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Alchemy: History of the Great Secret Part II

Updated on January 28, 2015
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Elizabeth has been an EMT for a year, a writer for 10 years, and an artist all her life. She pulls inspiration from her favorite authors.

Chapter Two

Around the 6th century B.C.E. Greece had Plato and Socrates; India had the Buddha and China had Confucius and Lao Tzu. Born in Ch'u (present-day Henan Province), Lao Tzu (), which literally means "old master", is also sometimes referred to as Lao Tan or Li Er.

He was appointed Keeper of the Imperial Archives by the King of Zhou in Luoyang. He studied the archive's books avidly and his insight grew.

Hearing of Lao Tzu's wisdom, Confucius travelled to meet him. Confucius put a lot of emphasis on traditional rituals, customs and rites.

Confucius asked Lao Tzu about performing rites and rituals. Lao Tzu replied: "The bones of the people you are talking about have long since turned to dust! Only their words linger on. If a man's time comes, he will be successful; if not, he will not be successful. A successful merchant hides his wealth and a noble person of character will feign foolishness. Therefore, you should give up your proud airs, your desires, vanity and extravagant claims! They are useless to you.

Later Confucius later told his students:
Birds can fly,
Fish can swim,
Animals can run,
So they can all be snared or trapped.

But Lao Tzu is like a flying Dragon, un-trappable.

Much later, Lao Tzu perceived that the kingdom's affairs were disintegrating , so it was time to leave. He was travelling West on a buffalo when he came to the Han Gu Pass, which was guarded. The keeper of the pass realised Lao Tzu was leaving permanently, so he requested that Lao Tzu write out some of his wisdom so that it could be preserved once he was gone.

Lao Tzu climbed down from his buffalo and immediately wrote the Tao The Ching. He then left and was never heard of again[1].

Lao Tzu astride his buffalo
Lao Tzu astride his buffalo

Scholars to date are unable to decide precisely when Chinese alchemy began – primarily because, although many academics believe that China was making gold well before the time of Confucius (551-479 BC), language historians point out that at that time there wasn’t a Chinese word for gold, suggesting that it was as yet an unknown metal in China.

There are, however, enough similarities between the Chinese tradition of alchemy and Taoism for many scholars to suggest that Lao Tzu, (the legend of whom is above recorded) the founder of Taoism, and Chang Tao Ling, the founder of a sect of Taoism known as the Way of the Celestial Masters, are the original founders of the alchemical tradition. One myth tells of how Chang Tao Ling refused to serve the emperor and became a hermit in the mountains, where he met Lao Tzu and the two attempted to create the Elixir of Life. However, the two men were born centuries apart – Lao Tzu is reported to have been born in 604 BCE and Chang Tao Ling in 34 CE. There isn’t an established date for Lao Tzu’s death; it is simply assumed that considering the current human life expectancy he must have died during the same century in which he was born. Chang Tao Ling is reported to have died in 156 CE; he would have been 121 years old when he died.

Despite our estimates of the average lifespan during the period, the tales of Lao Tzu and Chang Tao Ling are not disputed; in fact, both characters are mentioned in so many places that the lore about them seems to be widely accepted as historical truth. We can, however, trace what we about recorded Chinese history to see the true timeline of Chinese alchemy. Chinese alchemy began with the Fang-Shih, a group of people who claimed to have found the secrets of prolonging life and became the pioneers of true Chinese alchemical tradition. The Fang-Shih arose during the Warring States period – a time of political turmoil and war in China that spanned the end of the Zhou Dynasty from 453 BCE to the beginning of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE. China was broken into seven warring states, with no sense of unification and no clear emperor. Emperors and common people alike were most interested in the ability to prolong their life or live forever – emperors to outlive their rivals and common people to be safe from the looting and mass casualties that are always associated with war.

