Alchemy and Protochemistry in the History of TCM

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


Alchemical Medicine in Ancient China

Alchemy in ancient China came from a long history of exploration of natural science, Daoism (Huang Lao philosophy), and mineral science, all of which was intertwined into a scientific specialty termed Shen Dan. This complex scientific exploration reached a height of study supported by governments widely by the Qin and later Han dynasties, with experimentation with mineral transformations, mineral elixirs and technology that spanned the fields of medicine, military technology, industrial technology, and was intertwined closely with the concepts of those who were later called the Daoist sages. Later in history we emphasize the laboratories that produced gold and silver, and the many intense medical elixirs that could purportedly enhance one's health, longevity, and mental functions, but many common uses came out of the experiments of Shen Dan, both with medicines and industrial applications, as well as protochemistry, and eventually the broad field of modern chemistry. This broad field of Shen Dan, at one point divided into the study of Nei Dan and Wai Dan, cannot be defined simply by the creating of "elixirs of immortality" and the transformation of 'lead into gold' as is depicted in Western histories. 

Between 200 AD and 1000 AD this science of Shen Dan reached its heights, and became very complex, both in laboratory experiments and in daily health practices. At some point the broad Daoist practices split into practices that were grouped as Wai Dan and Nei Dan, with Nei Dan practices largely supporting the more intense Wai Dan mineral elixir use, as well as providing a daily practice of healthy habits, exercises, and herbal medicines, somewhat akin to what we think of as the practice of a yogi in India. It is tempting to create simple definitions for these Chinese descriptive terms Nei and Wai, but the meanings are complex, not simple, and cannot be easily translated into modern concepts. Today, we still have some of these same practices in modern society, such as Qi Gong and meditation, as fringe practices, but they were widely promoted in various forms in ancient China to keep healthy and mentally sharp, as were the taking of a wide array of mineral elixirs and herbal medicines, and dietary and lifestyle protocols and habits. These were all contributions from the practice and philosophy called Shen Dan, or Chinese alchemy. 

History has largely ignored the many common contributions of ancient Chinese alchemical science, still evident today in many fields and applications, and concentrated heavily on just these examples of more toxic elixirs and the laboratory experiments of mineral transformation. Eventually, the development of more intense and toxic mineral elixirs became famous in China, with many stories and myths attached, as well as the creation of the fake gold and silver and the transformative elixirs that depended on a basic compound later called the 'Philosopher's Stone', which was very difficult to make, and very volatile, easily dissolving. These aspects of Shen Dan became secretive and mythical. These same secretive practices, though, continued for centuries, across the world, and even into the 20th century, but where the many applications of alchemy became part of our modern science and their alchemical roots forgotten, the fantastic tales of the alchemical laboratories with creation of the strong elixirs and fake gold became almost mythical, and eventually strongly derided by modern scientists, becoming almost taboo. In ancient China, though, we see a large number of very famous and accomplished physicians, rulers, military officers, philosophers, teachers and businessmen practicing Shen Dan, or alchemy. These alchemists were not just superstitious believers in magic, but accomplished and renowned leaders, physicians, and scientists, and while the West tried to hide the alchemical work by its most famous scientists, such as Sir Isaac Newton, China continues to honor these famed and accomplished individuals even today.

Were there actually these "elixirs of immortality"? The early writings in China concerning the mineral elixirs that could prolong life did lead to an apparent belief by some that death could be conquered and immortality achieved. Few actually believed in this temporal immortality, though, and the widespread research and application of the broad science of alchemy, or Shen Dan, concerned enhancing the human potential and healthy aging for most people. This belief in the possibility of linking gold to immortality, or enhancing the human potential, eventually led to this metal becoming the standard of currency and the most sought after metal on the planet, despite the lack of practical industrial application for gold. Gold represented something special, and many ornaments, temple ornamentation, utensils and artwork were made of gold. It was not until the 19th century, though, that the monetary 'gold standard' was adopted, and we must look at this modern obsession with gold when objectively looking at the complex picture of our historical bias against the alchemical sciences. The ability to create fake gold and silver in a laboratory was widely documented and many governments invested in such activity, and this played a big part in the eventual maligning and outlawing of alchemical science, or at least this aspect of the broad science. 

In China, the study and application of Shen Dan eventually was split into the more accessible Nei Dan practices, and the Wai Dan, or broad application of the strong mineral elixirs, including the elixirs of the Daoist sages, or Xian. The Nei Dan practices were more accessible and applicable to the general public. With the creation of the printing press in about 400 AD, the access to alchemical texts expanded to the general public, and with the invention of the ceramic movable type press in the Song Dynasty, around 1000 AD, these texts became widely distributed, creating the danger of inexperienced individuals to try to create the superior mineral elixirs, which could be very toxic, especially if not prepared properly. Hence, the study and application of Wai Dan elixirs became relegated to a more secret and banned endeavor by Chinese governments, and the promotion of Nei Dan practices, hailed as a type of alchemy that was accessible to the common man, and safe, became the norm during the Song Dynasty and beyond.

