Monday, October 3, 2011

Magical Mondays #3: Poisonous Immortality: Taoist Alchemy

Welcome to my third Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly overviewing various magical traditions and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical stuff to keep me busy for a while.


Humanity has conquered the skies, even walked on the moon. We can transmit information almost instantly from one side of the globe to the other. Despite all our knowledge, one of the most ancient desires, immortality, escapes our grasp. Different attempts at achieving immortality using modern technology are being attempted, such as cryonics. Technologically-based movements such as the transhumanists conjure up all sorts of schemes involving using the power of technology to free themselves from the shackles of mere mortal life. In this, these modern day seekers share a common bond with the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang (247 BC-221 BC), who was obsessed with immortality.

Of course, the ancient Chinese emperor couldn't even conceive of the technological innovations that inspire modern day immortality seekers. Instead, he focused his efforts on various potions and elixirs of immortality. In doing so, he often turned to Taoist alchemists.

Taoism, which emerged roughly six centuries prior, was originally relatively free of a lot of low-level mystical and directly magical attachments. The original texts are defined by a modest simplicity. As Taoism spread throughout China, it fused with and absorbed different folk beliefs. By the time of Qin Shi Huang and later contemporaries, complicated Taoist magic and alchemy was associated with many schools of Taoist thought.

While going into detail about Taoism is well beyond the scope of this entry (and would probably require an lengthy series of its own), there are a couple of relevant concepts I should briefly mention that are relevant to the emperor's quest for immortality. The Taoist alchemy tradition is divided into the so-called "inner"/"spiritual" alchemy and "outer"/"physical" alchemy. Incidentally, European alchemy also had a similar mix between spiritual and more physical elements.

The basis of inner alchemy were the "Three Treasures" of Jing, Qi, and Shen. Though it is a gross simplification, one can think of this as roughly equivalent to physical vitality, general life energy, and spiritual essence. A balance of these elements and proper maintenance of Jing were believed to extend life.

Inner alchemy depended on a variety of rather mundane techniques including eating a controlled diet, meditation, breathing exercises, and other things that make a certain logical sense even in our modern technological world. It also depended on other less straight-forward things including sperm retention and menstrual control.

Outer alchemy, on the other hand, made use of various herbs and chemical substances. Despite the mystical overtones, it was effectively proto-medicinal chemistry. They were used to manipulate the Treasures and the elements that make up the body (in Chinese philosophy these are wood, fire, water, metal, and earth). As with inner alchemy, manipulating the balances of the essences and treasures of the body could lead to extended life or even immortality. Jade, gold, hematite, and cinnabar (a mercury ore) were popular ingredients in immortality elixirs.

Taoist outer alchemy was also just as concerned with turning base metals into gold as European alchemy, but the alleged point of the quest for gold was to consume it to extend life. One Taoist sage was alleged to have remarked, "Have you ever seen a rich immortal?"

Now, an astute reader will probably notice that the continued consumption of things like toxic mercury ore is likely to lead not to immortality but to illness and/or death. Several Chinese emperors likely died of mercury poisoning. Qin Shi Huang, mighty first emperor of China, himself likely died from the consumption of mercury either in pill or elixir form.

The respect for mercury is obvious from the descriptions of Qin Shi Huang's tomb, which include entire scale "rivers" of mercury. Although once thought mere exaggeration, the emperor's tomb was re-discovered in 1974, and subsequent chemical testing has confirmed extremely high mercury residual vapor levels in the soil.

*The tomb was supposed to be a scale model of the imperial lands including the major rivers. Even if they were mere "creeks" of mercury, that is still a staggering amount.


Pippa Jay said...

I read a lot of Barry Hughart's books and alchemy, and the use of cinnabar was often mentioned. I always wondered how accurate that was. Thanks for an interesting post. :)

J.A. Beard said...

I'll have to check his books out.