Chinese alchemical elixir poisoning

In Chinese alchemy , elixir poisoning refers to the toxic effects of elixirs of immortality that contain metals and minerals such as mercury and arsenic . The official Twenty-Four Histories record Numerous Chinese emperors , nobles , and Officials Who ironically died from Taking elixirs in order to Their prolonged lifespans. The first emperor to die from poisoning elixir Was Likely Qin Shi Huang (d. 210 BCE) and the last Was Yongzheng (d. 1735). Despite common knowledge that immortality potions could be deadly , fangshiand Daoist alchemists continued the elixir-making practice for two millennia.


The etymology of English elixir derives from Medieval Latin elixir , from Arabic إكسير ( al-‘iksīr ), probably from Ancient Greek ξήριον ( xḗrion “a desiccative powder for wounds”). Elixir originated in medieval European alchemy meaning ” elixir stone or philosopher’s stone ” or “A drug drug or essence with the property of indefinitely prolonging life” ( elixir of life ). The word was figurativelyextended to mean ” Daffy’s Elixir ” and “The Quintessence or Soul of a Thing ” (eg, Kernel or Secret Principle). In modern use, elixir is a pharmaceutical term for “A sweetened aromatic solution of alcohol and water, serving as a vehicle for medicine” ( Oxford English Dictionary , 2nd ed., 2009). Outside of Chinese cultural contexts, English elixir poisoning usually refers to accidental contamination, such as the 1937 Elixir sulfanilamide mass poisoning in the United States.

Dān丹 “cinnabar; vermillion; elixir; alchemy” is the keyword for Chinese immortality elixirs. The red mineral cinnabar ( dānshā丹砂 lit. “cinnabar sand”) was anciently used to produce the pigment vermilion ( zhūhóng朱紅) and the element mercury ( shuǐyín水銀 “watery silver” or gǒng汞).

According to the ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese , the etymology of Modern Standard Chinese dān from Old Chinese * tān (<* tlan ?) 丹 “vermillion; cinnabar”, gān矸 in dāngān丹 矸 from * tā-kân (< * tlan-klan ?) “cinnabar; vermillion ore”, and zhān from * tan旃 “a red flag” derived from Proto-Kam-Sui * h-lan “red” gold Proto-Sino-Tibetan * tja-n gold * tya-n “red”. The * t-initial and * t- or * k- doublets indicate that Old Chinese borrowed this item. (Schuessler 2007: 204).

Although the word dan丹 “cinnabar;” frequently occurs in oracle script from the late Shang Dynasty (ca 1600-1046 BCE) and bronzeware script and seal script from the Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 BCE), paleographers disagree about the graphic origins of the logograph丹 and its ancient variants 𠁿 and 𠕑. Early scripts combines a gold dot (depicting a piece of cinnabar) in the middle of a surrounding frame, which is said to represent:

  • jǐng井 “well” represents the mine from which the cinnabar is taken “( Shuowen Jiezi )
  • “the crucible of the Taoist alchemists” ( Léon Wieger )
  • “the contents of a square receptacle” ( Bernhard Karlgren )
  • “placed in a tray or palette to be used as a pigment” (Wang Hongyuan 王宏源)
  • “Needham and Lu”.

Many Chinese elixir names are compounds of dan , such as jīndān金丹 (with “gold”) meaning “golden elixir; elixir of immortality; drinking gold ” and xiāndān仙丹 (with ” Daoist immortal “) “elixir of immortality; panacea”, and shéndān神丹 (with “spirit; god”) “divine elixir”. Bùsǐ zhī yào藥 之 藥 “drug of deathlessness” was another early name for the elixir of immortality. Chinese alchemists would liàndān (with “smelt; refine”) “concoct pills of immortality” using a dāndǐng丹 鼎 (with ” tripod cooking vessel; cauldron”In addition, the ancient Chinese believed that other substances provided longevity and immortality, particularly the língzhī靈芝” Ganoderma mushroom “.

The transformation of chemistry-based waidan external 丹 “external elixir / alchemy” to physiology-based neidan內丹 “internal elixir / alchemy” gave new analogous meanings to old terms. The human body metaphorically becomes a ding “cauldron” in which the adept forges the Three Treasures (essence, life-force, and spirit) within the jindan Golden Elixir within the dāntián (with “field”) “lower part of the abdomen” .

In early China, alchemists and pharmacists were one in the same. Traditional Chinese Medicine aussi used less Concentrated cinnabar and mercury preparations, and dan means “pill; medicine” in general, for example, dānfāng丹方Semantically changed from “prescription for elixir of immortality” to “medical requirement”. Dan was lexicalized into medical terms such as dānjì pill 劑 “pill preparation” and dānyào丹藥 “pill medicine”.