Gold and silver both acquired a high esteem in the early alchemical theories regarding their place in the transformation of energy to matter that created life on the planet, with a succession of mineral transmutations in the earth creating the atmosphere, water, and even perhaps the means for plant and animal life to occur. Gold and silver were considered the purest of these metals, and mercury the most vital and volatile. Gold and silver acquired esteem even with acupuncture needles, and thousands of years of practice support these theories, along with modern verification of the effects of gold and silver plating on modern needles. This theory and research led to the importance of transmuted metals, especially gold and silver, in a macrobiotic transformation within the body that would perhaps improve health and vitality. Western historians continue to describe these theories of longevity practices as just a search for 'immortality', and use the mythical and metaphorical term for the ancient sages, Xian, with the English translation with the word 'immortals'. In actuality, the early Chinese alchemists had a much different notion of prolongation of life (yang sheng), though. The historian Joseph Needham quotes the famous Qin dynasty text, Springs and Autumns of Lu Pu-Wei, in 239 BC, a compendium of natural philosophy: "The sages investigated what is favorable in yin-yang, and what is beneficial among the myriad things, for the good of (human) life. (Following their prescriptions) the vitalities remain stable in the body and the lifespan can be prolonged (through the elixirs and Daoist practices). Prolongation does not mean adding to what is deficient, but completing an allotted span." Here we see that the Daoist sages probably took the elixirs not to prolong the years of the life, but to prolong the vitality, and to live the allotted span of life with the greatest health and productivity. 

The actual practice of Shen Dan, or Chinese alchemy, involved a wide array of health practices, not just these superior mineral elixirs, or xiandan, though. The Daoist Xian practiced a holistic lifestyle that involved a large variety of mineral elixirs, herbal medicines, dietary protocols, physical disciplines, meditation and habits that adhered to natural cycles and patterns. The safe use of the more toxic mineral elixirs involved a strict adherence to this comprehensive practice. Over time, civilization wanted instant gratification in all endeavors, not this complex and all-consuming practice of the Daoist sages, and toxic medicines were consumed without the preparation. We still create toxic medicines, even today, but in a way that doesn't require adherence to complex holistic health practices. We no longer call this alchemy, though, and reserve this word as a derogatory term in a narrow context. The broad science of alchemy and its many applications are still part of our experience, just not acknowledged.

The Early Alchemists, or Xian, in Chinese History

These sages that followed the Daoist prescriptions of external health practices adhering to the ways of nature and drank the elixirs were called Xian. Generally, modern translations of these Daoist alchemical practices describe "immortals", often transforming into wraith-like creatures that lived in beautiful natural settings. Of course, we may assume that these fanciful tales were myths and not actually taken seriously by the sages that practiced alchemical science. The most famous of the alchemical sages are called the 'Eight Immortals', or Ba Xian, and their human images are enshrined in many Daoist temples and appear on innumerable talismans popular with the Chinese public (Lu Dongbin, Zhang Guolao, Cao Guojiu, et al). The designation of 8 Xian corresponds to the 8 trigrams in the Yi Jing, and the early Daoist cosmology. The term 'immortal', or the Chinese character xian, translates as 'celestial being', or 'spiritually immortal' and is much more complex in concept than our Western notion of a human that lives forever. The modern character for xian is comprised of two characters, one represents person, or human (ren), and the other a mountain (shan), perhaps referring to the sages that studied the alchemical sciences and resided near mineral deposits on certain mountains. Many ancient writings speak of the strict Daoist naturalist practices that must be followed if the alchemist is to be successful, as well as the practice of performing the complex and prolonged process of mineral transmutations in the alchemical crucible in a secluded location at the top of a mountain. Ancient characters for xian were more complex, with a combination of the characters human and a character meaning to ascend, or transcend. Even today, many of the popular mountains in China are still linked to these ancient Daoist sages, the Xian, who were usually also great government leaders, military commanders, physicians, and had experience in a broad array of sciences, not just the creation of the mineral elixirs.

The term Xian thus refers to the Daoist alchemical sages that took the elixirs, xiandan, and achieved a transcendent state of being or mind. The endless succession of persons that prepared themselves and took these elixirs for hundreds of years included many emperors, seeking to find perhaps transcendence from 'the mortal coil' rather than endless years of life. For many, the end result of the taking of elixirs was their death, and historians judge this as the failure of the toxic elixirs, or mistakes, yet this itself may be a misguided judgement and historical bias, based on limited knowledge of the goals of the takers of elixirs. Certainly, the succession of important persons that continued to take these mineral elixirs with the full knowledge of the death of previous takers points to a concept that goes beyond their toxicity. The succession of Tang emperors from the 9th century on who died from these elixirs created in their own alchemical laboratories, Hsien Tsung (Xian Zong), Mu Tsung (Mu Zong), Ching Tsung (Jing Zong), Wu Tsung (Wu Zong), and Hsuan Tsung (Xuan Zong), testify to the persistence of developing and taking these complex mineral elixirs despite the knowledge that they would die from them. Joseph Needham writes that this period in Chinese history also produced the richest trove of texts on alchemy and protochemistry, with the writings more detailed and less poetic, and the separation of Nei Dan and Wai Dan practices obscured. Following the Tang Dynasty, the Song Dynasty (960-1275 AD) brought a strong interest and development of Nei Dan practices and philosophy and decreasing interest in the xiandan elixirs. The application of these alchemical mineral experiments continued across a broad array of fields, though, including many popular medicines, military applications, and industrial technology.