The Fang-Shih, to achieve longevity and immortality, were not solely concerned with concocting the Elixir of Life. Instead, they incorporated various methods into their daily life, including the ingestion of minerals – such as mercury and lead – calisthenics – light exercises to promote general fitness – and sexual yoga. However, interest in the Elixir of Life rose incredibly during the Han Dynasty, which began in 206 BCE and continued to 220 CE. The belief in immortality was very strong during this period and the emperors supported and patronized the Fang-Shih. By this time, the practice of alchemy had been broken down into two different methods – external alchemy and internal alchemy.

Internal alchemy was the method that included calisthenics, yoga, and meditation. Very much like the New Age practices of chakra healing and spirituality, internal alchemical practices emphasized the yin and yang within oneself, and the energy of the Tao that we are all born with. In internal alchemy, the steps of the alchemical process are as follows:

  1. The Lower Stages – During this stage, the student prepares his or her body for further training. Muscles are strengthened and ligaments stretched. Furthermore, the student utilizes various forms of meditation, to quiet the mind and minimize activity. This alchemical step all has to do with the physical and mental state of the body, working under the knowledge that without the changes in strength, the later changes in spirit, consciousness, and energy cannot happen.
  2. The Middle Stages – This stage in the process is broken down into two smaller processes: lien-ching-hua-ch’i – the refining of generative energy[2] focuses on gathering and transforming generative energy. This stage involves both physical and mental work; the physical work takes place in the abdominal area of the body, the mental work involves regulating sexual desire in attempt to minimize it. Without the loss of energy through sexual desire and activity, the generative energy can be gathered, cultivated, and refined. After the energy has been collected, the student goes through the step known as the birth of yang, where the metaphorical furnace in the lower tan-t’ien (Elixir field or field of energy – there are three of them in Taoist tradition) is lit, to refine the generative energy collected in the metaphorical cauldron. The lien-ch’i-hua-shen – focuses on refining vital energy. The process is much the same, except that the physical work is localized to the heart region and the mental work involves regulating emotions and moods.
  3. The Final Stages – Once again, this stage is broken down into two smaller parts. The lien-shen-huan-hsu is the refinement of the spirit energy, in preparation for the return to the void. As a mental process, it involves emptying one’s mind of all thoughts and existing in a state of complete emptiness. At the completion of the refinement of the spirit energy, all three energies – generative, vital, and spirit – gather at the top of the head, in the upper tan-t’ien. Once the three energies have gathered, their combined vapor descends into the abdomen to create the metaphorical immortal fetus, which is then incubated for ten months and nourished. The lien-hsü-ho-Tao is the growing up of the void (immortal fetus), in preparation to eventually merge with the Tao. After incubation, the fetus goes through an aging process much like the human aging process, and as it does so it moves up again to the top of the head. From there, it ventures out on journeys, to learn how to once again merge with the Tao from which we all came before our birth. It is now called the original spirit – the yüan-shen. When the physical shell of the body dies, the yüan-shen rejoins the Tao.

Internal alchemy, though widely used and respected by the Fang-Shih, was a slow and gradual process. The emperors and other wealthy benefactors were more interested in a more immediate approach to immortality, thus their attraction to external alchemy. External alchemy dealt with the experimentation with herbs and minerals to attempt to create the Elixir of Life, or the Golden Pill. The stages of external alchemy can be identified as follows:

  1. Building the foundations – Much of the alchemical research of the Tang period (618-907 CE) was concerned with attempting to create a furnace and cauldron within a laboratory setting that would be patterned off of the metaphorical furnace and cauldron of the sky and the earth and made precise enough to create the elixir that alchemists believed occurred naturally over thousands of years.
  2. Selecting ingredients – the ingredients used had to be mixed with medical precision. The wrong amount of any of the ingredients (many of which were deadly poisonous) could result in horrific side effects. The most noted ingredients used in attempting to create the elixir were lead and mercury.
  3. Firing process – the cauldron had to be lit in the eleventh month, and its heat had to be regulated throughout the year at very specific times, in attempt to recreate the natural conditions that result in the golden pill.