For example, Indo-Iranian soma or haoma , Sanskrit amrita , and Greek ambrosia .


In Chinese history , the alchemical practice of concocting elixirs of immortality from metallic and mineral substances Began circa the 4th century BCE in the late Warring states period , atteint a peak in the 9th century CE Tang dynasty When five emperors died, and, DESPITE common knowledge of the dangers, poisoning elixir continued until the 18th century Qing dynasty .

Warring States period

The Earliest mention of alchemy in China in connection with OCCURS Fangshi ( “Masters of the methods”) specialists in cosmological and esoteric arts employed by rulers from the 4th century BCE (Woskin In 1981, 19).

The third -century BCE Zhanguo Ce and Han Feizi both record a story about King Qingxiang of Chu (rd 298-263 BCE) being presented a busi zhi yao不死 之 藥 “immortality medicine”. As the chamberlain was taking the elixir into the palace, it was edible and when it was answered yes, the guard grabbed and ate it. The king was angered and condemned the guard to death. A friend of the guard tries to persuade the king, saying, “After the guard has been put in the chamberlain it could be a before it. an elixir of life, but it’s going to be an elixir of death (and the guest will be liar). would be better to release the guard. ” This logic convinced the king to let the guard live (Needham and Ho 1970: 316).

Qin dynasty

Qin Shi Huang , the founder of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), feared death and the last part of his life seeking the elixir of life , and reportedly died from elixir poisoning (Wright 2001: 49). The first emperor aussi feels Xu Fu to sail year expeditionary fleet into the Pacific in order to find the legendary Mount Penglai Where the busi zhi shu不死之樹”tree of deathlessness” grew, purpose They Never returned.

Han dynasty

Interest in elixirs of immortality increased during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Emperor Wu (156-87 BCE) employed many fangshi alchemists who claimed they could produce the legendary substance. The Book of Han says that around 133 BCE the fangshi Li Shaojun 李少君 said to Emperor Wu, “Sacrifice to the stove [ zao竈] and you will be able to summon ‘things’ [ie spirits] Summon spirits and you will be able cinnabar powder to change into yellow gold. With this yellow gold May you make vessels to eat and drink out of. You will Then Increase your span of life. Having Increased your span of life, you will be ble to see the [ xian仙] of [Penglai] that is in the midst of the sea. Then you can perform the sacrifices feng [封] and shan [禅], and escape death. “(Waley 1930: 2).

Wei Boyang’s c. 142 Cantong qi , which is considered to be the oldest complete alchemical book extant in any culture, influences developments in elixir alchemy. It lists the ingredients for elixirs, which limited later potential experiments and resulted in numerous cases of poisoning. It is quite possible that “many of the most brilliant and creative alchemists fell victim to their own experiments by taking dangerous elixirs” (Needham et al., 1976: 74). There is a famous story about animal testingof elixirs by Wei Boyang. Wei entered the mountains to prepare the elixir of immortality, accompanied by three disciples, two of whom were skeptical. When the alchemy was completed, he said, “Although the dog is going to be a dog, he is going to have a dog. it is not. ” The dog fell over and died, but Wei and his disciple Yu took the medicine and immediately died, after which the two cautious disciples fled. Wei and Yu later revived, joined in their faith, took the elixir and became immortal (Needham and Ho 1970: 322).

Elixir ingestion is first mentioned in the c. 81 BCE Discourses on Salt and Iron (Pregadio 2000: 166).

Six dynasties

During the turbulent Six Dynasties period (220-589), self-experimentation with drugs became commonplace, and many people tried taking poisonous elixirs of immortality as well as the psychoactive drug Cold-Food Powder . At this time, Daoist alchemists began to record the often fatal effects of elixirs. In an unusual case of involuntary elixir poisoning, Empress Jia Nanfeng (257-300) was forced to commit suicide by drinking “jinxiaojiu” 金 屑 酒 “wine with gold fragments” (Needham and Ho 1970: 326).

The Daoist scholar Ge Hong ‘s c. 320 Baopuzi lists 56 chemical preparations and elixirs, 8 of qui Were poisonous, with visions from mercury poisoning The Most Commonly Reported symptom (Needham et al 1976. 89-96).

The sixteen dynasties alchemy often had different understandings and intentions. A single alchemical formula could be interpreted as “suicidal, therapeutic, or symbolic and contemplative”, and its implementation might be “a unique, decisive event or repeated, ritual phantasmagoria” (Strickmann 1979: 192).