All of these early practices of Shen Dan, or early Daoist alchemy, including the taking of the elixirs, or xiandan, adhered to cycles observed in nature, and to Natural Law. This science of Natural Law was later called Daoism, and in the early history of China was called Huanglao, following the fame of the text of the historian of natural philosophy, Lao Zi, which was called the Dao De Jing, or the Definitive Text of the Ways of Nature and Civilization, as well as the origins of modern Chinese culture in the famed Huang Di, or 'Yellow Emperor'. The concepts of Lao Zi were further elucidated by Chuang Tzu, a prolific writer, who wrote extensively of the Dao, the Way of Nature, and the ability to nurture Life, or create optimum health, function and longevity. Lao Zi, also known as Lao Dan, Li Er and Li Dan, was the official curator of the Imperial Archives during the 5th to 4th centuries BCE, and reportedly wrote the Dao De Jing on the road to his family home after the destruction of the Imperial Archive. More than a century later, the famed Chang Tzu became perhaps the most popular writer in Chinese history, focused on the Dao De Jing. These two great minds inspired many during their life and after, leading to the development of Chinese alchemy, or Shen Dan, with both alchemical medicine to nurture life and ability, and alchemical transformations of inorganic elements to find ways of creating a macrobiotic transformation in the body. These ideas and practices expanded greatly through the centuries to encompass many healthy practices and scientific applications, all of which were still linked to philosophical Daoism.

The Great Historical Alchemists in Chinese History - Origins of Alchemy as Part of a Broad Holistic Study

Preservations of historical records in ancient civilization are problematic, as there were not printed texts, just personal copies of documents, many of which have been destroyed or just deteriorated, and early human history relied mainly on oral histories, which today we call myths. Much of human history today is thus starting in an era from around 700 to 100 BCE. The great Han Emperor Wu Ti (140-86 BCE) annointed Li Shao-chun as his personal Daoist alchemist, with records of his creating mineral elixirs for the emperor, using a cycle of nine sublimations (turning a solid into a gas without going through a liquid stage), and creating a type of gold from cinnabar (mercury sulfide) and lead oxide (minium) in the alchemical crucible to fashion the eating utensils for the emperor, but the science of alchemy was not limited to the mineral elixirs and aurifaction, and involved many healthy disciplines and herbal medicines in the court of the Emperor. This article, by no means comprehensive or authoritative on this complex and interesting subject, may help to elucidate this important science, which was the basis for so much of the theory and practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Alchemy, Daoism and TCM appear to be a trio of disciplines in early Chinese history, and most of the famous TCM physicians in China were also well versed in both alchemy and Daoism. The intertwined history of all 3 scientific specialties shows that one cannot be fully understood without studying the history of the other two. Like alchemy, Daoism itself expanded and changed considerably over time, dividing into social movements, religious sects, etc. The key to understanding these historical disciplines is to go back to the roots of the science and philosophy, when early scholars were not specialized, but instead studied all of the sciences and philosophies as a single entity.

In early human civilization, especially in China, where many of our important scientific discoveries originated, both men and women interested in higher study were employed by governments and became well versed in a number of scientific disciplines. Joseph Needham, in his Science and Civilization in China, documents the importance of women in early alchemical study, as well as later in alchemical development, such as Geng Xian-sheng, daughter of Geng Qian, called Teacher by the Emperor in the Da Zhong period of the Thang (Tang) Dynasty around 875 AD, and documented by Wu Shu in 975 AD in his Jiang Huai I Fen Lu (Records of 25 Strange Technicians). Unfortunately, the historical records of women were often removed in a patriarchal society, as occurred around the world, but as Dr. Needham points out, the evidence of the important contribution from women in the alchemical sciences is still there, even if their names were deleted. There were no formal specialized sciences at this time, and even as Chinese governments created specialized scientific posts, these were few in number. The scholars had a broad education and often an interest in metallurgy, medicinal chemicals, military technology, and what ever was needed by the rich and ruling class that educated and employed them to help maintain their hold on power, and were often adept at the alchemical sciences as well as Daoist philosophy. These scholars or sages also had an interest in natural science and history, physical and chemical laws, religion and philosophy. In fact, there was little separation between religion, science and philosophy in our early history for many people of learning. Religion and science were both a search for understanding, physical and metaphysical, and there were no institutions that divided these disciplines, only individuals with a keen thirst for understanding.

Philosophy is a word that comes from the Greek philos, to love, and sophia, wisdom. The word was created to describe these early scientists, who were driven by a love for wisdom itself, or understanding of what is true, right and lasting. Pythagoras was believed to be the first to use our term philosopher, instead of sophist, or wise man, because he thought that a true scientist was driven by a love of knowledge and discovery rather than an ownership of wisdom, or an arguer for an individual interpretation. He realized that wisdom itself was too complex for the individual to claim ownership of, and that the truthful and modest scientist devoted his or her life to the search for a fundamental understanding of our nature that would always be eluding the individual with his limited scope of understanding, but would add to our collective cosmology. The Chinese words for philosophy are varied, with a variety of fundamental meanings, but the most fundamental of these words, zhe li, holds the meaning of wisdom of a sage, or the theories of the sages, the zhe ren, literally the "wise humans". This expresses the esteem still held for these historic sages, or xian, and their ties to Nature, or the mountain, rather than the Greek philosophers, rooted in the city. The character for zhe in this case combines the character for another zhe, which holds the meaning for 'be convinced' as well as 'to change or turn back', over the character for kou, which holds the meaning of an 'entrance to the cave', the 'mouth of the river', or a gateway, as well as mouth, indicating a fundamental meaning of convincing language in this term. This etymology expresses the deep respect in Chinese culture for these ancient individuals who studied what later was called Daoism and alchemy, the xian, or mountain sages, who were also referred to as sheng ren, jun zi, and zhi zhe.

