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Joseph NEEDHAM,
et al.

The Theoretical Background of Elixir Alchemy








The Theoretical Background of Elixir Alchemy

by

Joseph NEEDHAM, et al.

[ Science and Civilisation in China. (Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 210-305. ]

For figures, characters, references, and footnotes see the original article. Prepared by Nathan Sivin ( nsivin@sas.upenn.edu )



(1) INTRODUCTION

Our focus now shifts from the Chinese alchemists' identifiable chemical and protochemical accomplishments to the assumptions and concepts with which they themselves sought to explain their methods and aims. This shift in point of view is perhaps more radical than might at first appear. If we wish to understand the inner coherence of alchemical theories we must, for the moment, set aside the yardstick of modern chemistry (although it will still be essential as an exploratory tool) and try to reconstruct the alchemist's abiding goals, his own standards of success and failure, as clues to how his concepts determined both what he did in his elaboratory and how he rationalised unforeseen results.

By 'theory' we mean simply the attempt to explain alchemical phenomena systematically using abstract and non-anthropomorphic concepts. In practice this means that we shall examine the application of the most fundamental and general notions of Chinese natural philosophy -- the Five Elements, the Yin and Yang, the chhi, the trigram and hexagram systems of the 'Book of Changes', and so on -- to the experience of the laboratory. We shall study how these notions were adapted to alchemical concerns either by extending their definitions, or by creating new concepts or new connections to integrate them.

It is necessary to stress that the field of alchemical theory is defined here by what alchemists did, thought, and knew about. Theoretical conceptions never exist in a vacuum; their implications and significance depend upon the matrices in which they are embedded. To pluck the 'advanced' elements out of the matrix and discard the 'retrograde' aspects is a procedure bound to lead to fundamental distortions, for the two regularly turn out to be integral and inseparable, one element defining the range of possibilities of the other. Demarcating our field of investigation so as to include any ancient Chinese activity which might fall into the area of modern chemistry would allow the casting of the net wider, but at the cost of putting many of the alchemical adept's own concerns out of bounds. Not only would we confound ideas that originally had nothing to do with each other, but we would have to reject so many central aspects of alchemy that there would be no possibility of comprehending what held it together, and no hope of ultimately making more than superficial comparisons with the traditions of other cultures.

In order to understand what the ancient Taoist adepts had in mind as they worked in their laboratories, we must examine seriously such topics as the belief in the growth of minerals within the earth, the command of time, and the role of number in establishing correspondences between the apparatus and the greater cosmos (never entirely distinct from the more familiar function of number in recording the invariant weights of reactants and products). Nor can we ignore the associated Taoist rituals, offerings, and incantations which were used in connection with every phase of the process.a The alchemist was applying chemical and physical procedures to the quintessentially religious end of transcending his mortality. The new observations and discoveries which today interest students of the history of science were also valued by the alchemists themselves, but not usually as the main objectives for which they were striving.

The Taoist's end in view was, one might say, perfect freedom in perfect fusion with the cosmic order. For the early Taoist philosophers this seems to have been mainly a state of heart and mind, but as we have seen, alchemists and other adherents of Taoist religion thought of perfect freedom as limited to a special state of being, that of the immortal hsien.1 Immortality could be attained by a variety of means, two of which in particular mark the alchemist's Way. First there was the construction of chemical models of the cosmic process. These were apparently meant to serve as objects of ecstatic contemplation, leading to a gnosis which brought one closer to union with the Tao. Second was the production of elixirs of supramundane virtues, the action of which--upon the adept himself, upon others, or upon base metals --- gave him not only personal immortality at his pleasure, but also transferable wealth and a more-than-human power to cure disease and make others immortal. The first path led the alchemist in the direction of physics, the second toward medical therapeutics, metallurgy and other technical art

(i) Areas of uncertainty

It is still too early to attempt a truly historical study of the theoretical side of Chinese alchemy, in which one could see how concepts and their relations developed and changed both through mutual influence and the pressure of wider intellectual and social currents. First, too few of the documents which have survived the attrition of successive Chinese cataclysms can yet be dated precisely with confidence, and this leaves even their logical connections obscure. Secondly, with a large part of the clearly dated literature, one cannot be sure that its vague and obscure language is in fact concerned with laboratory operations rather than with the physiological and sexual disciplines which used alchemical language.b We know already that most of the alchemical treatises which have been translated into Western languages actually come out of the 'dual- cultivation' rgime of the Southern School of Taoism in the Sung and Yuan periods.a These practices, a blend of Internal Alchemy and sexual disciplines (nei tan1), were not in principle irreconcilable with the art of the External Elixir (wai tan2) but most devotees resembled the 'spiritual alchemists' of the European Renaissance in their explicit disdain for the actual work of the furnace.

To reduce these two fundamental areas of uncertainty will require a good deal of critical work on individual writings. In relation to the second problem, the most fruitful clues are likely to come from the study of just those sources which have the to do with laboratory alchemy, and thus are least likely to attract students of ancient science. But the small body of sources the meanings and times of which are known does not yet provide a basis for understanding the changing character of enemy and of its links with the other arts of Taoism. Here we can only examine the widest possible variety of evidence in order to sketch out the ideas and notions which were most general in alchemy rather than those which can be identified definitely with given periods and movements.

There is, in fact, much information in writings on 'alchemical' breath control, meditation, and sexual techniques which can be used to throw light on the intellectual ground of wai tan alchemy, for most early adepts combined all these practices, considered them complementary, and explained them with the same concepts. However in order to keep from losing sight of what is actually information about the Outer Elixir, it is necessary to 'presume guilt'. We consider no text chemically alchemical (i.e. wai tan2) unless it either prescribes operations so clearly that they could conceivably be carried out in the laboratory, or, if the emphasis is on theory, unless it clearly reflects knowledge of the details of laboratory procedure or the interactions of chemical substances.

(ii) Alchemical ideas and Taoist revelations

Before we proceed to scrutinise the alchemists' theories, one other major limitation of present understanding must be made explicit. One can seldom hope to reconstruct competition of different ideas for survival and further elaboration simply on the basis of their abstract merits, without attention to their social consequences; ideas which affect the rate of social change, whether in a tiny sect or a great civilisation, are often selected or rejected for very extrinsic reasons. It is thus necessary to ask whether alchemy was but an appendage of Taoism, neglected by all but a few specialist practitioners and non-practising patrons; or on the other hand part of a central revelation which defined the character of Taoist religion. It is clear that for early Chinese alchemy the latter is the case. Alchemy was an actual part of the founding revelation of the Mao Shan school, the group responsible for completing and putting into practice the first great intellectual synthesis of Taoism.a It was bound, therefore, to be affected by the application of that revelation to a particular social and historical milieu.

The chain of events which led to the establishment of Mao Shan, or Mt. Mao, as the first major permanent centre of Taoist practice began in +349 or slightly earlier with visitations by immortals to a young man named Yang Hsi1 (traditional dates: +330 to +387) at the Eastern Chin prefectural capital, Ch-Jung,2 not far from modern Nanking. Between +364 and +370, in a series of visions, there appeared to Yang a veritable pantheon of celestial functionaries, including the Lady Wei of the Southern Peak (Nan Yo Fu-jen,3 Wei Hua-Tshun 4) and the brothers Mao Ying,5 Mao Ku,6 and Mao Chung,7whose names were given to the three peaks of the nearby Mt. Ch chh8.b In the course of these interviews, aided almost certainly by cannabis,c Yang took down in writing a number of sacred texts which the immortals assured him were current in their own supernal realm, as well as oral elucidations and answers to Yang's queries about various aspects of the unseen world. He treasured and disseminated these scriptures as the basis of a new Taoist faith more elevated than the 'vulgar' sects of his time. He was sponsored and joined in his revelations by Hs Mi9 ( +303 to +373), an official of the court, and his son Hs Hui10 (+341 to c. 370). The family connections of the Hss were estimable in more than the conventional sense, for Hs Mi's uncle married the elder sister of Ko Hung,11 the great exponent of personal access to the realm of the immortals; and they were also related to the family of Thao Hung-Ching 12 (+456 to +536), the most eminent Taoist magus of his time.dWe have already encountered Hs Mi's alchemist brother Mai. In +367 Hs Mi was informed by Mao Ying that in nine years he would be transferred from the terrestrial bureaucracy to that of the Superior Purity Heaven (Shang-Chhing Thien 2). That this heaven might be available for such heady assignments had been revealed to no Taoist save Yang Hsi and his patrons.b Hs apparently remained active in his post at the capital, despite repeated celestial admonitions, but his son Hs Hui, having returned his wife to her parents, moved into the retreat his father had built at Mt. Mao, and there until his premature death he devotedly practised the operations revealed to Yang for his benefit by the immortals.c Yang and the Hss had vindicated Ko Hung's belief in the unseen world -- not supernatural in Chinese terms, but concerned only with eternal things and thus more desirable than mundane society -- which he had urged with such amplitude in his Pao Phu Tzu (Nei Phien).