Emperor Ai of Jin (361-365) died at the age of twenty-five, as the result of his desire to avoid growing old. The Book of Jin says the emperor practiced bigu “grain avoidance” and consumed alchemical elixirs, but was poisoned from an overdose and “no longer knew what was going on around him” (Needham and Ho 1970: 317). In a sardonic sense, the emperor fulfills his desire since the elixir “(Ho 2000: 184).

Emperor Daowu (r 371-409), founder of the Northern Wei dynasty, was cautiously interested in alchemy and used condemned criminals for clinical trials of immortality elixirs (like Mithridates VI of Pontus R. 120-63 BCE). The Book of Wei records that in 400, he instituted the office of the Royal Alchemist, built an imperial laboratory for the preparation of drugs and elixirs, and reserved the Western mountains for the supply of firewood (used in the alchemical furnaces). “Moreover, he has been sentenced to death to test their victims.” (Needham and Ho, 1970: 321).

Many texts from the Six Dynasties period specifically warned about the toxicity of elixirs. For instance, the Shangqing School Daoist pharmacologist Tao Hongjing’s 499 Zhen’gao (真 誥, Declarations of the Perfected) describes a White Powder elixir.

When you have taken a spatulaful of it, you will feel an intense bread in your heart, as if you had been stabbed there with a knife. After three days you will want to drink, and when to you-have drunk a full hu 斛 [about 50 liters] your breath will be cut off. When that happens, it will mean that you are dead. When your body is going to be ugly, it will be completely gone, and only your clothing will remain. Thus you will be immortal released in broad daylight by means of his waistband. If one knows the name of the drug [or, Perhaps, the secret names of ict ingredients] he will not feel the pain in His heart, He Has goal after-drunk is full huhe will still die. When he is dead, he will be aware that he has left his corpse on the ground. At the proper time, jade youths and maidens will come with an azure carriage to take it away. If one wishes to linger on the world, he should strictly regulate his drinking when he feels the bread in his heart. This formula can be used by the family. (Strickmann, 1979: 137-138)

Within this context, Strickmann says a prospective Daoist alchemist must have beens Strongly motivated by faith and a firm confidence in His posthumous destiny, in effect, “he Would Be committing suicide by consecrated means clustering.” Tao Hongjing’s disciple Zhou Ziliang 周子良 (497-516) had repeated visions of Maoshan divinities who said that his destiny was to become an immortal, and instructed him to commit ritual suicide with a poisonous elixir composed of mushrooms and cinnabar (Strickmann 1994: 40) . In 517, the Tao edited Zhoushi Mingtong ji周氏冥通記(Records of Mr. Zhou’s Communications with the Unseen) detailing His disciples visions.

The Liang dynasty founder Emperor Wu (rs 502-549) was cautious about taking elixirs of immortality. He and Tao Hongjing were old friends, and the History of the Southern Dynastiessays the emperor asked him to study elixir alchemy. After Tao had learned the secret art of making elixirs, he was worried about the shortage of materials. “The emperor supplied with gold, cinnabar, copper sulphate, realgar, and so forth. it effective. ” (T. Needham et al., 1976: 120). Tao spent His Last years working is different elixirs and three presented to the emperor, Who HAD refused immortality elixirs from Deng Yu 鄧 郁 (Who Claimed to-have Lived 30 years without food, consuming only pieces of mica in stream water).

Emperor Wenxuan (550-559) of the Northern Qi dynasty was an early skeptic about immortality elixirs. He instructed alchemists to make the jiuhuan jindan九 還 金丹 (Ninefold Cyclically Transformed Elixir), which he kept in a jade box, and explained, “I am still too fond of the pleasures of the world to take over the heavens immediately I intend to consume the elixir only when I am about to die. ” (Needham and Ho, 1970: 320).

Tang dynasty

At least five Tang dynasty (618-907) emperors were incapacitated and killed by immortality elixirs. In the 9th century Tang imperial order of succession , two father-son emperor pairs died from elixirs: first Xianzong (805-820) and Muzong (820-824), then Wuzong (840-846) and Xuanzong (847-859). In historic recurrences , the newly enthroned emperor understandably executed the Daoist alchemists whose elixirs had killed his father, and then subsequently came to believe in other things than consume their poisonous elixirs (Ho 2000: 184).