Throughout the world, the important early philosophers in human civilization linked disciplines such as mathematics and philosophy. Mathematics too was a search for the fundamentals of natural law, and in China, mathematics and observation of nature's form and organization resulted in the cosmology of the Yi Jing (I ching), the duality of Yin and Yang, and the 64 hexagrams, or all the possible combinations of duality in sets of three, or trigrams. Later, the five elements also became important in this cosmology, and the yin-yang sets of five and six were termed the Ten Heavenly Stems (tian gan) and the Twelve Earthly Branches (di zhi). These mathematical concepts became important to the science of Feng Shui, and are still referred to in school systems of counting throughout Asia as 5 sets of yin yang elements. Of course, today these important concepts are just referred to in superficial terms and tied to myths, making the concepts appear idiotic. In reality, they reflect observations in Nature that formed our mathematical ordering of time (12 months and 12 hours on the clock face), numerical systems (orders of ten), our calendar reflecting the changes of natural seasons and orbit around the sun, etc. Even in Europe, later in time, we see these same concepts used, such as the Five Suns and Six Ages of the World in the writings of Saint Augustine circa 400 AD. These fundamental mathematical forms in nature were also integral to the study of alchemy, and the basic metals were classified in this system. The most famous of the early alchemical elixirs used the 5 metals and 6 plants.

The Chinese term for these early alchemists was Zhen Ren, or 'True Human'. The term Zhen became integral to the concepts in alchemy and TCM. Zhen is literally translated as 'true', but this does not completely clarify the use of the word. The term zhen was also used to describe the fake gold and silver made in the alchemical furnaces. This implies that the purpose of the alchemical experiments was most directly the production of the medicinal elixirs of 'true', or zhen, gold, silver, etc. and not the actual production of real gold from base metals. Zhen Dan is also a term that describes the mineral minium, which is a lead oxide, commonly called red lead, an oxidation product of other lead minerals, but has also been applied to the mercury mineral cinnabar. Lead oxide minium is a mineral that exists with two distinct valence states, and chemically is thus very useful in experiments with basic chemical bonds and a quantum chemical approach. The use of the word zhen implies a theory of fundamental substance in relation to this mineral. Zhen Qi is a term used to describe fundamental or optimal Qi, and is used almost interchangeably with the terms Zheng Qi and Yuan Qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine, today. In ancient medicine, the acupuncture stimulation, or use of mineral medicinals, that encourages Zhen Qi, could be referring to improvement in the capacity of the human organism to transmute mineral ions in the body, one into the other, to maintain homeostasis.

These terms, such as Zhen Dan and Zhen Qi, are difficult to translate directly and appear to have various meanings depending on context, a quality of the Chinese language and characters. Nevertheless, historical clarification of these terms reveals much about the true meaning of the early alchemical sciences, and helps us to understand the perplexing array of practices and beliefs associated with them. The character zheng is usually translated as right, but its character depicts a stand, or foundation, implying a complex idea of a fundamental aspect of life similar to the concept of the genetic code. The character for zhen also depicts a stand holding a character that depicts a fundamental aspect of life. Yuan is a character that is the simplest of the three, but it too depicts a stand with flow atop, and is usually translated as original, with Yuan Qi most closely resembling the concept of a basic inherited genetic structure to human physiology. All three of these types of fundamental Qi so important to alchemy, Daoism and Traditional Chinese Medicine refer to a fundamental and inherent energetic nature in humans, and also show that this fundamental nature was seen as a three-part concept, a trinity. Objective research into these early Chinese characters reveals a mindset that shows an emphasis on theories of elemental energetic substance as the roots of alchemical theory, and has an interesting relationship to modern theories of quantum physics in biochemistry. The term for the alchemists, Zhen Ren, thus implies that these people experimented with and studied elemental energetic substance.

The acclaimed Cambridge historian Joseph Needham states that we find the earliest printed scientific books, and the earliest examples of chemical lexicography, in the entire human civilization, in China. We also find the earliest support of chemical, metallurgical and pharmaceutical research by the State in ancient China. He states that much of this rich Chinese scientific history involves what we now call alchemy, that women were prominent in the alchemical sciences in China, and that Daoist philosophy was a perennial inspiration to these alchemical sciences. Dr. Needham was perhaps the most prominent of all Western Chinese historians. He was awarded the Companionship of Honour by the Queen of England in 1992, and was the only person to hold three important titles, a fellow of the Royal Society, a fellow of the British Academy and the Companionship of Honour. Dr. Needham devoted the fifth volume of his life's work, Science and Civilization in China, to the study of Alchemical history. In this text he clearly outlines the parallel timeline of the alchemical emphasis in metallurgy turning to medical application in both China and in the Hellenistic Greek and Arab civilizations. He notes that in the Zhou, Qin and Early Han dynasties, the emphasis was on Qiu, or 'searching for', while in the Later Han the alchemical emphasis was on Lian, or 'effecting chemical transformation in', as in smelting, but by the Later Han period, in the third century A.D. a union of the two traditions occurred, with a great interest in the science of effecting chemical transformations in medicine, and both the transformations in the laboratory, and inside the human organism (macrobiotics). Thus a series of yin yang branching occurred in alchemical science, finally achieving an emphasis on Wai Dan and Nei Dan. Dr. Needham sees this same branching of alchemy in the Greek and Arab cultures in the same time frame.