Four generations later, when Thao Hung-Ching retired from the Chhi court in +492 to Mt. Mao, he built the Hua-yang Kuan3 (Effulgent Yang Abbey) and proceeded to seek out the revelations and revive the spiritual experiences of Yang and the Hss as the basis of a religious community. The background of the Hua-Yang Abbey could hardly be better described than in the words of Michel Strickmann:d

What was to become the Mao Shan tradition began as the highly individual practices of three men, of whom one was a visionary and another held a full-time job. They were building upon a common base provided by the Way of the Heavenly Master (Thien Shih Tao4), a Taoist group specialising in the cure of disease through formalised communication with the celestial hierarchy.e Like most reputed founders, Yang and the Hss founded no order; and though between their own time and that of their eventual editor portions of their brilliant synthesis spread somewhat (first only among friends and relations), no independent organisation arose to perpetuate their names or realise the teachings of their celestial masters.f Thao also had the example of earlier 'abbey' (kuan) communities, whose functions were perhaps more intimately related to their patronage than to their particular doctrines. Individual financial support involved their Taoist members with ceremonies for the well-being of their patron's family, both living and dead, and probably with the guardianship of some of his infant sons.

Thao had the wit to apprehend that analogous services, on a correspondingly grander scale, could elicit the patronage of the Liang emperor himself, thus providing the highest possible auspices for a revival of Taoism (for by Thao's time the Heavenly Master cult had fallen apart in South China). Once Thao had seen to the elaborate details of collecting, codifying, annotating, and publishing the Annunciations of the Immortals, and had thought through the problem of administrative organisation, the community was soon assembled, and ceremonial was adopted and elaborated. Ceremonial, despite the ideological emphasis on revelation and visionary experience, must always have been the chief preoccupation of the majority at Hua-Yang Abbey. These Taoists busied themselves with ceremonies in support of the health of both Ruler and State, with the discovery of auspices, and not least with the concoction of a timely elixir. The sound fiscal basis of the enterprise enabled it to pass unscathed through the disestablishment of Taoist organisations in +504 (this very year in fact marks the inception of Thao's alchemical operations), and in time to take hold upon the intellects (and purse-strings) of the Thang.

Thao apparently first learned of the Mao Shan writings through a few fragments in the possession of his teacher, Sun Yu-Yeh. Sun had in turn been the disciple of Lu Hsiu-Ching, who had journeyed through the haunts of Taoism to be initiated into, collect, and catalogue (by +471) the major scriptures of the rival Ling-Pao3 tradition,a picking up along the way some documents which emanated from Yang Hsi.b Since Lu was neither particularly concerned nor overly fastidious about the authenticity of the latter, most were probably poor copies or forgeries; many fakes had already been produced within the select circles which knew of the Mao Shan revelations.c In Thao's subsequent search, first among relatives of the Hss and then on a long voyage to the southeast, his acknowledged model was Ku Huan4 (d. +485), a contemporary of Lu's. Ku had devoted much energy to seeking out (in a more limited way than Thao) the scriptural remains of Mt. Mao, and first applied a knowledge of Yang Hsi's calligraphy and that of the Hss to what he recognised as the essential task of separating authentic from doubtful documents.d

Thao Hung-Ching eventually discovered, and proceeded to edit and annotate, a remarkably intimate day-to-day record of his predecessors, including letters which had passed between them and journals of visitations by one or another immortal, often for no more exalted purpose than to offer medical advice or to negotiate some minor celestial-bureaucratic detail. In this record Thao found much of alchemical interest, which is duly preserved in his Chen Kao5 (Declarations of the Perfected (or Realised) Immortals), or in the now fragmentary Tng Chen Yin Cheh1(Confidential Instructions for the Ascent to Immortality).a

The three progenitors of the Mao Shan cult had shared with other sects of their time a belief in an imminent apocalypse which Thao calculated would fall in +507, to be followed in +512 by the descent of the Sage to gather up the elect, the only survivors.b Yang Hsi had been well supplied with graphic and elegantly phrased details of the catastrophes by Wei Hua-Tshun's colleague the Lady of the Circumpolar Zone (Tzu Wei Fu-jen2), and had been assured by her that among the singular methods and supreme arts which would be practised in those latter days was alchemy:

Some will cyclically transform in their furnaces the darksome semen (yu ching3) of cinnabar, or refine by the powder method the purple ichor of gold and jade. The Lang-kan elixir will flow and flower in thick billows; the Eight Gems (pa chhiung4)Will soar in cloud like radiance.c The Crimson Fluid will eddy and ripple as the Dragon Foetus (lung thai5)cries out from its secret place. Tiger-Spittle and Phoenix-Brain, Cloud Lang-kan and Jade Frost, Lunar Liquor of the Supreme Pole (Thai Chi yeh li6) and Divine Steel of the Three Rings (san huan ling kang7)-- if a spatulaful of (one of these) is presented to them, their spiritual feathers will spread forth like pinions. Then will they (be able to) peruse the pattern figured on the Vault of Space, and glow forth in the Chamber of Primal Commencement. . ..

Among the scriptures taken down by Yang Hsi, Thao had also found actual instructions for alchemical preparations. Two of these formulae still exist in their entirety. One, called Thai-Shang Pa-Ching Ssu-Jui Tzu-Chiang (Wu-Chu) Chiang Shng Shen Tan Shang Ching8(Exalted Manual of the Eight-Radiances Four-Stamens Purple-Fluid Crimson Incarnation Numinous Elixir, a Thai-Shang Scripture), is preserved in the Shang-Chhing Thai-Shang Ti Chn Chiu Chen Chung Ching9(Ninefold Realised Median Canon of the Imperial Lord, a Shang-Chhing Thai-Shang Scripture);e a work otherwise devoted to techniques for encountering various deities in meditation --- making them appear from within one's body, from the sun and moon, and from inside unusually coloured clouds that conceal the immortals as they travel through the sky. The elixir recipe itself, for all its twenty-four ingredients and 104 days of heating, is clearly phrased in the language of the laboratory, and could be carried out in one today. The ingredients are given elaborate cover-names, but all are defined in notes recording oral instructions (khou cheh1) ascribed to the first Patriarch of Taoism, Chang Tao-Ling (+2nd century): e.g. Crimson Tumulus Vermilion Boy (chiang ling chu erh = cinnabar, HgS), Elixir Mountain Solar Animus (tan shan jih hun3 = realgar, As2S2), Arcane Belvedere Lunar Radiance (hsan thai yeh hua4= orpiment, As2S3). The formula is not dissimilar on the whole to later alchemical recipes in terminology and technique.

The second is atypical in its adaptation of vegetable processes; it falls between conventional alchemy and the art of growing the marvelous chih plants (ling chih5), the most famous of which is the 'magic mushroom'.a This is the Tung-Chen Ling Shu Tzu-Wn Lang-Kan Hua Tan Shang Ching (Divinely Written Exalted Manual in Purple Script on the Lang-Kan (Gem) Radiant Elixir; a Tung-Chen Scripture), originally part of a Tung-Chen Thai-Wei Ling Shu Tzu-Wn Shang Ching6(Divinely Written Exalted Canon in Purple Script; a Tung-Chen Thai-Wei Scripture).b A fourteen-ingredient elixir is treated in a precisely phased fire for three protracted periods,c after which an elixir appears inside a 'bud' of seminal essence (ching7). Planted in an irrigated field, after three years the elixir seed develops into a tree with ring-shaped fruit, one of the names of which is Supreme-Pole Arcane Chih (thai chi yin chih8). The fruit when planted yields a new plant resembling the calabash, with a peach-like fruit called the Phoenix-Brain Chih (fng nao chih9). When this intermediate is raised to higher degrees of perfection through two further replantings, the adept harvests a fruit resembling the jujube which, when eaten, brings about assumption into the heavens. We can appreciate that this extravagantly impractical recipe is an attempt to assimilate into alchemy legends like that of the lang-kan10 gems which since the Chou and Han had been said to grow on trees in the paradise of Khun-lun,11 where also were found the peaches of immortality.

As we shall shortly see, Thao must also have had access to other writings on alchemy, including the Huang Ti Chiu Ting Shen Tan Ching1 (The Yellow Emperor's Canon of the Nine-Vessel Spiritual Elixir),a which Ko Hung claimed had been made public by Tso Tzhu,2 an early denizen of Mt. Mao at the end of the Hanb. If this is indeed the book which has been passed down in the Taoist Patrologies with a large bulk of expository material added, it is probably the oldest extant Chinese work devoted to the operational side of alchemy, paralleling the more ambiguous Tshan Thung Chhi.c

Then came a day in +504 when dreams of favourable auspices for an elixir were granted simultaneously to Emperor Wu of the new Liang dynasty and to Thao, and the question of choosing one method from among many became pressing. We do not have to depend upon hagiographic writings for the outcome of Thao's deliberations, which led to his settling upon the Ninefold Cyclically Transformed Numinous Elixir (chiu chuan shen tan3), because a surviving fragment of the Tng Chen Yin Cheh records his own words. He commences with a line of transmission from the Supreme Pole Perfected (or Realised) Immortal (Thai chi chen jen4)dthrough intermediaries to Mao Ying, who he says was taught the formula in -98, and passed it on to his brothers. It was the elder of these two, Mao Ku,e who revealed it to Yang Hsi, and bid him show it to the Hss. Thao found it among the literary remains of his predecessors. He goes on to remark:

Thus all those who studied the Tao in the Han and Chin periods talked about mixing and taking Potable Gold (chin i5), and ascending to become an immortal, but they did not mention the Nine-cycle (Elixir). Thus this formula of the Realised Immortals, from the time it was first taught here below, has never been carried out.