Emperor Xianzong (rd 805-820) has been spared his life due to elixir poisoning. The Xu Tongzhi (Supplement to the Historical Collections) says, “Deluded by the sayings of the alchemists, [Xianzong] ingested gold elixirs and his behavior became very abnormal. were left with little vacant space. ” (Needham and Ho, 1970: 317). In response, an official wrote an 819 memorial to the throne that said:

Of late years, HOWEVER, (the capital) has-been overrun by a host of pharmacists and alchemists … Recommending Reviews another one right and left with ever wilder and more extravagant claims. Now if there really Were immortals, scholars and Possessing the Tao, They Would not conceal Their names and hide Themselves in mountain recesses far from the ken of man? The medicines of the sages of old are meant to cure bodily illnesses. How much less so these metallic and mineral substances which are full of burning poison! … of old, as the Li Chisays when the prince took physics, his minister tasted it first, and when a parent was sick, his son did likewise. Ministers and sounds are in the same position. I humbly pray that those who have elixirs and those who recommend them, may be compelled to consume (their own elixirs) first for the space of one year. Such an investigation will distinguish truth from falsehood, and will automatically clarify the matter by experiment. (Abridged, T. Needham and Ho 1970: 318)

After the emperor rejected this appeal, the palace eunuchs Wang Shoucheng and Chen Hongzhi陳弘志_him_ Assassinated in 820.

When Xianzong’s successor Emperor Muzong (r 820-824) came to the throne, he executed the alchemists who had poisoned his father, but later began to take up immortality elixirs himself. An official wrote Muzong year 823 memorial that warned:

Medicines are for use against illnesses, and should not be taken as food. … Even when one is going to be used with great circumspection; how much more so when one is not ill. If this is true for the common people how much more will it be for the emperor! Your imperial predecessor believed the nonsense of the alchemists and thus became ill; this your majesty already knows only too well. How could your majesty still repeat the same mistake? (tr. Needham and Ho 1970: 319)

The emperor appreciated this reasoning but soon afterwards fell ill and died from poisoning. Palace eunuchs supposedly used poisonous elixirs to assassinate Muzong’s young Emperor Emperor Jingzong (824-827) (Needham et al., 1976: 151, 182).

The next Tang emperor to die from elixir poisoning was Wuzong (840-846). According to the Old Book of Tang , “The Emperor [Wuzong] favoured alchemists, took some of their elixirs, cultivated the arts of longevity and personally accepted (Taoist) talismans. and finally, when he was going to get a better deal for the time being. ” Chancellor Li Deyu and others requested audiences with the emperor, but rejected and later died in 846 (Needham and Ho 1970: 319).

Wuzong’s successor Emperor Xuānzong (r 846-849) astonishingly also died of elixir poisoning. Xuānzong made himself the boss of Some Who concocted Daoists immortality elixirs of vegetable origin, Possibly Because His Father Wuzong HAD died from metallic and mineral elixir poisoning (Needham et al 1976:. 146). The New Book of Tang records that the emperor received a wine tint of ivy (常春藤, Hedera helix) that the Daoist adept Jiang Lu 姜 攎 would 攎 would turn turn turn turn turn turn turn… However, when the emperor heard that many people died a violent death after drinking, he stopped taking it. Jiang was publicly shaved and granted permission (Needham et al., 1976: 147). Selon the 890 Dongguan Zuoji (Record of Memorials from the Eastern Library), “A medical official, Li [Xuanbo], presented to the emperor [Xuanzong] cinnabar qui HAD beens heated and subdued by fire, in order to gain favor from _him_ Thus the ulcerous disease of the emperor was allotted to his crime. ” (Needham and Ho, 1970: 319).

Besides, many Tang literati were interested in alchemy. Both Li Bai (Waley 1950: 55-56) and Bai Juyi (Ho, Goh, and Parker 1974) wrote poems about the Cantong qi and alchemical elixirs. Other poets, including Meng Haoran , Liu Yuxi , and Liu Zongyuan, also referred to elixir compounding in their works (Pregadio 2000: 171).

The influential Tang physician and alchemist Sun Simiao’s c. 640 alchemical Taiqing Zhenren dadan太清真人大丹(Great Purity Essentials of Elixir Manuals for Oral Transmission) recommends 14 elixir formulas he found successful, Most of qui sccm poisonous, Containing mercury and lead, if not arsenic, as ingredients (Needham et al. 1976: 133). Sun’s medical c. 659 Qianjin Yifang千金要方(Supplement to the Thousand Golden Remedies) states categorically That mercury, realgar, orpiment, sulfur, gold, silver, and vitriol are poisonous, in order prescribed em much larger than water equivalent for elixirs for medicines. In contrast to drinking soluble arsenic (as in groundwater) When powdered arsenic is eaten “astonishing degrees of tolerance Can Be Achieved”, and Sun Simiao might-have thought That When Human Beings atteint to a level “approaching That of the immortals Their bodies Would No. along be likely to poison” (Needham 1976: 135).

