Foundations of Chemistry in Ancient China

Hu Zhang

PureInsight | October 1, 2002

It is widely known that the ancient Chinese were highly accomplished in the arena of science. In fact, there were outstanding scientists in almost every Chinese dynasty. However, in sharp contrast to the systematic development of modern times, the overall development of science in ancient China was rather sporadic. Generally speaking, the most obvious reason is that the technology was not always preserved, leading to the loss of many valuable Chinese discoveries. It is unthinkable to modern people, who understand that “science and technology bring wealth,” that valuable technologies were not preserved in ancient China. Actually, this issue has to do with the underlying assumptions of the scientific theories and moral attainments of scientists in ancient China. I will begin a series of discussions on various disciplines of chemistry in ancient China by first talking about the ancient Chinese theories regarding “substances.”

The understanding of matter in ancient China was essentially the “Theory of the Five Elements.” The ancient Chinese discovered that metal, wood, water, fire, and earth constitute all matter in the universe. When did this understanding of matter actually begin? Chances are that no history book can answer this question because the Theory of the Five Elements seems to have co-existed with the Chinese culture. It can even be described as one of the cornerstones of Chinese culture in the long course of history. According to the chapter “Hong Fang” of the book Shang Shu, the Five Elements refers to metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Shang Shu is also known as Shu Jing, or The Book of History. It was one of the six classics that Confucius compiled and commented on. It is a collection of ancient Chinese political literature with records dating back as early as the reign of Huang Di (a legendary ruler in ancient China) approximately 5,000 years ago. In other words, the Chinese developed an understanding of the five elements even prior to the creation of Chinese characters. There is also evidence of knowledge of the five elements in the book, Guo Yu, from the Chou Dynasty: “Different combinations of earth, metal, wood, water and fire form everything in the world.” These early records prove that the Theory of the Five Elements is the foundation of ancient Chinese science, similar to how the theory of the atom and molecule is the foundation of modern science’s discoveries about the universe and matter.

There was an even more microscopic understanding of matter than the Theory of the Five Elements in ancient China: “The Theory of Yin and Yang.” Confucius said, “One Yin and One Yang are called Tao” (the chapter “Xi Chi Zhuan,” The Book of Changes). He also said, “Interactions between hard and soft matter result in changes.” Lao Tzu (Lao Zi) said, “Tao gave birth to One, One gave birth to Two, Two gave birth to Three, Three gave birth to all the myriad things. All the myriad things carry the Yin on their backs and hold the Yang in their embrace” (Chapter 42, Tao Teh Ching or Classics of Tao and Virtue). These statements appear to be within the realm of modern high energy physics. Lao Tzu not only talked about the microscopic fundamental particles, but also the formation of substances. Therefore, the myriad of things constituted by the five elements have both the characteristics of Yin and Yang and of the five elements. The different characteristics of matter were described in the Chapter “Hong Fan” of The Book of History: “Water corresponds to moisture and the direction of down. Fire corresponds to blaze and the direction of up. Wood is curvy or straight in nature. Metal is unstable under fire. Earth is necessary for agriculture. Water becomes salty when travelling down. Fire becomes bitter when blazing upward. Wood may turn acid when it changes shape. Metal may turn bitter when it becomes unstable. Earth may turn sweet when used in agriculture.” Because of their natural characteristics, the five elements promote and restrain one another at the macroscopic level. These are the restraining interactions among the five elements: “Water restrains fire. Fire restrains metal. Metal restrains wood. Wood restrains earth. Earth restrains water.” These are the promoting interactions among the five elements: “Wood promotes fire. Fire promotes earth. Earth promotes metal. Metal promotes water. Water promotes wood.” This summarizes the famous Theory of Mutual Promotion and Restraint (also known as the Theory of Mutual Generation and Mutual Inhibition) among the five elements. The unique scientific knowledge in ancient China, ranging from astronomy, geography, calendars, physics, medicine, pharmacy, to chemistry, originated from the Theory of the Five Elements and the Theory of Ying and Yang. These theories even had effects on the development of Chinese music, architecture, art, and culture.

From the modern scientific point of view, there are many abstract and non- quantifiable elements within these theories, thus making it difficult for them to be accepted as science, despite many proven achievements in traditional Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture. What is the crux of the problem? Perhaps this question will baffle many modern scholars! Perhaps we can find some clues to the issue by reading a passage from the Classics of Tao and Virtue. “All things under heaven are born of the corporeal: The corporeal is born of the Incorporeal” (Chapter 40). “Tao gave birth to One, One gave birth to Two, Two gave birth to Three, and Three gave birth to all the myriad things. All the myriad things carry the Yin on their backs and hold the Yang in their embrace, deriving their vital harmony from the proper blending of the two vital Breaths” (Chapter 42, Tao Teh Ching). “Tao gives birth to one, two, three and corporeal is born of the Incorporeal.” After studying and thinking over these two passages, we can see that modern theories of chemistry are very much in line with ancient Chinese science. The following is my interpretation of Lao Tzu’s theories of matter in layman’s terms: A given substance is constituted of many layers of substances. In other words, matter is composed of layers of particles, while each particle is composed of multiple microscopic bits of matter. Each microscopic bit of matter is then composed by the particles of finer microscopic bits of matter . It follows that each corporeal substance is actually composed by a multitude of incorporeal substances. It means that a higher layer of microscopic matter is incorporeal to those in lower layers.