Lines of transmission of this sort tend to weary sinologists, and historians of science all the more, but Strickmann (2) has had the perspicacity to see Thao's point, and to link it with the statement in a biographical account by Thao's disciple Phan YuanWn1 that this was the elixir Thao decided to make. For Thao's rationale was this genealogy. What swayed him was that the method had descended through a series of celestial divinities to Yang Hsi, Hs Mi, and Hs Hui, in the very hand of one of whom Thao's copy was written. No one else had ever known of it, and the Recluse of Hua-yang would be the first mortal to prepare it.

After some notes on the ritual for the formal transmission of the canon, Thao cites a few details which clearly signify that the Medicine was indeed chemical and not physiological or mental in nature:

One who wants to mix the Nine-cycle (Elixir) first makes a Spirit Pot (shen fu2), using a clay vessel from Jung-yang3 (Honan), Chhang-sha4 (Hunan), or Y-chang5 (Chiangsi) -- what is called a 'tile pot'. In antiquity the Yellow Emperor heated the Nine-Cauldron Elixir (Chiu ting6) at Mt. Ching,7 and the Thai-Chhing Chung Ching8 (Thai-Chhing Median Canon) also has a Nine-Cauldron Elixir method; thus from his time onwards elixir aludels have been called 'ritual cauldrons' (ting9).aOne uses chaff for the fire to heat them. The building for the furnace (i.e. the laboratory, tsao wu10) is constructed in an inaccessible place next to a stream on one of the Great Mountains. It must be forty feet long and twenty feet wide, with three openings towards the south, east, and west. First observe the purification rites (chai chieh11) for a hundred days, and then plaster the vessel with lute to make the Spirit Pot.. . . Take equal parts of these six substances: left-oriented oyster-shell from Tung-hai (Chiangsu), kaolin from Wu commandery (Chiangsu), mica powder, earth turned up by earthworms, talc, and alum.b

This mixture is the famous six-one lute (liu i ni), which is specified in almost every elixir formula, with minor variations in ingredients, for coating reaction vessels and sealing the junctions between vessels and covers.c

Thao had a space cleared for a laboratory on the other side of the ridge from Huayang Abbey, even diverting a stream through a hole bored in the rock to provide the eastward-flowing current needed by every alchemist.d But there we may leave him, for his repeated failures from +505 on, and even his rather dubiously documented success in c. +528, are irrelevant here.

There should be no need for further proof that the history of Chinese alchemical ideas will not fall into proper perspective until much more is known of the social connections of esoteric Taoism. Thao Hung-Ching merely stands at an obvious nodal point. His predecessors had adapted and combined many of the individual meditational and mediumistic practices of their time. Then on the content of their revelations, seen in the light of other traditions which he knew, and which he incorporated, Thao founded a well-patronised and enduring community dedicated to pursuing every conceivable means of co-opting individuals (especially those of the more genteel classes) into the Unseen World, and performing other conventional religious services on their behalf. Alchemy was a charter member of the Mao Shan synthesis. But medicine and astronomy too were gradually included in the Patrologies,a for the compilation of which the Mao Shan school was largely responsible.b Kristofer Schipper has called this patrician group the 'middlebrow wing of Taoism', for its concerns had not a great deal to do either with the ontological paradoxes of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu on the one hand, or what would later become the everyday pastoral responsibilities of the village priest on the other. Their intellectual omnivorousness was prefigured only by that of Ko Hung. Their synthesis of magic, religion, and science, doubtless too promiscuous for the Staste of most modern readers when seen as a whole, was perfectly suited to that of countless Chinese enthusiasts for a millennium. The cult gradually spread to Mt. Lo-fou near Canton, and other great Taoist centres. Finally a succession of Mao Shan patriarchs like the hereditary Celestial Masters (thien shih2) of the priestly Chng I3 tradition controlled many or most of the Taoist abbeys in China until they were taken over by the Chhan-chen 4 sect in the thirteenth century under Mongol policy.c

(2) THE SPECTRUM OF ALCHEMY

Anyone who tries to sort out the relations between theory and practice has to begin by acknowledging that every possible variation in both their proportion and the quality of their connection can be found in one or another of the documents. Some alchemical writings consist only of instructions for laboratory operations, with no attempt to provide a theoretical rationale. Others are nothing but rationale, and the actual process is recapitulated only as the conceptual discussion requires. It will be convenient for heuristic reasons to consider these extremes as the ends of a spectrum, with most of the extant literature falling somewhere in between. This is not a wholly arbitrary overview, for writings near either end of the spectrum tend to have certain characteristics in common. In general the highly theoretical material reflects an attempt to construct a laboratory model of the larger cycles of change which take place in Nature, using two ingredients, or sometimes two main ingredients, which correspond to Yin and Yang. This tendency might be called scientific in the classical sense of the word, since alchemical speculation was concerned primarily with contemplating natural process rather than with manufacturing some product. At the other extreme, where the connections with both medicine and the thaumaturgical tendencies of Taoism are more obvious, we find an often purely practical concern with the manufacture and employment of elixirs of immortality, agents of transmutation, and other substances -- even (to reinforce the parallel with Hellenistic aurifaction and aurifiction) artificial pearls, jade, and so on. Authors of this sort were willing to countenance any possible means, any available formula, self-contradictory or impractical features notwithstanding.

This latter tendency might be called technological, in the sense that the product was all-important, and we shall see that reflections of the artisan's ability to control Nature, uncommon elsewhere in Chinese thought, furnish an important part of its ideology. We shall also use the word 'pragmatic' for writings at this end of the spectrum and the approach that they imply, but it refers simply to their valuing of ends over means, and not at all necessarily to a command of laboratory practice. Nor does this term necessarily imply unconcern with the Unseen World, or for the rituals, spells, and taboos by which one paid one's respects to it.

Before going further, a caution is in order about the danger of finding in this idea of a spectrum of alchemy a real inherent structure rather than a taxonomic convenience --- or, worse still, thinking of it as a 'model'. As for the genetic relations between the two extremes and the middle, at this point we can offer no more than a few scattered clues, which only a great deal of thoughtful and critical study in the future can make coherent. We do not know which tendency developed from which, and out of what necessities. The oldest extant alchemical books include both highly pragmatic and highly theoretical treatises, but they represent too tiny and accidental a remnant to encourage the conclusion that a synthesis of the two approaches came only later. There is certainly no reason to suppose that they represent different schools of alchemy. The reader interested in any aspect of esoteric thought in ancient China can hope for no better advice than that of Rolf Stein: 'I prefer to believe, not in borrowings between schools, but in a common ground, an underlying structure, which can manifest itself variously in different milieus or movements but which the majority of thinkers hold in common.'

(3) THE ROLE OF TIME

In order to form a clear idea of what the theoretically oriented alchemists were doing, one must keep in mind the very special importance of time in Chinese natural philosophy, for it was all the more crucial in alchemy. In the brief review which follows we shall stress the dynamic and temporal aspects of concepts such as the Tao and the Five Elements, which are not considered in those lights by modern students of Chinese philosophy as often as they should be.b

Scientific thought began, in China as elsewhere, when men tried to comprehend how it is that although individual things are constantly changing, always coming to be and perishing, Nature as a whole not only endures but remains conformable to itself. In the West the earliest attempts to identify the underlying and unchanging reality tended to be concerned primarily with some basic material substrate out of which the things around us are formed.a In this way one could think of all phenomenal things, for instance, as being composed of air (or rather pneuma, in some state of condensation or rarefaction. Thus a tree growing out of a seed is not matter being created out of nothing, but only air, which has existed all the time, gradually taking on a new physical form. In China theories roughly of this sort, explaining material things as composed of chhi in one state or another, were also sketched out in the first great period of natural philosophy, though they did not play a central role in physical speculation.

The earliest, and in the long run the most influential, kinds of scientific explanation, those so basic that they truly pervaded the ancient Chinese world-view, were in terms of time.c They made sense of the momentary event by fitting it into the cyclical rhythms of natural process, for the life-cycle of an individual organism --- birth, growth, maturity, decay, and death --- had essentially the same configuration as those more general cycles which went on eternally and in regular order, one fitting inside the other: the cycle of day and night which regulated the changes of light and darkness, the cycle of the year which regulated heat and cold and the farmer's growing seasons, and the greater astronomical cycles.d

All these cycles nested. Early Chinese cosmography, as described in the Treatises on Harmonics and Calendrical Astronomy (l li chih) of the dynastic histories, built up its mathematical model of the cosmos in terms of time rather than (as was more the case in the European tradition) of geometric space. The cycles of the day, the month, and the year were fitted together to form larger periods --- in early astronomy, the Rule Cycle (chang) of nineteen years, equalling 235 lunations, or the Obscuration Cycle (pu) of seventy-six years.e These were defined to begin and end with the winter solstice (for the month which contained the solstice was taken by astronomers as the 'first month' for computational purposes), and the new moon (the beginning of the month) falling at midnight (the beginning of the day) of the same day. A larger cycle was needed to make them fall on a day of the same sexagenary designation (in terms of the cyclical characters, kan chih4).