Tang alchemists were well aware of elixir poisoning. The c. 8th-9th century Zhenyuan Miaodao yaolüe真元妙道要略(Synopsis of the Essentials of the Mysterious Dao of the True Origin) lists 35 common mistakes in elixir preparation: cases Where people died from eating elixirs made from cinnabar, mercury, lead, and silver; boxes Where people Suffered from boils and sores on the head on the back by Ingesting cinnabar Prepared by roasting together mercury and sulfur, and cases Where people est devenu gravement ill through drinking melted “liquid lead” (Needham and Ho 1970: 330). The c. 850 Xuanjie read玄解錄(Record of Mysterious Antidotes) -which notable is as the world’s oldest printed book was scientific subject-recommends a potent herbal composition That reserves Both as an elixir and as an antidote for Common elixir poisoning (Needham and Ho 1970: 335 ). The procedure to make Shouxian wuzi wan守仙五子丸(Five-herbs Immortality-Safeguarding Pills) is to take 5 ounces Each of Indian gooseberry , wild raspberry , dodder , five-flavor berry , and broadleaf plantain and pound ’em into flour. Mix it with boxthorn juice and false daisy juice and dry. Heat almonds and good wine in a silver vessel, and add foxglove, tofu, and “deer glue”. Combine this with the herbs, and dry into small pills. The usual dosage is 30 pills a day taken with wine, but one should avoid eating pork, garlic, mustard, and turnips when taking medicine (Needham and Ho 1970: 335).

During the Tang period, Chinese alchemists divided into two schools of thought about elixir poisoning. The first altogether ignored the poison danger and considered the unpleasant symptoms of taking effect. The c. 6th century Taiqing shibi ji太清 石壁 記 (Records of the Rock Chamber).

After taking an elixir, if your face and body are so insects were crawling over them, if your hands and feet swell drops, if you can not stand the smell of food and bring it up If you’re going to be sick, then you might be going to the latrine, or if your head or stomach is violently ache-do not be alarmed or disturbed. These are simply proofs that you are successfully taking advantage of your latent disorders. (tr. Needham and Lu 1974: 283)

Many of These symptoms are characteristic of metallic poisoning: formication , edema , and weakness of the extremities, later leading to infected boils and ulcers, nausea, vomiting, gastric and abdominal pain, diarrhea, and headaches (Needham and Lu 1974: 283). For relieving the side-effects When the elixir takes effect, the Taiqing Shibi ji recommends That One shoulds take hot and cold baths, and drink a mixture of scallion, soy sauce, and wine. If That does not bring relief Then one combines shoulds and boil a hornets’ nest, spurge , Solomon’s Seal , and Ephedra into a medicine and take one dose (Needham and Ho 1970: 331).

The second school of alchemists, that some metal and mineral elixir constituents have been poisoned and replaced with the dangerous substances (Needham et al., 1976: 182). For instance, the 8th-century Zhang Zhenren jinshi lingsha Mon張真人金石靈沙論(The Adept Zhang’s Discourse on Metals, Minerals and Cinnabar) Emphasized the poisonous kind of gold, silver, lead, mercury, and arsenic, and Described Witnessing many cases of premature death brought about by consuming cinnabar. Zhang believed that the poisons could be rendered harmless by properly choosing and combining adjuvant and complimentary ingredients; for example gold should be used together with mercury,copper carbonate , and realgar for the preparation of the Golden Elixir jindan (Needham and Ho, 1970: 331). Many Tang alchemical writers returned to the fashion of using obscure synonyms for ingredients, and the desire to dissuade amateur alchemists from experimenting on themselves (Needham et al., 1976: 138). By the end of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), the most common alchemists had changed the elixirs ingredients of minerals and metals to plants and animals (Ho and Lisowski 1997: 39).

The late Tang or early Song Huangdi jiuding shendan jingjue says 九鼎 神丹 經 訣 (Explanation of the Yellow Emperor’s Manual of the Nine-Vessel Magical Elixir) says, “The ancient masters But later scholars (lit. scholars) have suffered a loss of life and a loss of life. The treatise explains the secret ancient methods for rendering elixir ingredients harmless by treating them with wine made from chastetree leaves and roots, or with saltpeter and vinegar. Another method of presumably removing the poison from mercury was to put it in three-year-old wine, add sal ammonia and boil it for 100 days (Needham and Ho 1970: 332-3).

