Chemistry in Ancient China: Alchemy

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Hu Zhang

It is very difficult for modern people to fathom the scientific achievements in ancient China from a modern scientific point of view. Actually, even in this past century, there have been different schools of science that have different understandings of the most basic composition of substances. I quoted Lao Tzu and Confucius in Part I of this series [1]. From a modern science point of view, it is not at all far-fetched to describe these two philosophers as physicists. Their theories revealed the existence of and variations in substances at different levels. It is a myth to modern people that, without access to any scientific equipment or apparatus, these ancient philosophers could have discovered the existence of protons, neutrons and electrons within an atom, as well as the fact that all substances, regardless of their shapes, are made up of atoms. Without the use of particle accelerators, these ancient Chinese philosophers even knew of the existence of substances at microscopic levels in different dimensions. Of course, the ultimate quest for modern scientists is knowledge of the most basic particle that makes up any substance in the universe and the process of formation of that substance. With this knowledge, scientists will immediately be able to realize the dream of being the Creator, one who is capable of creating various substances and turn even stone into gold.

Alchemy is not a dream. Ancient Chinese scientists already possessed knowledge of alchemy. When it comes to scientific achievements and developments in ancient China, alchemy would be placed in the first chapter of the history book of chemistry. According to the ancient Chinese Taoist concept of making dan (an energy cluster in a cultivator's body, collected from other dimensions) in the furnace, once dan is formed, it has the capability of changing any tangible substance into gold or silver. Dan can also transform the physical body and bodies in other dimensions, thus promoting a cultivator to transcend time, space, and the human body and enter into higher levels of cultivation. With this in mind, "making dan" is, in essence, actually alchemy.

It would be difficult to determine when Chinese alchemy originated by researching historical documents. According to ancient Taoist records, alchemy was first recorded in the time of Huang Di (the legendary Yellow Emperor) and Lao Tzu. However, Huang Di and Lao Tzu lived in different historical periods that were hundreds of years apart. The most logical explanation would be that alchemy developed along with the Chinese culture and thus became part of it. Huang Di and Lao Tsu were great masters of alchemy, making them the representatives of Chinese alchemy. Legend has it that Hang Di was given nine dans as a gift while visiting Tai Yi. After a person consumed a dan, his hands became as red as the dan. When the person washed his hands in a river, the river would turn red too. Later, Huang Di obtained the secrets of alchemy and made dans with a furnace. Huang Di flew up to heaven on the back of a dragon after the dans were made [2]. According to the Chapter of Fen-Chan in The Book of History by Si-Ma Qian, the alchemists encouraged the feudal lords to seek dan in order to obtain eternal life and youth beginning in the time of the reign of Emperor Jiwei-Xuan in the Warring States Period. Later, during the reign of the First Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, a Taoist named Xu Fu asked the Emperor for permission to seek dan overseas. These are the first official records of alchemy in Chinese history. Alchemy became more ascendant during the Han Dynasty. The Wu Emperor, Liu Che, was very enthusiastic about alchemy. During the same historical period, the King of Huai Nan also kept a big group of Taoists as houseguests. They wrote a lot of books on alchemy for him. Unfortunately all of the books were lost, except for twenty-one volumes of Huai Nan Zi. At the end of the West Han Dynasty, Wang Mang, who usurped the throne, was also a proponent of alchemy. During the Three Kingdoms period, at the end of Han Dynasty, Cao Cao and his son enjoyed the company of alchemists, among whom, Zuo Ci, Gan Shi, and Wang Heping, were the most famous.

At the end of the Han Dynasty, in approximately 2 A.D., Wei Boyang, a man of the Country of Wu, or today's Shangyu, Zhejiang Province, wrote The References and Comments on the Book of Changes, the earliest textbook of alchemy. Because there are many theories and experiments in this book, naturally, it was a good reference book for later generations of people. Legend has it that Wei Boyang led three disciples into the mountains to cultivate dan. After he made the dans, he first gave one to a dog as a test. But the dog soon died. Then Boyang ate a dan and also died. One of the three disciples then ate a dan after he saw that his Master died from eating a dan. The other two disciples sighed and said, "The purpose of making dan is to obtain longevity. What is the use of eating a dan that will kill you?" The two of them then left the mountain without hesitation. As soon as they left, Wei Boyang immediately stood up and put the real dan into the mouths of the disciple and the dog. Both the disciple and the dog woke up immediately. In this way, they became immortal and started cultivation of the Tao [3].