Not every alchemist of note had a wealthy patron. For example, Wei Po-yang – who is reported to have lived from 25-220CE – had his own laboratory in the mountains.

Wei Po-yang with the cauldron, his faithful apprentice, and his dog
Wei Po-yang with the cauldron, his faithful apprentice, and his dog

The Legend of Wei Po-yang[3]

Wei-Po yang was experimenting in his laboratory with the formula for the Elixir of Life. When he was confident that he had perfected the recipe, he gave one of the pills to his dog. The dog promptly fell over, unconscious. Seeing this, Wei Po-yang too swallowed a pill, and fell unconscious at the feet of his two apprentices. The first lost faith and left at this, but the other himself swallowed a pill, and he too fell unconscious. Not long after, Wei Po-yang raised. He felt a lightness in his body and floated up towards the sky, followed by his faithful apprentice and dog.

According to this legend, Wei Po-yang achieved immortality – although perhaps not immortality in the traditional sense. He left behind a text called the Tsan-tung-chi, the Triplex Unity. It is considered by Taoists to be the ancestor of both external and internal alchemical texts. It speaks of nourishing the body and mind in addition to ingesting herbs and minerals, suggesting that early alchemists in China saw no conflict or distinction between internal and external alchemical methods.

At the end of the 300s CE, another Taoist alchemist emerged. He was Ko Hung, a member of a powerful and well-established family in southern China. His book, the P’ao-p’u-tzu – The Sage Who Embraces Simplicity – is different from the work of Wei Po-yang in that instead of being a true guide of alchemy, it lists formulae, ingredients for the pill of immortality, ideas for holding the One, and ideas about meditation and those practices concerned with preparing the mind for immortality and reunification with the Tao. In addition, Ko Hung’s work in alchemy was different than many alchemists of his time because, due to marital ties to another Taoist family, his belief system was mixed and eclectic. His book describes how to rid oneself of the monsters his in-laws believed in, and how to use talismans when traveling in the mountains to gather the herbs required to make the elixir.

Hung agreed with the emperors that external alchemy, the more immediate of the two paths, was the answer to royal immortality. Unlike his predecessors, however, Hung believed that to be successful in creating the elixir of life, the right ingredients must be collected and prepared in the proper way. The ingredients could only be collected on certain, specific days and only in specified areas of the mountains, or the elixir would fail. A collector also needed to protect themselves with talismans while in the mountains, and would need to dance the Yü[4] while chanting the proper incantations. In short, Hung’s method for preparing the elixir of life was very complicated and specific, and failure was all too easy.

As a short decline of external alchemy paralleled the decline of the Southern Dynasties – around 580 CE – China reached a period of political stability and financial prosperity. Despite the previous lack of success with attempts to create the pill of immortality, Taoism was now embraced by all social classes and the nobility still longed for immortality. The alchemists reevaluated their methods and previous experiments, and a new group of them emerged – a group entirely dedicated to the research and experimentation to create the elixir of life. Needless to say, more emperors died during this time period of poisonings from various minerals than from any other period in China’s history.

These new external alchemists believed that there were two kinds of elixirs. One occurs naturally in minerals and stones that have, over long periods of time, absorbed the yin and yang energies. They believed that when the right amount of sun and moonlight was applied over 4,320 years, elements like lead and mercury will turn into cinnabar, and transform into a pill with a golden color. Unfortunately, pills that met those conditions were rare, and so alchemists determined that if the proper conditions for yin and yang energy could be simulated, the immortal pill might be created in a laboratory in a much shorter time.