These four cycles--day, month, sixty days, and year --- were only part of a much larger system which also included eclipse and planetary cycles, in fact all cycles which were known to be periodic. The period which included them all, the Great Year (Grand Polarity Superior Epoch, thai chi shang yuan5)g which began and ended time with a universal conjunction of sun, moon, and planets, was calculated in the Triple Concordance system (San Thung Li6) of Wang Mang's time (c. 5) to be 23,639,040 years long. A century later, in the Quarter Day system (Ssu Fn Li7), based on somewhat more precise values for individual periodic phenomena, the Great Year was of such stupendous length that it was not even calculated. Practically speaking, the length of the overall cycle was so great simply because more precise fractions tend to have larger common denominators. But to work out the exact value of the Great Year cycle would in any case have been irrelevant philosophically. What mattered was the demonstration that the unending time through which the natural world remained constant (or changed gradually, according to one's theory)a was the sum of finite processes which were known to regulate individual cycles of growth and decay, birth and death. The life rhythms of a swarm of mayflies meshed because they occupied a certain brief phase in the round of the seasons, just as the events of a certain autumn made sense in terms of its relation to astronomical periods.

In order to make the Tao of a particular thing intelligible, its life-cycle needed to be located with respect to the greater periods. The different parts of a cycle could be analysed in terms of a number of concepts, for instance the Yin and Yang, which were the passive and active phases through which any natural cycle must pass. Another variable was the so-called Five Elements (wu hsing1, for which 'Five Phases'b would be both a more accurate and a more literal translation). We have seen earlier that these were not material elements in the modern sense, but a finer division of the cycle into five qualitatively and functionally distinct parts.c The 'element' Fire, for instance, represented the phase in which activity was at its highest, and thus soon would have to begin declining; in the cycle of the year summer was the time of Fire. The trigrams and hexagrams of the 'Book of Changes' were the third set of concepts which could be applied similarly to analyse change in terms of constant cycles.d These concepts belong of course to the most general level of early Chinese physical theory; the various fields of Chinese science, such as medicine, geomancy or alchemy, simply applied them to different classes of phenomena.

(i) The organic development of minerals and metals

What was true of the mayfly was true also of the mineral, for its process of growth was time-bound too. Like thinkers in other great ancient civilisations, the Chinese alchemists believed that Nature was an organism and everything had a life-cycle; therefore minerals and metals also grew inside the earth, slowly developing along a scale of perfection over immense stretches of time.e This process differed from other kinds of growth in two respects which taken together provided the basic rationale of alchemy. First, if and only if this sequence of maturation stages continued to its end, the product, usually gold, would be invulnerable to further transformation. Since gold is not subject to decay and death, the process is not cyclical. To a man whose worldview makes cycles of change the norm, the linear perfection of gold will more or less inevitably come to signify the redemption of man. Secondly, unlike vegetable and animal growth-cycles, the mineral cycle can be not only interrupted (or, as many peoples think of it, aborted) by the miner but also speeded up by the smelter, hence, following his lead, by the alchemist. These ideas, in the specific form they took in the Chinese elixir tradition, merit close examination (cf. Fig. 1516).

The notion of the organic development of minerals and its proto-scientific explanation in terms of chhi exhalations have already been described in connection with mineralogy, and Greek parallels have been pointed out.a. Here it will only be necessary to adduce a few relevant documents from the alchemical literature. We may begin, however, by reviewing the appearance of this idea at the beginning of systematic thought about Nature in China. The princely alchemist Liu An's1Huai Nan Tzu,2 one of the oldest cosmological treatises (c. 125), follows its primitive scheme of biological evolution with a theory of development in the mineral world; and like the speculations of the early pre-Socratics, it lies barely this side of the line which separates proto-science from myth. Here we partially retranslate, rendering rather more literally than in Sect. 25 (b):

The chhi of balanced Earthb copulates (y3) with Dusty Heaven. After 500 years the Dusty Heaven gives birth to (the yellow mineral) cheh 4, 5 which after 500 years gives birth to yellow mercury,c which after 500 years again gives birth to the yellow metal (gold). The yellow metal in 1000 years gives birth to the yellow dragon. The yellow dragon, entering (the earth) and going into hibernation (or pupation) engenders the Yellow Springs.dWhen the dust from the Yellow Springs ascends to become the yellow cloud, (its) Yin and (the supernal) Yang beat upon one another, produce peals ofthunder, repel each other and fly out as lightning. That which was above flow's downward. The running streams flow together and unite in the Yellow Sea.

This passag e and the four which follow, all worded much like it, may be reduced to a general scheme (Table 117).

The chhi of X Earth--Z mineral--Z quicksilver--Z metal--Y years--Z springs, where X is an attribute, Y a number of years, and Z a colour.

Table 117

 
Paragraph
X
Y/100
Z
Mineral
Metal 
Element
1
balanced
5
yellow
realgar (or yellow jade?) 
gold
Earth
 
 
 
 
 
 
2
unbalanced
8
caerulean (blue-green) 
malachite
lead
Wood
 
 
 
 
 
 
3
vigorous
7
scarlet
cinnabar
copper 
Fire
4
weak
9
white
arsenolite
silver 
Metal
5
passive
6
black
slate (or grindstone?)
iron 
Water
 
In this schema the deductive categories of the Five Elements have largely taken over the function of providing coherence, though the sequence of images still owes something to the looser and less logical association of mythology. The basic structure is familiar enough, for it depends on the normal number, colour, and metallic correspondences of the Five Elements, taken in a special sequence related to the Mutual Production order which characterises organic processes.b The mineral correlates of Earth and Water are archaic and no longer certainly identifiable, though there is no doubt that they were chosen because of their colour. By the time of Ko Hung the alchemical Five Minerals (wu shih2) had become stabilised as (in the same order) realgar, laminar malachite, cinnabar, kalinite (potassium alum) or arsenolite, and magnetite.c

(ii) Planetary correspondences, the First Law of Chinese Physics, and inductive causation

Although the planets did not play the paramount role in Chinese alchemy that they did in the West,d the correspondence of the Five Planets (wu hsing3) to the Five Elements naturally gave rise to schematic concordances which did not differ in spirit from those just discussed, since their function was the same. An important collection of elixir recipes which reached final form in the middle of the eighth century ascribes to the author of the Huai Nan Tzu book a method for making Five-Mineral Elixir (wu shih tan), of which it says in a prefatory note :a

The Five Minerals (wu shih) are the seminal essences of the Five Planets. Cinnabar is the essence of the mature Yang (thai yang), Mars. Magnetite is the essence of the mature Yin, Mercury. Malachite is the essence of the young Yang (shao yang), Jupiter. Realgar is the essence of Divine Earth (hou thu), Saturn. Arsenolite is the essence of the young Yin, Venus. A medicine made from the essences of the Five Planets can give a man perpetual life, exempt from death for ever.

The five substances in this set of correspondences are the classical series, not those of Liu An. The 'mature Yin or Yang is what we should call its maximum state. Having thus reached its height, its decline is about to begin, accompanied by reversion to its opposite (wu chi p1 fan6). This is in accordance with what has been termed the First Law of traditional Chinese Physics (and Chemistry), namely that 'any maximum state of a variable is inherently unstable, and the process of going over to its opposite must necessarily set in.b Thus the winter solstice is the point when the Yin ascendancy, having reached its zenith, starts to fade, and the Yang, which will be maximal at the summer solstice, begins to reassert itself. The 'young, or immature phase, represents a level intermediate between the point of balanced polarity and the maximal phase. In the cycle of the year, equal intensity of Yin and Yang is reached at the equinoxes, so the young Yang would fall betweeen spring equinox and midsummer. If we represent an ideal cyclical process by a sinusoidal curve (Fig. 151 5),~ the correspondence between the Five Elements and the five phases of Yin and Yang (mature, immature, and balance) is easily visualised. The planetary associations of the text thus turn out to be simply the usual correspondences of the planets with the Five Elements.

In the West the influence of the planets was direct; but in China it is perhaps confusing even to use the word 'influence, for the relation was one of correspondence.b We have just seen the association between the seminal essences of the planets and the minerals depicted not as emanation or influence, but as identity. The chhi of a planet could stimulate response in a metal or mineral only when they were categorically related--tuned to the si~me note, so to speak--within the unitary system of the physical world. The Stoic and Neoplatonic universes, which furnished the cosmic ideology of European alchemy (and to a large extent that of Islam), were organismic too, but in general influences within them proceeded in one direction, down a fundamentally linear hierarchy of value. In Chinese thought, which got along without a gradation of being based upon proximity to a Supreme Intelligence, it was possible to relate the activity of celestial bodies quite acausally to the formation of minerals in complex and interesting ways. A good example is the following excerpt from an unidentified 'Secrets of the Great Tao (Ta Tao Mi Chih). It is quoted in the Huan Tan Chung Hsien Lun (Pronouncements of the Company of the Immortals on Cyclically Transformed Elixirs) dated + 1052, by Yang Tsai, whose graphic description of mercury-poisoning guarantees that it is concerned with the Outer Elixir:

Venus, the Metal planet, is the seminal essence of Metal (chin chili ching4). It accepts the vital animad of the moon, and holds within itself the chhi of the Earth planet Saturn. Thus inside it, yellow in colour, is the floreate essence (or radiance) of Metal (chin hual). The stimulus of the lunar chhi is manifested as anima, and anima belongs to Water. When subsequently (the floreate essence) has received (the chhi of) Metal, the Watery chhi will respond to Mercury (the Water planet) and give birth to lead. (E-m-w).

