FOUR centuries before the Christian era Chinese philosophers were delving into the black arts of alchemy, trying to determine a means of prolonging the life of man. Alchemy, so far as we now know, had its birth in China
The early Egyptians and Assyrians who were skilled in the various arts of making pigments, dyes, glass and enamel, did not seek an elixir of immortality or attempt to transmute base metals into gold, therefore they were not alchemists.
One of the earliest Chinese legends tells of the island of Yong Chou on which was a mountain of pure jade, 10,000 feet high. From this mount gushed a spring of sweet waters, known as the Jade-Wine Spring. A person drinking several goblets of this wine became intoxicated, thus assuring himself of immortality.
The earliest known Chinese treatise on alchemy was written by Wei Po-yang, the "Father of Alchemy." His work, called Ts'an T'ung Ch'i, was written about 142 A.D., in which he refers to earlier traditional manuscripts on alchemy. The three or four centuries before Wei Po-yang were spent in trying to transmute base metals into gold, though not for its intrinsic value, but because it was thought that this synthetic gold could produce longevity. Even to eat from dishes made from synthetic gold insured one of this ideal state. Cinnabar, or red mercuric sulphide, was also thought to be another elixir of immortality.
Chinese alchemy was founded upon the fundamentals of Wu-hsing (the Five Elements) and Yin-Yang (the Contraries). The Five Elements were water, fire, wood, gold and earth. The Contraries were substances, the interaction of which created all things in the universe. Quite similar were these concepts to those of the Egyptian philosophers.
Numerology is no modern humbug, for these early concepts enjoyed the magic of numbers. In these early days of old China, number five was magical-five elements, five seasons, five locations, five colors, five tones, five tastes, five internal organs, five ways of righteous conduct, five grains, five domesticated animals and many other quintets of glamorous notoriety.
The production or creation of all things was made possible by the doctrine of Yin-Yang, "the Contraries." In the Yin-Yang theory, Yin was the female principle, heavy, gross, cold, dark; while Yang was the male principle, light, active and fiery (Chinese values). Father of Alchemy, Wei Poyang, in his book, identifies Yang and Yin with the sun and moon. "The father of it is the Moon," said the alchemist Hermes Trismegistos.
Wei Po-yang was a Taoist philosopher and alchemist, a native of Wu in the province of Kiangsu. In the year 121 A.D. he was offered a position at court but refused this honor. In the epilogue of his Ts'an T'ung Ch'i he describes himself as "a lowly man from the country of Kuei, who has no love for worldly power, glory, fame or gains, who wastes his days leading a simple, quiet, leisurely and peaceful life in a retreat in an unfrequented valley."
This Chinese classic of Wei Po-yang is really a thesis on the preparation of the Pill of Immortality. The Chinese biography of Immortals says that he "entered the mountains to make efficacious medicine. With him were three disciples, two of whom he thought were lacking in complete faith. When the medicine was made he tested them. He said, 'The gold medicine is made but it ought first to be tested on the dog. If no harm comes to the dog we may then take it ourselves; but if the dog dies of it we ought not to take it.' (Now Po-yang had brought a white dog along with him to the mountains. If the number of the treatments of the medicine had not been sufficient or if harmonious compounding had not reached the required standard, it would contain a little poison and would cause temporary death.) Po-yang fed the medicine to the dog and the dog died an instantaneous death. Whereupon he said, 'The medicine is not yet done. The dog has died of it. Doesn't this show that the divine light has not been attained? If we take it ourselves I am afraid we shall go the same way as the dog. What is to be done?' The disciples asked, 'Would you take it yourself, Sir?' To this Po-yang replied, 'I have abandoned the worldly route and forsaken my home to come here. I should he ashamed to return if I could not attain the hsien (immortal). So, to live without taking the medicine would be just the same as to die of the medicine. I must take it.' With these final words he put the medicine into his mouth and died instantly.