Five dynasties

Two rulers died from elixir poisoning during the Five Dynasties period (907-979) of political turmoil after the overthrow of the Tang dynasty. Zhu Wen or Emperor Taizu (r 907-912), the founder of the Later Liang dynasty , became seriously incapacitated as a result of elixir poisoning, and fell victim to an assassination plot. Li Bian or Emperor Liezu (r 937-943), the founder of the Southern Tang kingdom, took the view that it was irritable and deathly ill (Needham et al., 1976: 180).

The Daoist adept Chen Tuan (d. 989) Advised two emperors That They shoulds not worry about elixirs direct aim Their minds to Improving the state administration, Chai Rong gold Emperor Shizong of Later Zhou in 956, And Then Emperor Taizu of Song in 976 ( Needham et al., 1976: 194).

Song dynasty

After Daoist Daoist Dynasty Dynasty Dynasty (960-1279). However, since the last six years have elapsed, poisonous drugs have not been found in the elixirs themselves, but also in attempts to counteract the pharmaceutical effects of toxicants. The number of ingredients used in elixir formulas was reduced to a tendency to return to the ancient and difficult terminology of the Cantongqi , perhaps to conceal the processes of rash and ignorant operators. Psycho-physiological neidan alchemy became more popular than laboratory waidan alchemy (Needham et al., 1976: 208).

During the Song Dynasty, the practice of metallic contagion is not limited to the imperial court and expanded to anybody else. The author and official Ye Mengde(1077-1148) described how two of his friends died from elixirs of immortality in one decade. First, Lin Yanzhen, who has been brought to life for a long time, “Whereupon ulcers developed in his chest, first after the hairs as wide as rice-grains, then after a couple of days his neck swelled up so that chin and chest Lin died after ten months of suffering, and his doctors discovered cinnabar powder had accumulated in his pus and blood. Second, whenever Xie Renbo “heard of anyone who had some cinnabar subdued by fire he went after it, caring nothing about distance, and his only fear that he would not have enough.” He also developed ulcers on the chest. Although his friends noticed changes in his appearance and behavior, Xie did not recognize that he had been poisoned, “till suddenly it’s a nightmare.” (tr. Needham and Ho 1970: 320)

The scientist and statesman Shen Kuo ‘s 1088 Dream Pool Essays suggéré That mercury compounds might be medicinally valuable and needed further Top study-foreshadowing the use of metallic compounds in modern medicine, Such As mercury in salvarsan for syphilis or antimony for visceral leishmaniasis . Shen says his cousin once converted to an elixir, but one of his students mistakenly left a piece, became delirious, and died the next day.

Now is an extremely good drug and can be taken by a newborn baby, but it has been changed. If we consider the change and transformation of opposites into one another, since (cinnabar) can be changed into a deadly poison, why should it not be changed into something of extreme benefit? Since it is possible to believe that it has a pattern-principle [ li ] of saving life; it is simply that we have not found the art (of doing this). Thus we can not deny the possibility of the existence of methods for transforming people into feathered immortals, but we have to be very careful about what we do. (Needham and Ho, 1970: 327).

Su Shi (1037-1101), the Song dynasty scholar and pharmacologist, was familiar with the life-prolonging claims of alchemists, but wrote in a letter that, “I have recently received some cinnabar (elixir) which shows a most remarkable color, but I can not summon up enough courage to try it. ” (Needham and Ho, 1970: 320).

The forensic medical expert Song Ci was familiar with the effects of metal poisoning, and his c. 1235 Collected Cases of Injustice Rectify handbook for coroners a test for mercury poisoning: plunge a piece of gold in the intestine or tissues and see if a superficial amalgam forms. He also describes the colic, cramps, and discharge of arsenic poisoning blood, and gives several antidotes including emetics.

Ming dynasty

Chinese woodblock illustration of a neidan practice “Putting the miraculous elixir into the ding tripod” 1615 Xingming Guizhi性命圭旨(Pointers are Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life)

Ming dynasty (1368-1644) strongly disapproved of immortality elixirs, but the Jiajing Emperor (rd 1521-1567) supposedly died from consuming them. Daoist physicians, magicians, and alchemists, The emperor was interested in the art of immortality and One named Wang Jin 王金, who was appointed a Physician-in-Attendance in the Imperial Academy of Medicine, convinced that . Wang has been caught and exiled to the frontiers in 1570 (Needham et al., 1976: 212).