Jupiter is the Wood planet, the vital animus of the sun and the essential chhi of Water. This animus is scarlet, because (it corresponds to) Fire. Fire gives birth to Wood.e In response to the chhi of Mars (the Fire planet), cinnabar is born. Cinnabar holds within it the Yin chhi of Wood, and thus contains quicksilver. Quicksilver is called the Cacrulean Dragon; and the Caerulean Dragon belongs to Wood (w-W-F).

Mercury is the Water planet, and the seminal essence of Water. It transmits the chhi of Venus, the Metal (planet). Its flowing seminal essence responds to Earth, also receiving the vital anima of the moon, and gives birth to lead. Thus lead produces the floreate essence of Metal. The floreate essence of Metal has the Five Colours, and is named 'Yellow Sprouts (huang yaz). The chhi of the Water planet descends into Wood and gives birth to laminar malachitch (E-M-w-W).

Mars is Fire, and the seminal essence of Fire. It receives the chhi of the Wood planet (Jupiter) and also transmits the animus of the sun. Its flowing seminal essence enters Earth (or the earth) and gives birth to cinnabar. The animus (of cinnabar) belongs to Fire and so it is born out of Wood.1 Since within it there is Yin, it gives birth to mercury. Fire gives birth to Earth. Earth contains the Balanced Yang, J and gives birth to realgar, the sapidity of which is sweet. (W-F-E).

Saturn is Earth. It accepts (the chhi of) Fire. The Earth planet holds the Balanced Yang within, and thus has realgar (F-E).

Thus the Five Planets transmit from one to another the floreate essences of sun and moon in rotation according to (the) Mutual Production (order of the elements, hsiang sheng), each conforming to its Tao.

Here, as indeed generally in alchemical writing, chhi is not matter but a kind of configurational energyb which endows with structure a certain kind of matter and gives it determinate qualities. Ching or ching chhi, 'seminal essence with its chhi, and hua or ching hua, 'radiance or 'floreate essence' or 'seminal radiance, are terms for energy (in the colloquial, qualitative sense) deriving from some organised entity and applied to bring about a similar organisation in another entity.c In other words, these concepts come into play in order to explain change and transformation. Hua (lit. 'florescence) refers to the essence in its aspect of emerging from something, while ching (lit. 'seed, semen) refers to the essence in its function of actively forming or nurturing something else. From our point of view, it was two ways of looking at the same total phenomenon, namely the production of something with certain determinate qualities from something else, which might or might not have the same qualities.

One example of the seminal essence is the most mundane variety of ching, namely human semen, a concentration of personal vitality which transmits characteristics from father to offspring. In other words, the configurational energy of the father imposes itself on the material basis (chih) provided by the mother to bring about its organisation as a foetus.d Typical of hua, on the other hand, is the red 'inner essence (i.e. the oxide) which emerges as a red powder when mercury is heated in air. In the Mutual Production series of the Five Elements, analogously, the radiance or floreate essence (hua) of an element is the one which precedes it (i.e. its formative essence seen as emergent from its predecessor), and the seminal essence (ching) is the one which follows it (i.e. its forming essence as imposed upon its successor).a It is easy to see that this functional terminology could be applied to any stimulus--response reaction. The medieval Chinese applied it throughout the realm of scientific thought, including physics, and as we see here, chemistry; which makes apparent to us that their basic concepts of action were inclusive of the biological.b

The purpose of the document we are considering is to account for the dynamic relations between certain mineral substances, characterised as aspects of the Five Elements. Thus we see Yellow Sprouts (floreate essence of Metal) and mercury described as 'held within lead and cinnabar respectively. In the eye of the alchemists mind the inner aspect was a possible state of the outer material, and could become manifest as the result of alehemical processes. But the relations discussed in this quotation are not static, since the Five Elements are in turn functionally related to each other by the Mutual Production succession order, which governs the quasi-biological evolution of one thing or one phase of a cyclical process out of another. The genetic character of the lead/Yellow Sprouts and cinnabar/mercury relationships is established by making them correspond to the Mutual Production sequences Metal-Earth and Wood-Fire. The element sequences are not as a rule expressed directly, but more often given in terms of the planets --- the Five Elements seen in their cosmological function. Only when we recognise that the fundamental level of discourse is not astronomical at all can we perceive the simple, and to the Chinese thinker familiar, sense behind the apparently very odd assertions about interactions of planets.

It would be sorely misreading the text to see in it any suggestion of physical influence exerted by planets upon terrestrial minerals. The sun and moon are no less passive in this schema than the planets. While the latter serve in the theory as aspects of the Five Elements, the former --- or, to be more precise, the hun vitality or animus which characterises the sun and the pho vitality or anima of the moon --- stand for the cosmological aspects of Yang and Yin.

We can thus proceed to reduce the second and most of the fourth paragraph of the text to a straightforward assertion: 'There exists the genetically related binary system mercury/cinnabar, of which mercury, corresponding to Wood, is the young (i.e. immature) Yang phase and cinnabar, corresponding to Fire, is the mature Yang phase. The modern reader no doubt prefers a plainer formulation, for he knows how important direct statement has been in the growth of modern science. But for the ancient alchemist, the richness of association was desirable enough to be paid for in simplicity and testability. What brought the planets into alchemical theory was a motivation, in the last analysis, aesthetic.

(iii) Time as the essential parameter of mineral growth

The protean metalline metamorphoses of the Huai Nan Tzu book were avoided by later alchemists, who accepted much more straightforwardly the archaic idea of the gradual perfection of minerals within the terrestial matrix. Here the idea is expressed with pristine simplicity in one of the most influential of all alchemical writings, the supplementary instructions (chueh), probably of the early Sung, which now accompany the Han 'Yellow Emperors Canon of the Nine-Vessel Spiritual Elixir:

Realgar occurs in the same mountains as orpiment, and is formed by the transformation of orpiment. (This latter) great medicine of heaven and earth (i.e., of the natural order) is called 'doe yellow' (tzhu huang). When eight thousand years have passed, it transforms into realgar, the variant name of which is 'imperial male seminal essence (ti nan ching). After another thousand years have passed it transforms into yellow gold, with the variant name 'victuals of the Perfected (or Realised) Immortals (chen jen fan).

The theory of this type most significant for the development of alchemy begins, as did Liu Ans, with a hierogamy, and the time span, while still defined numerologically, is chosen more carefully for its cosmic significance. The Tan Lun Chueh Chili Hsin Ching (Mental Mirror Reflecting the Essentials of Oral Instruction about the Discourses on the Elixir and the Enchymoma), a theoretical treatise probably of the Thang, rationalises the preparation of the elixir of immortality by analogy with geological process :

Natural cyclically-transformed elixir (tzu-jan huan tan) is formed when flowing mercury (liu hung), embracing Sir Metal (chin kung = chhien, lead), becomes pregnant. Wherever there is cinnabar there are also lead and silver. In 4320 years the elixir is finished. Realgar (hsiung) to its left, orpiment (tzhu) to its right, cinnabar above it, malachite (tsheng chhing) below. It embraces the chhi of sun and moon, Yin and Yang, for 4320 years; thus, upon repletion of its own chhi, it becomes a cyclically-transformed elixir for immortals of the highest grade and celestial beings. When in the world below lead and mercury are perfected by an alehemical process (hsiu lien) for purposes of immortality, (the elixir) is finished in one year.a The fire is first applied in the eleventh month, when the Single Yang (i Yang) comes into being,b and the elixir is finished by the eleventh month of the next year. The natural cyclically-transformed elixir is what immortals, celestial beings, and sages of the world above gather and eat. What (the alchemist) now prepares succeeds because of its correspondence on a scale of thousandths. Taking the product also results in eternal life, transformation into a feathered being, and power (kung) equal to that of heaven.

We shall return shortly to the period of 4320 years in connection with the alchemists side of the analogy between the Work of the laboratory and the Work which takes place in the womb of Mother Nature. There we shall seed that although the adepts period of a year is metaphysically derived from what we might call the temporal macrocosm of 4320 years, historically the longer period was obviously chosen to correspond to the number of double-hours (shih) in the round year of 360 days. We are quite serious in representing the two directions of correspondence as related to two distinct realities within the alchemists universe of significance. That he did not find them contradictory testifies to the coordinate nature of correspondences as the Chinese used them. It is interesting that the writer should have expressed the relation of the two time periods in terms of order of magnitude, a concept the easy and correct use of which is far from prevalent today.