This latter medical emphasis in alchemy is noted in China by the association of famous physicians such as Sun Si Mo, Ko Hung (Ge Hong), and Dao Hung Qing (T'ao Hung-ching) with alchemical texts. While it is easy for Western historians to refer to these famous early alchemists as simply seekers of immortality, suggesting that they were obsessed and crazy, famous early alchemists such as Ge Hong (283-343 AD) were more than crazy scientists. In fact, the study of Ge Hong's texts on Chinese Herbal Medicine produced the basis for the research by the Nobel winning researcher Tu YouYou and her discovery of artemesinin, a chemical in the anti-malarial herb Artemesia annua, or Qing hao. This famous personage, Ge Hong, was a military general, son and grandson of high ministers of the state, a renowned scholar and student under the former governor of the Nanhai prefecture, Bao Qing, also a Daoist alchemist, and Ge Hong was given the title of Marquis of the region that he lived, as well as chief military adviser to governor of the populous state. Ge Hong retired to one of the most famous mountains in Daoist and alchemical history, Mount Luofu, in Guangdong province (Canton), on the Southern coast of China, now indeed the most populous area in China, inclusive of Hong Kong. Today, the simple dwellings and alchemical laboratories of Ge Hong have become the 4 temples, called the Temple of Emptiness, Temple of the Yellow Dragon, Temple of the Nine Heavens, and the Temple of Junkets, which, together with the Temple of the White Crane, and the Well of Longevity, the source of water for the alchemical experiments and elixirs of Ge Hong, are still perhaps the most important sites of Daoist alchemical history. Ge Hong wrote in the Bao Pu Zi that he once inquired of his teacher Zheng Yin why they should create alchemical gold elixir since Lao Zi wrote that in a well ordered society that all gold, jade and precious metals and gems would be cast aside. Master Zheng told him that Lao Zi meant that in a perfect society people would be occupied with more productive tasks than mining these precious metals and gems, which have no real use but to accumulate false wealth, but that when the alchemists adepts create 'true gold' by transformation, they do so not to become rich, but to consume it as elixir to attain the blessedness of the Xian. He noted that the ancient Daoist alchemist manuals stated that gold can be made and thus men can attain salvation (qin ke zuo ye, shi ke du ye). Many examples of this making and taking of the transformed metal elements are documented until about the Five Dynasty period around 950 AD, when once again the rulers during the Thang Dynasty destroyed many of these ancient alchemical texts, and poorly made elixirs resulting in poisonings, resulting in a movement away from Wai Dan to Nei Dan practices, and the taking of organic elixirs.

A contemporary of Ge Hong, Wei Bo-yang (220-280 CE or 120-240 CE), of the Three Kingdoms period, wrote one of the most famous of early Chinese alchemical texts, or Shen Dan texts, the Zhou Yi Can Tong Qi, or anthology of the Pearls of Wisdom in Accordance with the Yi Jing (Classic of Changes). In this great text, Wei Bo-yang emphasizes the importance of Nei Dan practices, but does explain how to sublimate cinnabar, or natural mercury ore, and other alchemical minerals, into forms useful to make the alchemical elixirs, and also how to decoct the medicinal elixirs with combinations of herbs and minerals. The emphasis in the Zhou Yi Can Tong Qi was on the need to first train in practices of Qi Gong and Dao Yin, though, and Wei Bo-yang is considered by many to be the forefather of the teachings of medical Qi Gong practices (Nei Dan) used to enhance or make safe the use of the alchemical elixirs. He is called the 'Timeless King of Cinnabar', among other titles, and also related all of these practices for health and longevity to principles of numerology based on the Yi Jing, as well as the relationship of the ten heavenly stems and twelve earthly branches (Na jia). These methods became the basis for determining acupuncture point selection with the midday-midnight rules of selection, as well as the use of seasonal determinations based on the five movements and six Qi of the seasons (Wu yun liu qi).

