chinese history has a number of tales of the search for the 'tree of immortality', or longevity, believed to be a variety of mulberry found on a distant island. The Japanese still maintain a shrine at Shingu, south of Kyoto, where the Qin explorer Xu Fu came, seeking the 'tree of immortality', at the bequest of the Qin emperor Qin Shi Huang. The Japanese purport that the tree was the shrub Wuyao, or Lindera strychnifolia, although the chemistry of this plant does not support the claim. It is likely that the species of a particular herb sought provided just a part of the chemistry needed in the complex alchemical processes, though, as we look at the complexity of these superior elixirs, or Tian Dan. Today, looking for a particular chemical in a particular genus of a plant for a key to this complex alchemical process of longevity may just be our failure to be able to look past an allopathic view of biology. Knowledge of medicines utilizing minerals macerated in salt solutions, and mineral tinctures that took months to prepare, were exchanged between Chinese and European physicians and utilized in Europe as cures, though, reflecting the application of the alchemical sciences. While we may still not fully understand the depth of the Chinese experiments in alchemical elixirs, the technology was much used and studied in Europe. Needham documents a large number of protochemical practices and discoveries of the Chinese that heavily influenced European science, medicine and industry, and that were rooted in the alchemical processes. Once again, to discount the whole of the alchemical sciences based on single stories of the 'tree of immortality' and a reported superstitious belief in 'magic' is absurd.

It appears that the main motivation for depicting inorganic medicines as merely toxic quackery and belief in magic in the twentieth century may ironically have been the advent of synthesized chemical medicines and the need to again discourage the use of natural plant medicines and traditional holistic medicine in general. Perhaps one day soon more scientists will again take up the process of alchemical experimentation and the ingestion of elixirs, perhaps in a more advanced protochemical form. Today, we have the technology to do extensive testing on what these alchemical elixirs actually achieve in the human physiology, and the processes may hold much benefit again for us, if we would agree to seriously study them. Once modern science can get past its bias and disregard for these ancient practices, we might be able to finally learn something about what these alchemical works actually revealed to humanity. Who knows, perhaps some amazing health benefits and cures will be uncovered, or even the answers to difficult questions of how life actually arose from non-life on this amazing planet. We see a potential for this development with the recent focus on 'Biologics' in pharmaceutical research, which looks to the harnessing of our natural biochemical systems to find the means to cure disease, much like the macrobiotic approach in alchemical medicine. For now, we must take a less historically biased look at alchemy and protochemical science and treat it with the respect that it deserves. Hopefully, this article will provide some food for thought.

One can also look forward to reading Joseph Needham's Volume 6 of the series Science and Civilisation in China, which deals with the botanical aspects of Chinese medicine and horticulture (herbal and nutrient medicine). Dr. Needham started his career as a prominent biochemist, and retained a great appreciation for the history of biochemical sciences. Surely, herbalists will be able to glean much useful information from such an historical text, just as his Volume 3 on the history of alchemy and protochemistry provided us with such a wonderful perspective on a fascinating subject. Volume six has been published, and is another fascinating historical text on Chinese science and civilization. A planned seventh volume on the history of the massage and physical therapies in China (An mo andTui na), unfortunately was not completed before Dr. Needham's death. The alchemical notes of Sir Isaac Newton are a fascinating look at protochemical history and alchemy as well. In the final section of this lengthy article, entitled Additional Information and Links to Scientific Studies, are a few informational resource links on the web. This article does not due justice to this complex subject and is a bit sketchy in presentation, which I apologize for, but does present useful information on this fascinating and important subject. I hope to find the time to continue to research and edit.