This document also alludes to two minor but not insignificant alehemical themes: the notation of the geological coupling of minerals and metals, and the idea that there exist within the earth certain substances of such quality that only immortals can have access to them. We shall postpone slightly a discussion of the second theme, since its very ample documentaticn makes more adequate study possible.

The regular association of certain plants with mineral deposits, and of the latter with deeper strata of metals or metallic ores, has already been considered in Section 25 in connection with geological prospecting.a In the text from the Kuan Tzu book (compiled perhaps in the late -4th century) cited there, superficial cinnabar is considered a sign of deeper gold. Ko Hung (c. +320) agrees, again making a parallel between the evolution of gold in the mountains and in the furnace:

When the manuals of the immortals (isien ching2) say that the seminal essence of cinnabar gives birth to gold, this is the theory of making gold from cinnabar. That is why gold is generally found beneath cinnabar in the mountains.

The coupling of cinnabar with lead ores in Tan Lun Chueh Chi Hsin Ching lacks classical precedent, and we do not know from what empirical generalisation it derives. The common presenee of silver in ores of lead is a commonplace in Chinese alchemy as in modern geology, and a key to one of the prototype two-element processes of the proto-scientific art.

Another simple account of the subterranean evolution of metals appears in the Chih Kuei Chi (Pointing the Way Home (to Life Eternal); a Collection) of Wu Wu, whose manual of equipment and procedures, Tan Fang Hsu Chih (Indispensable Knowledge for the Chymical Elaboratory), is dated +163. The former work is definitely concerned with physiological and meditational alchemy, but the author was conversant with the Outer Elixir tradition and is clearly reflecting it here :

Quicksilver, under the stimulus of the cihi of Yin and Yang for 8oo years, forms cinnabar (sha); after 3000 years it forms silver; after 8o,ooo years it forms gold --- the longer the firmer (chien), through a thousand metamorphoses and a myriad transformations. The sages cycle (yun) Water and Fire, following the model of the operation of the chhi of Yin and Yang, in order to bring to completion the virtue (of the elixir); this is what is called 'surpassing the ingenuity of the Shaping Forces of Nature.

As we have seen, the archaic and ubiquitous idea of the evolution of minerals and metals along a scale of perfection was rationalised in China in terms of the Five-Element and Yin-Yang theories, provided with much concrete detail, and related to cosmic process by the choice of specific time spans.d It was perhaps inevitable that at least for purposes of meditation upon the creative potential of the Tao, this idea was further imaginatively extended to link it with other Chinese convictions.

One possibility was to involve the vegetable kingdom by extrapolating, so to speak, the growth of minerals backward. Philosophically this was not much of an innovation, for the idea of the fixity of species had been rejected from the start, to allow the possibility of one species metamorphosing into another, and to explain spontaneous generation. Transformation was ordinarily thought of either as a binary relation, in the sense that a certain species could change spontaneously into another particular species, or as a chain relation, in which the metamorphoses form a natural series. The chain relation is represented by the Chuang Tzu books renowned theory of a cycle which begins with 'germs (chi) in the water and evolves organically step by step to man, who in due but unspecified course reverts to the germs. Where this passage is quoted in the Lieh Tzu book (compiled by c. + 300), the continuity is broken, probably through late editorial inadvertence, by some typical examples of the simple binary relation:

Sheeps liver changes into the goblin sheep underground. The blood of horses and men becoming will-o-the-wisp; kites becoming sparrow-hawks, sparrow-hawks becoming cuckoos, cuckoos in due time again becoming kites; swallows becoming oysters, moles becoming quails, rotten melons becoming fish, old leeks becoming sedge, old ewes becoming monkeys, fish roe becoming insects--all these are examples of things altering and metamorphosing....

Another binary relation known to every physician in classical times was that between pine resin (sung chih) and the fu-ling fungus, a parasite upon the roots of pine trees, prized as an immortality medicine.a The fungus was supposed to be formed when pine resin flowed into the ground and remained there for a thousand years. When it grew especially close about the roots of the tree it was called 'pachyma spirit, or fu shen. Origin from pine resin was also ascribed to amber (hu-po) by Thao Hung-Ching, who introduced amber into the pharmacopoeia; though 'an old tradition cited by Su Ching (between + 650 and + 659) had fu-ling metamorphosing into amber after a second millennium, and amber into jet (i, hsi) after a third.

Here, then, is an alchemical assimilation of these motifs into an account formally similar to the mineral sequences we have already examined:

In the great Tao of heaven and earth, what endures of the myriad phenomena is their primal and harmonious chhi. Of the things that exist in perpetuity, none surpass the sun, moon, and stars.d Yin and Yang, the Five Phases (Elements), day and night, come into being out of Earth, and in the end return to Earth. They alter in accord with the four seasons, but that there should be a limit to them is also the Tao of Nature. For instance, when pine resin imbibes the chhi of mature Yang for a thousand years it is transformed into pachyma fungus. After another thousand years of irradiation it becomes pachyma spirit; in another thousand years it becomes amber, and in another thousand years crystal quartz (shui ching ). These are all seminal essences formed through irradiation by the floreate chhi of sun and moon!

This passage is not greatly innovative either in form or content; in fact it demonstrates how little originality is often needed to bring out the inherent connections of two longestablished notions (in this case metamorphosis and subterranean maturation). The framework of physical explanation is perfectly typical of alehemical theory. To paraphrase as simply as possible, the cyclical processes of Nature (the Tao) can give rise to things which endure, or even exist perpetually, since they have a perfectly balanced internal phasing which attunes them to the Taos recurrent pattern. The heavenly bodies embody the balance of cosmic forces (mediated by the element Earth) and are thus a paradigm of eternity. At the same time the alternation of the sun and moon (and of the light and chhi they radiate) is identical with the cyclical domination of Yin and Yang. In the course of the cosmic cycles, exposure of pine resin underground to the configurational energy released in the recurring creative phase ('the chhi of mature Yang) gives rise to a sequence of substances which not only endure and improve underground but are all capable of conferring immortality upon human beings.

Implicit in this sequence of ideas is a most important theme which can be glimpsed again and again in the alchemists writings. Although the perfection of the elixir is the result of a repeated cyclical process, at each step of the treatment the intermediary product is not the same, but rather progressively exalted. Thus superimposed upon the cycle is a progressive upward tendency, which does not reverse itself.e The culmination of the process is irreversible--that is, no longer subject to the cyclic cosmic agencies which brought it about. In this way the adepts operations upon his materials parallel the effect of the elixir, once made, upon himself. His immortality is charactensed again and again as invulnerability to the ravages of time, freedom from the cyclical attrition which governs the ageing and death--as inevitably as the birth and growth--of ordinary men. This idea is one of the crucial links between Chinese, Indian and Arabic alchemy, as well as between laboratory alchemy and other techniques of immortality in China.d Only our present defective comprehension of it precludes the treatment in depth which it deserves.

(iv) The subterranean evolution of the natural elixir

Another extension of the theory of mineral development led to positing an evolutionary branch the terminus of which was not gold, but the natural analogue to the mercuric elixir which theoreticians of alchemy valued more than any precious metal. The fact that every quality characteristic of gold varied over a certain range in native specimens of the metal encouraged early aurifactors to ignore the assayers single standard of purity, and to envision the making of gold of still greater quintessential purity than any metal found in mines or streams. Although it is clear that the concept of the natural elixir was motivated by the desire to find a parallel for the alchemists own Work, it was philosophically feasible because, like gold, cinnabar exists in a certain range of qualities, from very crude and irregular forms to magnificent bloodred rhombohedral crystals. The extrapolation which led to the natural elixir may be followed in a remarkable extended passage from Chhen Shao-Weis Ta-Tung Lien Chen Pao Ching Hsiu Erh Ling Sha Miao Chueh (Mysterious Teachings on the Alehemical Preparation of Numinous Cinnabar, Supplementary to the Perfected Treasure Manual, a Ta-Tung Scripture), written perhaps c. +712, which must be considered one of the most valuable of the surviving early treatises on account of its disquisition on the alchemy of cinnabar and its clear instructions for preparing the alehemical elixir :

The highest grade of cinnabar grows in grottoes in Chhen-chou and Chin-chou (both in modern Hunan), and there are several types. The medium grade grows in Chiao-chou (centered on modern Hanoi) and Kuei-chou (in Kuangsi), and is also of various sorts. The lower grade occurs in Hang-chou and Shao-chou (in Hunan). That there are various grades is due to variation in purity of substance (cuing cho thi i), diversity in perfection (chen hsieh ) and shadings in fineness of the chhi of which they are formed. Those which, stimulated by metal and mineral (influences), take on a balanced chhi, confer, when ingested, access to the Mysteries and consecration among the Realised (or Perfected) Ones as an immortal of the highest grade. Even those composed of unbalanced chhi cause, when taken, perpetual life on earth.