Lü Tung-Pin as one of the eight immortals
Lü Tung-Pin as one of the eight immortals

The alchemists tried to copy the process of nature exactly, attempting to mimic the furnace and cauldron of sky and earth. The furnace had to be lit at a specific time and the heat regulated at specified, very critical times of the year. The ingredients had to be carefully selected, and alchemical texts of the time list some twenty-seven substances. Most of these were poisonous, including lead, mercury, zinc, nickel, sodium sulfate, mercuric sulfide, malachite, cinnabar, and a few arsenious oxides. Even the alchemists admitted that if the wrong amounts were ingested, death could occur. Many deaths did occur in fact – as the result of liver and spleen failure, mental deterioration, and the general breakdown of the nervous system. After nearly three hundred years of research, experimentation, and failure, alchemists themselves questioned the possibility of immortality.

The practices of Buddhism effected the rethinking of the Taoist meaning of immortality at this juncture – the Buddhists believed that immortality was the liberation from the endless cycles of reincarnation. This led the alchemists back to the ways of internal alchemy – of using yoga, meditation, and calisthenics to achieve health and longevity as opposed to true immortality. Thus began the golden era of internal alchemy.

According to legend, Lü Tung-Pin[5], who lived through the era of Five Dynasties (another time of political turmoil and chaos from 907-960 CE) and into the Sung Dynasty (960-1368 CE) and is hailed as the patriarch of internal alchemy, became tired of and disillusioned with the political situation. He abandoned his aspirations in that field and followed an immortal named Chung-li Ch’uan[6] into the mountains to learn the way of internal alchemy.

Many students of Lü Tung-Pin founded other schools of thought about longevity. Chen His-yi, for example, integrated the Confucian idea of the I-ching into his Taoist practices to create ch’i-kung. Wang Ch’ung-yang founded the Complete Reality School in the 12th century. He was among the first Taoists to integrate not only Taoism and Confucianism, but also Buddhism into his practices. In addition, he did not believe sexual alchemy – alchemy that included sexual yoga as an attempt to combine the yin and yang energies of male and female – to be a legitimate technique. Chang Po-tuan (987-1082 CE) wrote alchemical texts, having received the teachings of Lü Tung-Pin secondhand. His work is filled with alchemical metaphors and allegories mentioning the furnace and cauldron, yin and yang, lead and mercury, and the golden pill. His most famous book is Understanding Reality (Wu-jen p’ien), the publication of which caused followers of Taoism to hail him as the successor of Wei Po-yang – with the simple difference of believing that all the ingredients for alchemy existed within the body.

Over the years since then, Taoist alchemists have brought back the supplementation of herbs – but avoid minerals – and some have even incorporated martial arts in the form of t’ai-chi (which is a popular practice around the world today). For certain, today’s practitioners of Chinese alchemical traditions recognize that internal alchemy consists of the duality of the physical and psychological; that although mental and spiritual changes must occur, one cannot achieve immortality only through the mind. All of them realize that although texts and manuals about internal alchemy exist, they are not meant to be used as guides. Practicing internal alchemy without a guide is – in their eyes – incredibly risky and even presumptuous. There must always be a master and there must always be an apprentice. Thus the cycle continues.

Learn More


  1. This version of the legend of Lao Tzu taken from
  2. Generative energy is the energy that revitalizes and inspires us, allows for reproduction both physically and creatively.
  3. The information for my phrasing of this legend comes from Taoism: An Essential Guide, by Eva Wong, page 68.
  4. “The Pace of Yü” are the steps Yü the Great took to ascend to the heavens for the guidance of the deities to save China from a great flood. They are celebrated as a dance associated with divine guidance and success
  5. Lü Tung-Pin, although an historical figure, was deified and is known to Chinese culture as one of the eight immortals
  6. Chung-li Ch’uan, or Zhongli Quan, is the oldest of the eight immortals of Chinese mythology. He is said to have been a general in during the Han Dynasty (206-220 CE), and to possess a fan with the magical ability to revive the dead.

What have you thought of parts I and II?

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© 2015 Elizabeth Skinner


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    • Seafarer Mama profile image

      Karen A Szklany 3 years ago from New England

      I have been enjoying this history of Alchemy series and am looking forward to reading your next 2 hubs about it.