Li Shizhen’s classic 1578 Compendium of Materia Medica discusses the historical tradition of producing gold and cinnabar elixirs, and concludes, “(the alchemists) will never realize that the human body, which thrives on water and the cereals, is unable to sustain such How to lose weight in the life of the body and how to lose it? ” (Needham and Ho, 1970: 325-326). In another section, Li criticizes alchemists and pharmacologists for perpetuating the belief in mercury elixirs.

I am not able to tell the number of people in the Six Dynasties period (3rd to 6th centuries) so much that they took (mercury), but all of them did not know what they were doing. I need not mention the alchemists, but I can not bear these statements made in pharmacopoeias. However, while mercury is not being taken orally, its use as a medicine must not be ignored. (tr. Needham and Ho 1970: 325-326)

Qing dynasty

The Qing dynasty Emperor Yongzheng (r 1722-1735) was the last Chinese ruler known to die from elixir poisoning. He was a superstitious man, affected by portents and omens, and a firm believer in Daoist longevity techniques. Taking immortality elixirs is thought to have caused his sudden death in 1735 (Zelin 2002: 229).

Historical interpretations

The Chinese tradition of using heavy metals in the elixirs of the historical hierarchy in Ayurvedic medicine . Rasa shastra is the practice of adding metals and minerals to herbal medicines, rasayana is an alchemical tradition that used mercury and cinnabar for lengthening lifespan, raseśvara is a tradition that advocated the use of mercury to make the body immortal, and samskara is a process said to detoxify heavy metals and toxic herbs.

The historians of Chinese science Joseph Needham and Ho Peng-Yoke wrote a seminal article about poisonous alchemical elixirs (1959, 1970). Based on early Chinese descriptions of elixir poisoning, they have been shown to be highly susceptible to poisoning , lead poisoning , and arsenic poisoning.. Compare the historical descriptions of Jin Emperor Ai (d.34) who was “very much in the mood” … he could not speak for a time “with the distinctive psychological effects of mercury poisoning: progressing from” abnormal irritability to idiotic, melancholic, or manic conditions “(1970: 327). Needham and his collaborators further discusses elixir poisoning in the Science and Civilization in China series, particularly Needham and Lu Gwei-djen (1974), and Needham, Ho, and Lu (1976).

Although Chinese elixir poisoning may lead some to dismiss Chinese alchemy as another example of human follies in history, Ho Peng-Yoke and F. Peter Lisowski notes its positive aspect on Chinese medicine. The use of elixir in Chinese medicine to “shade imperceptibly” in iatrochemistry , the preparation of chemical medicine, “in other words chemotherapy ” (1997: 39).

A recent study found that Chinese emperors lived comparatively short lives, with a mean age at death of emperors at 41.3, which was significantly lower than that of Buddhist monks at 66.9 and traditional Chinese doctorsat 75.1. Causes of death (66.4%), homicide (28.2%), drug toxicity (3.3%), and suicide (2.1%). Homicide resulted in a significantly lower age of death (mean age 31.1) than disease (45.6), suicide (38.8), or drug toxicity (43.1, mentioning Qin Shi Huang taking mercury pills of immortality). Lifestyles seem to have been a determinant factor, and 93.2% of the authors were overindulgent in drinking alcohol, sexual activity, or both (Zhao et al., 2006: 1295). The study does not refer to the Chinese belief that the arsenic sulphides realgar and orpiment, frequently used in immortality elixirs, had aphrodisiac properties (Needham and Lu 1974: 285).

Hypothetical explanations

A significant question remains unanswered. If the insidious dangers of alchemical elixir poisoning were common knowledge, why did people continue to consume them for centuries? Joseph Needham and his collaborators suggested three hypothetical explanations, and Michel Strickmann proposed another.

Initial exhilaration

Needham and Lu’s first explanation is that many alchemical mineral preparations have been able to provide an “initial exhilaration” or transient sense of well-being, usually involving weight loss and increased libido . These preliminary tonic effects could have been taken into account as a kind of “bait” inveigling an elixir-taker deeper into substance intoxication , even to the point of death (1974: 282). Chinese medical texts recorded that realgar (arsenic disulphide) and orpiment (arsenic trisulphide) were aphrodisiacs and stimulated fertility, while cinnabar and sulphur elixirs increased longevity, warned hunger, and “lightened the body” (namely, qīngshēnIs, which is a common description of elixir effects (1974: 285).