The Dao Yin practices (literally to guide and stretch), sometimes equated with Yang Sheng (nourishing life or longevity), were like yoga combined with calisthenics, and a Dao Yin chart called the Dao Yin Tu, with 44 color illustrations of human figures performing Dao Yin exercises, was found in the Mawangdui tombs unearthed in 1972 near Changsha, in Hunan province, where many of the earliest preserved texts of Traditional Chinese Medicine and alchemy were uncovered. Specific Dao Yin exercises were associated with the protocols for healing specific diseases, and this practice was first mentioned in the famous text of Chuang Tzu called the Zhuangzi. Dao Yin practices in Nei Dan, to prepare one for the taking of the elixirs of longevity, such as the Eight Brocades (sitting postures with stretch, meditation and devotional practices), and the 24 Node Seated Methods (Ershisi qi zuogong) were still popularly practiced by Daoists in the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911). Wei Bo-yang (Wei Po-yang) is credited with the earliest surviving complete text on alchemy by some histories, a book entitled Ts'an T'ung Ch'i (Union of the Triple Equation), perhaps mistakenly credited as written in 140 CE, which is claimed to be the first complete alchemical text translated to English in 1932, by Lu-Ch'iang Wu and Tenney L. Davis of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This text is concerned with elaborate theories and practices that go way beyond a simplified belief in elixirs of "immortality" and aurification, though, and concern the need to integrate medical herbal decoctions and elixirs with Qi Gong practices and Daoist lifestyle habits and cognitive training.

The famed T'ao Hung-ching (451-536 AD) wrote many of the important herbal texts and treatises in Chinese history, responsible for recreating the classic Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, and was also renowned for his military strategy, knowledge of metallurgy, geology and astronomy, and produced some of the best swords in Chinese history. T'ao Hung-ching (D'ao Hong-Jing) wrote a number of the most respected scientific treatises in Chinese history, as well as respected books of poetry and treatises on literary subjects, Confucian and Buddhist thought, and martial arts. He also incorporated the Yi Jing (I Ching) classic of divination into the study of medicine, physiology and medical practice. His school of thought of Daoist alchemical longevity, especially the use of macrobiotic theories, combining herbs and minerals in elixirs, along with diet and lifestyle practices, was well practiced, and his tremendous achievements and degree of accomplishments in old age surely attest to its value. The Shang-ch'ing Daoist practices of T'ao Hung'ching, known as the Mao-shan school, developed into a strong and popular tradition of meditation, reverence of deities representing life duties, and cultivation of spiritual understanding, along with dietary habits enhanced with herbal and mineral medicines. In this system of thought, the main spirit or deity (shen) was called The One, and described as the Dao within each of us. This Oneness was described as a trinity, the Three Ones, in each of us, or Primal Energies, the San Yuan, described as the three types of Qi, generative, vital and spiritual. Cultivation of the San Yuan was the aim of the alchemical practices of longevity. While this is represented in the West as a religion, we can see that these practices and theories were much more practical and thoughful than the European religions. The Mao-shan centers became the model for Daoist retreats that flourished for many centuries, spanning the Sung, Yuan, Ming and modern Ch'ing dynasties, supporting the popular practices of Nei Dan. This type of popular development of the alchemical theories did not take place in Europe, although they did have profound effects on the medical studies and practices, as well as the scientific developments in Europe.

A Parallel Timeline for Chinese Alchemy, or Shen Dan, and European and Arab Alchemical Sciences

The word alchemy, in the West, derives from al-kimia, an Arab word referrring to both the preparation of elixir, and "the Stone", by Egyptians. Kimia comes from the Coptic khem, referring to the fertile black soil of the Nile Delta, as well as the "First Matter". The Greek used the word archymo, and the Latin equivalent was massa. Eventually, Europe ended up with the word alchemy. From this word we obtained the modern term of chemistry. But the origins of the science, even in Northern Africa, may have come from central Asia.

Today, scientists are realizing that there was much more travel and exchange of information among ancient civilizations than we had ever imagined, and this exchange of information surely predated even the Alexandrian age of the fourth century BCE, perhaps by a thousand years or more. Alexander himself chose a path of conquest along the trade routes that later became known as the silk road. Joseph Needham, in his book Science in Traditional China, documents that even the renowned alchemical figure, Hermes, may have originated in China. Dr. Needham documents a letter of Ibn Arfa'Ra's, a Spanish Muslim of the twelfth century, where the scholar writes: "The real name of Hermes was Ahnu (in other words, Enoch). He was a dweller in the upper land of China, as the author of the "Particles of Gold" pointed out, where he said mining was looked after by Hermes in China, and Ares (probably Horus) found out how to protect the workings from flooding by water. Now, Ares lived in lower China and belonged to the first of the Indians." Dr. Needham provides much proof of the exchange between China and the Arab cultures that developed what became European alchemy. Essential substances to Arabic alchemical science, such as potassium nitrate, or saltpetre (hsiao shih, or xiao shi), were surely obtained from China. Potassium nitrate is the limiting factor that was key to the Chinese invention of gunpowder. Ammonium chloride was also essential to Arab alchemy, and this was a naturally occurring chemical found in Sinkiang, China, a volcanic area. The Chinese name for ammonium chloride, nao sha, is so similar to the Arab name, nushadir, that the derivation is obvious. A famous Muslim alchemist, al-Nadim, wrote in the section on alchemy in his book Fihrist in 987 AD, that the alchemist Muhammad ibn Ishag, a prolific writer on the subject, many times stated that the origins of alchemy were still debated, with some claiming an origin in Egypt, others stating that the origin was probably in Persia, other still the origin in Greece, and still others stating that the origin was in either China or India. All of these historical writings indicate that the exchange of information on this early science was extent throughout the world.