How do we understand the theory of Ying and Yang then? Lao Tzu said, “Three gave birth to all the myriad things. All the myriad things carry the Yin on their backs and hold the Yang in their embrace, deriving their vital harmony from the proper blending of the two vital Breaths.” With the naked eye, we see all matter on earth composed by three kinds of microscopic matters. In addition, the myriad things all have the characteristics of “carrying the Yin on their backs outside and holding the Yang in their embrace inside.” Doesn’t this sound like atomic theory? Every kind of atom on the Periodic Table of Elements is composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and the atomic characteristic is that the negative electron (Yin, meaning “negative” in Chinese) circles the positive atomic nucleus (Yang, meaning “positive” in Chinese). Let’s put aside for a moment the question of how the ancient Chinese were able to observe the structure of the atom. Actually, it is relatively easy to explain to a modern audience the ancient Chinese concept of corporeal matter, more so than to explain the abstract concept of incorporeal matter, described in the next sentence. “Deriving their vital harmony from the proper blending of the two vital Breaths.” This is where Chinese science significantly differs from modern science. “Deriving their vital harmony from the proper blending of the two vital Breaths” is not the corporeal phenomenon in this dimension, thus making it difficult to explain. Put in layman’s terms, it means the following: The forming of matter (as a result of interactions between Yin and Yang) can result in harmonious energy flow. “Harmony” has the meaning of unification, which means that a matter exists in the form of incorporeal energy. For example, by dissecting human bodies, modern anatomists have learned about the existence of muscle tissues, blood vessels, and bones, etc. On the other hand, the ancient Chinese observed not only corporeal tissues made of flesh but also incorporeal distributions of energy flows. The discovery of energy flow led to the knowledge of the energy channels and the acupuncture points in traditional Chinese medicine, although channels and acupuncture points cannot be seen in our physical dimension. Based on the knowledge of the incorporeal energy flow, the ancient Chinese developed Qigong exercises as a method of disease treatment. Where is the Qi? What is the Qi? The general public does not see Qi or precisely describe Qi, but the healing effect proves the existence of Qi. Take another example. Recently, a researcher in Japan showed that distilled water exposed to praises or insults form different shaped water crystals (see The responses of water were marvellous manifestations of Lao Tzu’s theory of incorporeal matter, “Deriving their vital harmony from the proper blending of the two vital Breaths.” Mind-intent seems to have no effect on a human body, but it is actually, as is said in a Chinese saying, “moving the Qi in the body.” In other words, it is impacting the incorporeal energy flow in the human body. Lao Tzu’s theories are extremely scientific from the perspective of the law of conservation of energy. Here, I have made a brief comparison between the knowledge of matter in ancient Chinese science and modern science.

This is also why the Chinese understanding of substances incorporates both the spiritual (Qi) and material aspects simultaneously, and encompasses the concept that “every matter in the universe has a soul.” For instance, the water in the water crystal experiment was capable of perceiving human sentiments, as if it had a soul. Like human beings, all matter, once formed, will “Derive their vital harmony from the proper blending” to have a soul. With this in mind, one will understand why mathematics was not an important tool of research in ancient Chinese science. The main reason is that mathematics is useful for quantitative studies of corporeal matters, but it is useless for studies of the incorporeal Qi. For instance, a mathematical model is close to useless in modern scientific tests that simulate the variations in human moods. That is why it became a standard approach for ancient Chinese scientists to observe and analyse the variations of corporeal and incorporeal matters in the universe using the theories of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements. As to how the ancient Chinese scientists were able to observe the matters “deriving their vital harmony from the proper blending,” I whole-heartedly suggest that readers read the section entitled, “The Issue of the Celestial Eye,” in Chapter Two of Zhuan Falun by Master Li Hongzhi. In general, most outstanding scientists in ancient China had supernormal abilities. They directly witnessed the variations in substances in multiple dimensions. Also, the levels of their moral characters, or xinxing (heart and mind nature), were positively correlated to their supernormal abilities. The xinxing level of scholars in later generations has important impacts on their abilities to understand the technologies of previous generations. Put simply, the truth of the universe can only be unveiled to those with noble morals. If a scientist does not have high xinxing, he will not be able to understand the technology, least of all will he be able to preserve it. This is the reason why many valuable technologies in ancient China were lost. Many skills cannot be obtained via diligent pursuit alone. Morality is a requirement that has been ignored by modern scientists.

With the ancient Chinese people’s theories of matters in mind, one will surely find it interesting to re-study the scientific development in ancient China. Perhaps we will even come out with new theories of matter.

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