This legend shows that the required standards for xinxing (heart and mind nature; moral character) and morals in the arena of ancient Chinese science were very high. The requirements for moral character were much higher than those for intelligence and knowledge. This very characteristic differentiates ancient Chinese science from modern science. The truth of the universe is the manifestation of the nature of different levels. It is impossible to have an access to the truth of the universe via methods or techniques of lower levels. Therefore, "believe first, see later" is another important characteristic of ancient Chinese science. "Believe first, see later" means that those who seek the truth of the universe must first discard all of their conventional thinking before they can see the natural unfolding of the truth of the universe. They need not pursue the truth of the universe in order to see it.

Einstein believed that the universe is in harmony and order, that the universe was created by God, and that there exist high-level beings in the universe. If Einstein represents modern science, perhaps we can derive from his story that "to believe first" must be the foundation of science. Both ancient and modern science share one common requirement in this regard. This is a question that calls for deep reflection from the modern scientist: What on earth do modern scientists believe in?

Ge Hong published Bao Pu Zi in the Jin Dynasty. This book has two parts: inside and outside. It broadly describes the functions of herbs, alchemy, stories about deities and cultivation, and the laws behind the changes of everything on earth. According to Ge Hong, his grandfather, Ge Xianweng, was the student of Zuo Ci, who had imparted to him numerous volumes of scriptures about alchemy. Later, Zheng Siyuan, a disciple of Ge Xianweng, passed the art of alchemy to Ge Hong, grandson of Ge Xianweng. Ge Hong called himself Bao Pu Zi. Ge Hong was indifferent to fame and wealth. He studied diligently despite his obscure family background. He read a lot of classical books, and as the apprentice of Zheng Siyuang, he obtained the secrets to immortality. He hid himself on Mount Luo Fu in Guangdong Province, where he cultivated the Tao, and he constantly wrote books of Tao. When he passed away, he was in the sitting meditation posture. His complexion was rosy and his body was soft like a living person. When people transferred his body to a coffin, they found he weighed as little as a piece of clothing. This is what is called "leaving the body behind to become an immortal."

The Chapter of Huang Bai in Bao Pu Zi says, "Change is the norm of nature; therefore, it is a confined way of thinking to believe gold and silver cannot be transformed into something different." The ancient Chinese alchemists maintained that gold and silver could be transformed into and from other types of substances. This is the so-called transformation of elements in the modern theory of high-energy physics. However, even with the modern, precise, and large particle accelerators that are capable of transforming some chemical elements into different elements, it would be like a tale in the Arabian Nights if one were capable of transforming base chemical elements into gold and silver. It would be impossible to observe this phenomenon using today's technology. This is the very reason why alchemy has been regarded as an absurdity and an example of ancient quasi-science by modern scientists.

Actually, many recent discoveries from modern scientific experiments have shown that many creatures on earth have supernormal abilities like alchemy within themselves. For example, hens, which are not given any food with calcium, unexpectedly produce eggs with calcium shells. Seeds that sprout in distilled water contain more potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, and sulphur than before the seeds begin to sprout. These experiments demonstrate that all creatures on earth have alchemical abilities [4,5]. These phenomena might support the fact that ancient Chinese scientists probably were much more advanced in their understanding of the laws of changes in the universe. Apparently, alchemy is more than just the understanding of substances on the superficial layer. It probes right into the power of life.

(To Be Continued)

[2]"The Story of Huan Di and Xuan Yuan"(unofficial translation of title), website, published on May 30, 2002 (Chinese only).
[3]"The Story of Wei Bo-Yan's Faith and Consummation"(unofficial translation of the title), website, published on July 5, 2002 (Chinese only).
[4] Tomkins, Peter, and Christopher Bird, Chapter 17: Alchemists in the Garden, The Secret Life of Plants, New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

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