The earliest known preserved writings of alchemy date to the second to fourth century A.D. in China, but refer us to historical origins in the fifth century B.C.E. This historical timeline shows the close relationship to the development of ideas in central Asia and Greece. The Greek philosopher Empedocles introduced the theory of the energetic stuff of matter, represented by the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, in the fifth century B.C.E., along with the aether, or substanceless element, mirroring the foundation 5-element theories of Chinese alchemy. Before this time of formal development of alchemy in China, many ancient cultures had developed a knowledge of metallurgy that included aurification, or gold-faking, as well as aurifaction, or the transmutation of other metals into a gold-like metal. This led to the theories of macrobiotic transmutation of essential minerals in the living organism that could promote longevity. In early civilization, metals such as gold were first valued for their medicinal use, and only later became valuable as a currency. For industrial purposes gold was too soft to fashion into a workable tool or weapon, but had great value as a component of alchemical elixirs and charms. In this realm of experimentation with metal transmutation and medicinal substances, there arose a science of macrobiotics, or the inclination to prolong life (yang sheng), that also incorporated material from plants, animals, minerals and specific chemicals, into more elaborate elixirs and herbal formulas. This, rather than the transmutation of lead into gold, was the later focus of most of the Chinese research into the alchemical sciences, as we call them today. The split of the alchemical sciences in the medical field (Shen Dan), into Wai Dan and Nei Dan, defined the broad application of alchemy in China from the 7th to the 15th century AD/CE, and later inspired such minds as Carl Jung in the 20th century. The science of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), long established at this time, also flourished during this time period, and the earliest preserved comprehensive texts of TCM came from this same period in Chinese history as the early alchemical texts. The early theories of energetic elements and the transformation of these elements to fuel the living organism persisted as root theories of TCM throughout history and even into the present. We thus see a close association between alchemy and TCM in Daoist concepts and development.

The Daoist concepts and the reverence for the alchemical elixirs date to a very early time in Chinese history, though, predating the term Daoism by a millenium or more. For instance, North of Luofu Mountain, the famed retreat of Ge Hong, lies the Wuyi Mountains, or Wuyi Shan, now one of the first sites in China to be set aside in the creation of an official National Parks system. This area, in Fujian Province, is named for a legendary Chinese scholar and physician called Qian Keng from the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th century BCE). Qian Keng, also known as Qian Jian and Peng Jian, is believed to be the eighth generation descendant of Huang Di, and was given the title of Lord of Peng Cheng, and the historic surname Peng, known as Peng Zu, or first of the Peng family. History records that he was the grandson of Zhu Rong, son of the mythical emperor Zhuan Xu, and as a physician was renowned, creating elixirs that transmuted macrobiotically to achieve fantastic healing of very sick patients. He is credited for discovering the way to create elixirs using cinnamon bark (Rou gui) and pine seed (Song zi) to achieve psychic abilities, and surely much of the information in the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing may have originated with Peng Zu. Legendary stories describe Peng Zu achieving a very long life from the taking of the elixirs and Nei Dan practices. To escape war, Peng Zu retired with his family to the Wuyi mountains, named after his sons Peng Wu and Peng Yi. The fame and respect for Peng Zu was so great that the 7th emperor of the early Han Dynasty, Wudi (Liu Che), who ruled from 141-87 BCE, conferred the title of Master Wuyi to Peng Zu, and subsequent Han rulers set up temples and assigned a senior official to take charge of all the affairs of Wuyi Mountain.

Many famed poets, artists and scholars beside Ge Hong settled in the Wuyi Shan to honor the legacy of Peng Zu. Today, the legends of Peng Zu are overblown, with stories of him living more than 800 years, staying in his mother's womb for 3 years, raised as an orphan when his mother died when he was 3, and having 49 wives. While the whole world has such overblown oral legends, we now know from the study of history that even the Greek gods had their origin in the lives of real persons of renown and fame, and these stories were created to highlight aspects of their accomplishments, not to imply that the legends were real. Some scholars believe that the term 800 years refers to a system of time where 60 day cycles were referred to as a 'year', making Peng Zu 130 years old at his death, not 'immortal'. The rulers of his time were envious of the healthy aging of Peng Zu, or Qian Keng, though, and his history outlines the complete practices that led to this healthy and productive old age. Descriptions of the secrets of his longevity describe techniques of meditation and breathing, Qi Gong practices, dietary principles, sexual disciplines, herbal decoctions and the mineral elixirs. All of these practices became integral to the later development of Shen Dan, and the branches of Wai Dan and Nei Dan, as well as the development of Daoism and Qi Gong. Indeed, the writings of Sun Si Mo reflect the legendary practices of yang sheng of Peng Zu completely, and hence, he is considered one of the 'saints' in Daoist history. Today, the mountain where he settled in his old age and developed these practices and medicines is called Peng Shan, and a yearly festival is held to honor Peng Zu and these early longevity practices.