Now the highest grade, lustrous cinnabar (kuang ming sha), occurs in the mountains of Chhen-chou and Chin-chou upon beds of white toothy mineral. Twelve pieces of cinnabar make up one throne. Its colour is like that of an unopened red lotus blossom, and its lustre is as dazzling as the sun. There are also thrones of 9, 7, 5, or 3 pieces, or of one piece. Those of 12 or 9 pieces are the most charismatic (ling); next are those which occur in 7 or pieces. In the centre of each throne is a large pearl (of cinnabar), 10 ounces or so in weight, which is the monarch (chu chn). Around it are smaller ones, 8 or

9 ounces (or in some cases 6 or 7 ounces or less) in weight; they are the ministers (chhen).

They surround and do obeisance to the great one in the centre. About the throne are a peck: (tou) or two of various kinds of cinnabar, encircling the 'jade throne and cinnabar bed. From among this miscellaneous cinnabar on the periphery may be picked (pieces in the shapes of) fully formed lotus buds, 'nocturnal repose, and azalea. The lustrous and translucent specimens are also included in the highest class of cinnabar.

There is also a cinnabar which resembles horse teeth; that with a white lambent lustre is white horse-tooth cinnabar of the highest grade. There is another, tabular like mica; that with a white lustre is white horse-tooth cinnabar of the middle grade. (Cinnabar) which is round and elongated like a bamboo shoot and red or purple in colour is purple numinous cinnabar of the highest grade. If it occurs in stony, flat prisms with a virid lustre, it is purple numinous cinnabar of the lower grade. Of (the purple numinous cinnabar) produced in Chiao-chou and Kuei-chou, only that which occurs in throne formations or which is found inside rocks when they are broken open, and is shaped like lotus buds and lustrous, is also included in the highest grade. That which is granular in form and translucent, three or four pieces weighing a pound, is of the middle grade. That which is laminar in form and transparentis of the lower grade. All that produced in Hang-chou and Shao-chou is purple numinous cinnabar. Like that with a red lustre found inside rocks when they are broken open, it is lower-grade cinnabar. If creek cinnabar, granular in form and translucent, is subdued, refined, and ingested, (the alchemist) will attain perpetuallife onearth, but he will not become an immortal of the highest grade. Earthy cinnabar grows in earth caves (or, mines in the earth) (thu hsueh), as creek cinnabar matures (yang) in mountain rills. Because earth and mineral chhi are intermixed, these varieties are not suitable as ingredients of the higher kinds of medicine or for use in alchemy.

The very highest grade of cinnabar is that which occurs in throne formations. When one of the monarch pieces from the centre of the throne is obtained, subdued, refined and introduced into the viscera, the efficacy of cinnabar is particularly manifest. (This central piece) is named 'Superior Cinnabar Belvedere. It produces a permanently balanced chhi (i.e. bodily pneuma), and allows one to transcend ones mundane involvements. If it is further taken in the sevenfold-recycled or ninefold-cyclically-transformed state, then without ado the anima is transformed and the outer body destroyed, the spirit made harmonious and the constitution purified. The Yin chhi is dissolved, and (the persona) floats up, maintaining its shape, to spend eternity as a flying immortal of the highest grade of Realisation. Thus one knows that the realised seminal essence of the Yangd has imbued the chhi (of this cinnabar) so that it exhibits a perfectly rounded nimbus, symmetrical and without imperfection. When cinnabar has been subdued and refined so that it takes the shape of a lotus bud and is translucent with a nimbus, it has become a medicine of the highest grade, which when ingested results in immortality (or, which is ingested by immortals).

The 'Canon' says that cinnabar is a natural cyclically-transformed elixir, and that the vulgar are unable to gauge its fundamental principles. The uninitiated all know about 'jade throne cinnabar. But the 'golden throne and 'celestial throne are cinnabars of the Purple Dragon and Dark Flower of the Most High, and not the kind which vulgar fellows can see or know about. Any devoted gentleman of the common sort, after storing up merit, can refine jade throne cinnabar alehemically and by taking it attain immortality. But as for golden throne cinnabar, a man born with immortality in his bones must first refine his spirit to a state of pure void and live as a hermit in a cliff-bound cave. Then the immortals will gather it and feed it to him. He will forthwith be transformed into a Feathered Being (i.e., an immortal) and will bound upwards into the Lofty Purity (of the heavens). Lastly celestial throne cinnabar is collected and eaten only by the Celestial Immortals and Realised Officials in heaven. It is no medicine for lesser immortals.

When jade throne cinnabar has imbibed the pure seminal essence of Yang sentience for six thousand years it is transformed into golden throne cinnabar, the throne of which is yellow. In the centre are five pieces growing in layers, surrounded by forty or fifty small balls. After 16,000 years of imbibing (essence), golden throne is transformed into celestial throne cinnabar, in which the throne is jade-green. There are nine pieces in the centre, growing in layers, pressed closely about by 72 (smaller) pieces. It floats in the midst of the Grand Void, constantly watched over by one of the spirits of the Supreme Unity (Thai 13). On a Superior Epoch daythe Realised Officials descend to collect it. The mountain (on which it is found) suddenly lights up; the whole mountain is illuminated as if by fire. This celestial throne cinnabar is collected (only) by Realised Officials; people of the world can have no opportunity to gather it.

The fundamental principles of cinnabar are deep and arcane,e but worthy and enlightened gentlemen who have their hearts set upon floating up (to become immortals) must learn to distinguish the various qualities of the Medicine, high from low. Only then will they be ready to regulate the phases of the fire, to combine the Yin and Yang subduing methods, and then without further ado be consecrated as Perfected or Realised Immortals of high grade.

Of the many qualities of cinnabar enumerated above, 'creek cinnabar and 'earthy cinnabar were crude varieties used mainly in the commercial distillation of mercury. The kinds useful to the physician and alchemist were all exceptionally large tabular or orthorhombic crystals of substantially pure crystalline mercuric sulphide.a The white beds in which these minerals grew would have been drusy quartz.

Anyone who has not learned from Lynn Thorndike (1) or Frances Yates (1) to appreciate the remarkable capacity of science to coexist with magic may be troubled or even scandalised by certain tensions implicit in this text, but alchemy and even early medicine reflect them throughout. The recurring resort to scientific chhi and Yin-Yang explanations does not seem to sit well with the frequent reminders that the final issue of the alchemical process was expected to be an appointment to the ranks of the Spiritual Civil Service. We cannot pretend that we understand the historical dynamics of Chinese alchemy until someone has succeeded in explaining why this very real contradiction never generated sufficient dialectical voltage to be faced or resolved.

It seems finally to have withered away with the ascendancy of internal or physiological alchemy in the Thang and Sung, when concern with an objective hierarchy of immortals and divinities was somewhat displaced by direct attention to the aim of what a Jungian would call psychical integration. This emphasis on personal growth is too apparent to overlook in a few lines of an alehemical poem in the 'Arcane Memorandum of the Red Pine Master (Chhih Sung Tzu Hsuan Chi), ptobably of the Thang or earlier:

Successful means solidly building the Wall,

Indispensable to distinguish the Hard and the Soft,d

Necessary that the maturing come within man

Due to the concentration of his heart and mind.e

If his heart and mind have reached divinity, so will the Medicine;

If his heart and mind are confused the Medicine will be unpredictable.

The Perfect Tao is a perfect emptying of the heart and mind.

Within the darkness--unknowable wonders.

When the wise man has attained to the August Source,

Then in time he will truly reach the clouds.

We can only suggest for the moment that the structure of the Unseen World may have been all along in a very deep sense that of the human spirit.

A second tension prevalent in alchemy prompts us to ask what credit Chhen ShaoWei should be given for innovation in his account of super-cinnabar, despite his insistence that a Realised Immortal revealed the contents of his book to him one day in a mountain cave? Any hope of answering this question must be greatly qualified by our inability to draw an absolute line between revelation and inspiration, but it is obviously relevant to ask how much of the information in the document was already known. We can throw light on this point to the extent that datable documents allow. Fortunately, they serve to assure us that at least the bare conception of throne formations of exceptional alehemical value was known well before the time of Chhens epiphany.

A landmark of pharmacology, Hsu Chih-Tshais Lei Kung Yao Tui (Answers of the Venerable Master Lei concerning Drugs), c. +565, in the course of its enumeration of the varieties of cinnabar, makes this assertion, bland by comparison with Chhens but an anticipation none the less:

There is a spirit throne cinnabar (shen tso), as well as a golden throne cinnabar and a jade throne cinnabar. If they are taken, (even) without having passed through the alchemical furnace (ching tan tsao), they will forthwith extend ones destined span of life.c

As has been remarked in our study of mineralogy, in the middle of the +7th century Su Ching also speaks of 'lustrous cinnabar, of which one crystal grows separately in a 'stone shrine. The largest is the size of a hens egg, and the smallest the size of a jujube or chestnut. It is shaped like a lotus, and when broken it resembles mica, lustrous and transparent. It grows on a stone 'belvedere inside the shrine. If he who finds it carries it on his person, it will keep him from all evil.e

Finally the great pharmacognostic critic Khou Tsung-Shih provides an illuminating description of the mining of large cinnabar crystals at Chin-chou in his 'Dilations upon Pharmaceutical Natural History (Pen Tshao Yen I, preface dated +111 6):

The Old Crow Shaft (lao ya ching). .has a depth and (underground) extent of several hundred feet. First wood is piled up inside to fill the excavation and then it is set on fire. Where the dark stone cracks open there are small 'shrines. Within each of these is a bed of white stone, which resembles (white) jade. Upon this bed grows the cinnabar, the small (crystals) like arrow-heads and the larger like lotuses. Their lustre is so great that they reflect light as well as mirrors. When they are ground up their colour is a vivid red. The larger specimens of the cinnabar, together with their beds, weigh from seven or eight up to ten ounces.