"On seeing this, one of the disciples said, 'Our teacher was no common person. He took the medicine and died of it. He must have done that with especial intention.' The disciple also took the medicine and died. Then the other two disciples said to one another, 'The purpose of making medicine is to attempt at attaining longevity. Now the taking of this medicine has caused deaths. It would better not to take the medicine and so be able to live a few decades longer.' They left the mountain together, without taking the medicine, intending to get burial supplies for their teacher and their fellow disciple. After the departure of the two disciples, Po-yang revived. He placed some of a well-concocted medicine in the mouth of the disciple and in the mouth of the dog. In a few moments they both revived. He took the disciple, whose name was YŁ, and the dog, and went the way of immortals. By a wood--cutter, whom they met, he sent a letter of thanks to the two disciples. The two disciples were filled with regrets when they read the letter."
Dr. Tenney L. Davis and Dr. Lu-Chiang Wu, both of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have recently translated and edited the works of Wei Po-yang. Dr. Wu's Translation published with Dr. Davis' Introduction and Complete Notes appeared in Isis 18, 210-289. It is the first translation into any European language of an entire Chinese treatise on alchemy. Some passages of this work are as beautifully and skillfully compiled as Chinese embroidery is woven.
The work of Wu and Davis enlarges the history of alchemy and places its beginning in China where Chinese writers have provided it with a romantic and poetic halo.
The following passages of the translations are gems of epic beauty that will appeal to the modern laboratory man whose prosaic duties sometimes become monotonous. (The style of this, however, is not recommended for writing research reports.)
"When gold is placed in a hot fire it is not deprived of the brilliancy of its color. Since the days of the unfolding of the universe (Creation) the sun and the moon have not diminished in brightness nor has gold lost any weight. The shapes of the sun and of the moon have always been the same. Gold is born under the influence of the moon. At daybreak, receiving magic force from the sun, it returns to its mother. Being enveloped by the sun at the wane of the moon, it hides within the walls and abandons itself to inanity. Thus does the gold regain its original nature. Only when intense brightness is obtained is the Ting (furnace≠pot) well heated.
"Longevity is of primary importance in the great triumph. Huan Tan (Returned Medicine) is edible. Gold is non-corruptible in its nature and is therefore the most valuable of things. The Shu Shih (Men of the Art, Magicians) feeding on it attain longevity. Earth, traveling in all seasons, delineates the boundaries and formulates rules to be observed. The Chin Sa (Gold Dust), having entered the five internal organs, spreads foggily like wind≠driven rain. (Clinical technicians, please note.) Vaporizing and permeating it reaches the four limbs. Thereupon the complexion becomes rejuvenated, hoary hair regains its blackness, and new teeth grow where fallen ones used to be. If an old man, he will once more become a youth; if an old woman, she will regain her maidenhood. Such transformations make one immune from worldly miseries, and one who is so transformed is called by the name of T'sun Jen (True Man).
"Things found in nature, when given proper help according to their kind, will result in things easy to improve. (A prophecy for the Twentieth Century.) Fish eyes cannot replace pearls, and tall weeds cannot be used for timber. Things of similar nature go together; queer things cannot be realized. This explains why the swallow does not give birth to peacocks and the fox and the rabbit do not mother horses. This explains also why flowing water does not heat up what is above it, and why moving fire does not wet what is under it.
"The bark of the Nieh tree dyes yellow and the Lan (indigo) dyes blue; the boiling of hides yields glue; and the Ch'u Nieh (yeast) ferments to give liquor. It is easy to get results when the starting materials and the desired products are of the same kind. Otherwise, it is very difficult.
"The aspirant should study this thoughtfully and thoroughly, viewing it from all angles. A thousand readings will bring out some points, and ten thousand perusals will enable him to see. At last, revelation will come to bring him enlightenment. Careful study will open the door to the secrets. Nature's Tao (way) shows no partiality, but reveals to all who are worthy."
This authentic manuscript of Wei Po-yang
thus very definitely traces the ancestors of modern chemistry to the land
of Oriental beginnings, four centuries before the birth of Christ. Until
the archeologists unearth evidence to the contrary, we are safe in saying
chemistry began in China.