There is thus a strong parallel time frame and connection between the history of TCM and alchemy, or Shen Dan. Dr. Needham believed that there were three foundations to Chinese alchemy, the pharmaceutical-botanical search for plants that could slow aging or promote longevity, the metallurgical-chemical practices for making artificial gold, and the medical use of inorganic mineralogical substances in therapy. He believed that China alone gave birth to the notion that elixirs could be made to slow or reverse aging, and that this conviction, along with the belief that China might be able to vastly increase its gold supply to gain power in the world, drove the entire science of medical chemistry in China from the third century B.C.E. to the later flourishing of medicinal and industrial chemistry after the thirteenth century. Modern chemistry originated in the seventeenth century, and by this time the subject of alchemy, a 13th century European term for the science, had again been seriously taken up around the world, until its ridicule in the early twentieth century. The history of alchemical study in Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa mirrors the timeline of the later development of the science in China, and evidence points to an exchange of information between these cultures. 

Interest and acceptance of the alchemical sciences apparently waxed and waned during these centuries. During the ages of alchemical resurgence in China, we can see that herbal medicine and the holistic and Daoist theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine were partners in the flourishing of scientific interest and research rooted in alchemy. In Europe, specialized alchemical sciences emerged, either rooted in the study of physics, the medical applications, or industrial applications. Modern research has once again taken up the subject of alchemical process, but this time we have the capability to analyze the allotropic and isotropic changes in minerals, similar to the research into isotopes of uranium and plutonium that created the nuclear weapons and power plants that we use today. Perhaps such research will once again expand from weapons and tools to medicine, as it did in ancient Chinese history, or perhaps our science will finally tap into the natural transmutations of mineral molecules within the living organism. We shall see. In a sense, we are using mineral isotopes in medicine as radiology in both testing and cancer treatment, a sort of modern alchemy, and now expanding this field with nanotechnology to many more applications.

Dr. Joseph Needham reveals in his life's work on Science and Civilization in China that it appears that China largely rejected the modern chemical sciences that Europe turned to in the 18th century, preferring to adhere to a highly developed system that continued to describe chemical constituents in a more naturalistic manner. The historic exchange of information on chemical processes between China and Europe had fueled many advances in Europe, most of which were claimed by the Europeans rather than acknowledging the Chinese, but by the end of the 18th century, Dr. Needham notes a distinct schism between the chemists in Europe and those in China. At this time in Europe, Robert Boyle would publish his Sceptical Chymist, and other landmarks of modern European chemistry that literally blew up many of the foundation concepts of chemistry. The new lexicon of chemistry rejected the old lexicon, and the Chinese culture was reluctant to give up its alchemical terminology, though. 

As the European model adopted the split between organic (carbon-based) and inorganic chemistry, the Chinese continued to define such concepts in ancient terms that adhered to a system of thought tied to the corporeal and non-corporeal (Wai and Nei) duality, to the fluid nature of Yin and Yang, and concepts that eventually would be wholeheartedly rejected in Europe and America. Dr. Needham notes that despite this sociopoliticial schism that modern chemistry did eventually develop a common lexicon in China that allowed such contributions from Chinese chemists as the creation of purely synthetic insulin in 1965, mirroring the discovery of bioidentical insulin in medical use by the Chinese alchemists many centuries before. Dr. Needham purports that the main cause of the divide between developments in Europe in chemistry and those in China, though, was the sudden failure of the intellectual Jesuit mission, which appeared to decline precipitously in the late 18th century, and had been the intellectual and scientific link to China since about 1580. Radical schisms of Catholic ideology arose at this time and purported that the Chinese Confucian rituals were contrary to Christianity, a view not taken by the Jesuits, and the Pope was swayed to an edict call the Rites judgment, not revoked until 1936. A handful of Jesuit scientists stayed in China, notably J.J.M Amiot, J.P.L. Collas, P.M. Chibot, Joao Loureiro and Louis Poirot, but the historical exchange of information between East and West would stop. It was not until Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Trappist monk from Kentucky, U.S.A., that the unification of Daoism and Christianity would again be elucidated and accepted.

Alchemy in Europe derives mainly from the works of Islamic scholars in the seventh and tenth centuries A.D., who took up the work and cataloged the processes from the Greek scholars. These Islamic texts greatly influenced the scientists of the Middle Ages in Europe, and the later importance of this science, despite being outlawed by the Catholic Church, and derided by the modern rationalist scientists, is evident from the extensive documents of Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, which were discovered in the latter twentieth century after languishing hidden in British archives and private collections for centuries. Sir Isaac Newton laid the foundation for modern rationalist science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with Newtonian physics and differential calculus, as well as his great works in astronomy, yet we now know that much of his time was taken up with the study of alchemy, which had a profound influence on his theories. He wrote in his treatise, Optics, that elemental minerals were made of atoms, and that he believed that atoms were made of smaller particles, or corpuscles, that were quintessential and behaved according to the affinities noted in alchemy. Robert Boyle is well known as the progenitor of modern theories of chemistry, inventor of important medical devices, and one of the leading figures of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, and his alchemical works are revealed in the book, The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest, by Lawrence M. Principe of Johns Hopkins University, published in 2000. Both of these important scientists were alchemists, and much of their theoretical understanding derived from the serious study of alchemy. Instead of this history of alchemy in Western culture, though, we continue to see stories of the ridiculous and fantastic in alchemical lore, continually giving the impression that alchemy was just a subject of fake science and magic. In reality, we see the serious study of alchemy from a succession of important and famous physicians and scientists through the ages in Europe, including Albertus Magnus, the famed teacher of Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Paracelsus, John Lock, Joan Baptista Helmont, and others.