Wine, as mentioned above, was one of the most important ingredients in the diet when it comes to elixir pills and to relieve the unpleasant side effects of elixir poisoning. Needham and Lu furthermore suggest the possibility of elixir alchemy included hallucinogenic drugs , tentatively identifying the busi zhi yao藥 之 藥 “drug of deathlessness” as fly-agaric and busi zhi shu不死 之 樹 “tree of deathlessness” as birch (1974: 117 ). The elixir that Tao Hongjing’s disciple Zhou Ziliang took to commit suicide “probably had hallucinogenic and toxic mushrooms” (1974: 296). In the present day, realgar wine is traditionally consumed as part of the Dragon Boat Festival .


Jade burial follows from NanyueKing Zhao Mo (d.122 BCE)
The preserved body of Xin Zhui(163 BCE)

The apparent incorruptibility of an elixir-taker’s corpse is Needham and Lu’s second explanation for the persistent belief in immortality elixirs. They suggest that in some cases a decompose caused by the dead body of mercury or arsenic poisoning, which is forensically known to often preserve a corpse from decay. For a believer in Daoist immortality drugs, Even When an elixir-taker HAD unmistakably died, if the corpse Was Comparatively undecomposed, That Could be construed as proof que la adept HAD Become a xian immortal, as well as evidence for the alchemical elixir’s efficacy. (1974: 298).

Terminal incorruptibility was an ancient Chinese belief associated with jade, gold, and cinnabar. The Baopuzi says, “When gold and jade are inserted into the nine orifices, the bodies do not decay. and lengthen their days, why should it be strange that some of these should confer life perpetual? ” The abolition of decay was believed to demonstrate the power of elixirs, “the corruptible had put on incorruptibility” (Needham and Lu 1974: 284). Chinese jade burial suits are a better known example of a mineral to preserve bodies.

There is a possibility that Sun Simiao (above) died from taking mercury elixirs (Needham and Ho 1970: 330). According to Sun’s hagiography in the 10th-century Xuxian zhuan Further 仙 傳 (Further Biographies of the Immortals), after his death in 682 and when the body was raised in the coffin it was a light as (a bundle of) empty clothes. ” (Needham and Lu 1974: 298).

The incorruptibility stories about elixir users were not all myth, and recent archeological evidence showed that the ancient Chinese knew how to achieve an almost perpetual conservation. The 1972 excavation of a tomb at Mawangdui Discovered the extremely well-preserved body of Xin Zhui gold Lady Dai, qui resembled That of “a person Who HAD died only a week or two before” (Needham and Lu 1974: 303-304). A subsequent autopsy on her corpse found “abnormally high levels” of mercury and lead in her internal organs (Brown 2002: 213).

Temporary death

Needham and Lu’s third justification for taking poisonous elixirs is a drug-induced “temporary death”, possibly a trance or coma. In the classic legend (above) about Wei Boyang drinking an elixir of immortality, he appears to die, will subsequently succeed, and will more elixir to achieve immortality.

The Baopuzi describes a Five Mineral -based multicolored Ninefold Radiance Elixir that can bring back a corpse back to life: “If you wish to raise a dead body blue elixir, open its mouth, and insert another spatula full; it will revive immediately. ” (T. Ware 1966: 82).

A Tang Daoist text prescribes taking an elixir in doses half the size of a grain millet, but adds, “If one is sincerely determined, and dares to take a whole spatula-full all at once, one will only die [ zànsǐ暫 死] for half a day or so, and then be restored to life like someone waking from sleep. (Needham and Lu 1974: 295).

Suicide Ritual

Michael Strickmann, a scholar of Daoist and Buddhist studies, analyzed the case study of Shangqing School in the Maoshan revelations and the life of Tao Hongjing, and concluded that the researchers need to reexamine the Western stereotype of “accidental elixir poisoning”. They are supposedly applied to “misguided alchemists and their unwitting imperial bosses”. Since Six Dynasties and Tang period, Daoist’s literature has been extensively described, “even rapturously”, described the deadly toxic qualities of many elixirs, and Strickmann proposed that some of the recorded alchemical deaths were intentional ritual suicide.(1979: 191). Two reviewers disagreed about Strickmann’s conclusions. The first questions why he defends the logic of alchemical suicide rather than merely accepting the idea of ​​accidental elixir poisoning, and says Tao Hongjing never fails to test suicide himself-but fails to mention Strickmann’s prime example: Tao’s disciple Zhou Ziliang Shangqing deities reportedly instructed to prepare a poisonous elixir and commit suicide in order to achieve immortality (Chen 1981: 547). The second describes Strickmann’s chapter as “one of the most thorough and useful” in the volume, and says that it is “almost ludicrous to assume that a Taoist (commoner or emperor) could have died from accidental elixir poisoning” (Cass 1982 : 92-93).


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