Putting all these data together, we can reasonably posit that Chhen Shao-Wei was responsible, whether by inspiration or revelation, for adding texture to the idea of supra-normal formations of cinnabar. What interests us is that one of the conceptions which he newly applied was that of chain metamorphosis.

There is evidence that Chhens description of super-cinnabar did not remain an utter secret after all. The Lung Hu Huan Tan Chueh (Explanation of the Dragon-and-Tiger Cyclically Transformed Elixir), evidently of the Wu Tai, Sung or later, follows Chhens jade throne --> golden throne --> celestial throne sequence, specifying the same time-intervals between metamorphoses, and speaks of cinnabar of the highest grade as 'natural cyclically-transformed elixir. What is hardly less significant, a distant but on-pitch echo appears in the literary remains of the great Thang statesman Li Te-Y (+ 787 to + 849), by Taoist lights at best a 'devoted gentleman of the common sort. His 'Essay on Smelting the Yellow, by which he means alchemy, begins:

Someone asked me about the transformation involved in 'smelting the yellow. I said: 'I have never studied these matters, so how am I to deny that there is such a thing? Still, with the aid of perfected principles one can always inquire into Nature and all its phenomena. Now lustrous cinnabar is a natural treasure of heaven and earth. It is found in rock caverns, growing on snowy beds, and resembling newly grown lotuses before the red buds have burst open. The tiny (crystals) do obeisance in a ring, while the large one occupies the centre. This corresponds to the configuration at the celestial pole, and the respective positions proper to ruler and ministers.c (The mineral) is lustrous and transmits light. Those who gather it trace along the vein of mineral (till they find it). Truly, it has been cast by the Shaping Forces.

It was not the idea of mineral evolution that interested Li, political moralist that he was. The excellence of the configuration of lustrous cinnabar lay in its resonance with the metaphysics of monarchy, which Confucius had long before illustrated with the image of the central Pole Star surrounded by genuflecting asterisms.

(4) THE ALCHEMIST AS ACCELERATOR OF COSMIC PROCESS

There is a piece of dialogue in Ben Jonsons play 'The Alchemist (+16 10) which might well serve as the text for our argument as it gradually unfolds:

Subtle: Why, what have you observd, Sir, in our Art,

Seems so impossible? Surly: But your whole Work, no more.

That you should hatch Gold in a furnace, Sir,

As they do Eggs in Egypt!

Subtle: Sir, do you

Believe that Eggs are hatchd so? Surly: If I should?

Subtle: Why, I think that the greater Miracle.

No Egg but differs from a Chicken more

Than Metals in themselves. Surly: That cannot be.

The Eggs ordaind by Nature to that end,

And is a Chicken in potentia.

Subtle. The same we say of Lead, and other Metals,

Which would be Gold, if they had time. Mammon: And that

Our Art doth further.

We have already seen how well Subtles answer applies in China, and are ready to explore the transition to Sir Epicure Mammons amplificatory remark. Let us begin by summarising the next propositions which we shall endeavour to demonstrate.

Since the formation of minerals and metals is bound by time, and thus attributable to the same cosmic forces which are responsible for other life cycles, there is a very direct connection between the chemical operations of Nature and the practical techniques of the metal-working artisan. In extracting a metal from its ore, or making strong steel from brittle cast iron, he was demonstrating that man can imitate natural process, that he can stand in the place of Nature, and bring about natural changes at a rate immensely faster than in Natures own time. The discovery that the speed of mineral growth processes, unlike those of plants and animals,b can be controlled by man, must certainly have been one of the main factors that led to the beginning of what we have called proto-scientific alchemy. For the alchemist went on to design processes for reproducing at a much faster rate the cyclical rhythms of Nature which controlled the maturing of minerals and metals in the earth. No man could wait 4320 years to see Nature make an elixir, but by fabricating one with his own hands in a few months or a year he would have a unique opportunity to experience and study the cyclical forces responsible for that change and thus for all natural change. No undertaking could be more quintessentially Taoist.

And when the elixir acted in projection it was nothing less than a 'time-controlling substance '. It accelerated the time-scale of perfection; and once the further point of perfection was reached, it cancelled times attrition (for that is what perfection implied). Fig. 1516 has been designed to show how the deceleration of human ageing was the counterpart of the acceleration of the forming of the imperishable metal. Ko Hung says this almost in as many words: 'All the numinous fungi can bring men to longevity and material immortality--and this belongs to the same category as the making of gold. And he goes on to quote the optimistic words of Huang Shan Tzu: 'Since heaven and earth contain gold, we also can make it.'

What needs emphasising is that the alchemist's enterprise, as he himself defined it, was not chemistry in any usual sense of the word but physics.b The concern that brought his models of the cosmic process into existence was not directly with the properties and reactions of various substances. These properties and reactions were no more inherently important than the characteristics of pigments which a painter must master in order to produce the picture which exists in his mind's eye. Chemical knowledge and proto-chemical concepts were by-products, and alchemists did not lack the acumen to record and build upon them. But the aim of the process, which conditioned every step in its planning, was the model of the Tao, the cyclical energetics of the cosmos.

Looking at all the evidence impartially, one cannot escape the conclusion that the dominant goal of proto-scientific alchemy was contemplative, and indeed the language in which the Elixir is described was ecstatic. Here is one of a hundred descriptions which might be adduced to prove the point:

Open the reaction-vessel. All the contents will have taken the shapes of golden silkworms or jade bamboo shoots, or of lions, elephants, oxen, or horses, or the form of a human general of great courage. The shapes will vary, but they will all be induced by the spiritual force of the sun, planets, and stars, and the chhi of the heroes of sky and earth. What congeals in these amazing ways is the essence of water and fire, Yin and Yang.

In a second example we can readily identify what the alchemist was looking at:

If you wish to prepare yellow gold, take 1/24 ounce (chu1) of Cyclically Transformed Elixir and put it into a pound of lead; it will become real gold. You may also first place the lead in a vessel, heat it until it is liquefied, and then add one spatula of the Scarlet Medicine to the vessel. As you look on, you will see every colour flying and flowering, purple clouds reflecting at random, luxuriant as the colours of Nature ---  it will be as though you were gazing upwards at a gathering of sunlit clouds. It is called Purple Gold, and it is a marvel of the Tao.a

One could hardly hope for a better description of what a cupeller sees on his lead button as it oxidises and the oxide is moved by surface tension.b But the richness and vividness of the particulars bespeak a state of heightened awareness which one is naturally tempted to link with the alchemist's meditative practices, since we see it so widespread in the texts. We cannot rule out the possibility that drugs played a role in this tendency to perceive multum in parvo, many descriptions coming close to those reported by takers of hemp and other hallucinogens today, but ecstatic introspection was so common in ancient China that this is hardly a necessary hypothesis.c

The alchemist undertook to contemplate the cycles of cosmic process in their newly accessible form because he believed that to encompass the Tao with his mind (or, as he would have put it, his mind-and-heart) would make him one with it. That belief was precisely what made him a Taoist. As we have pointed out earlier, the idea behind Taoist ataraxy is not at all unlike one of the central convictions of early natural philosophy in the West, namely that to grasp intellectually the constant pattern which underlies the phenomenal chaos of experience is, in that measure, to be freed from the bonds of mortal finitude.d The idea that scientific knowledge leads to spiritual power also accounts for the extreme attention given to ritual purity -- to fasting, cleanliness, invocations and spells, and the location of the laboratory in a place safe from contamination by contact with the profane.e

Before returning to the main thread of our exposition, it is necessary to acknowledge an obvious question. If the use of the alchemical process was contemplative, why was the adept at such pains to construct a complex object of meditation in the external world rather than in his mind? After all, a purely mental quest might well have been just as rewarding. The best answer we can offer is a reminder that laboratory alchemy was only one of many means to Taoist transcendence of the mortal condition. Each discipline had its adherents, who chose it because its style suited them (and most found it useful to choose more than one). Those who found an external object useful practised external alchemy; those who did not practised internal or physiological alchemy; others found what they needed in sexual techniques or devotional objects;a those who needed no object at all sought the same end in more classical forms of meditation. External alchemy took the directions it did because some Taoists found the conjunction between spiritual perfection and the design of laboratory processes not only natural but obvious. We hope in what follows at least to begin making their reasoning accessible.

There was nothing man could do to make plants or animals grow to maturity in any but their own good time.b The only control the farmer exerted was to choose whether his crops or stock were to grow at all, and at the proper moment to terminate their life-cycles by harvesting or slaughtering in order to sustain the life-cycles of the human beings who were to consume them. Here one cannot but repeat Mencius'. story of the man of Sung, 'who was grieved that his growing corn was not longer, so he pulled it up. Returning home, looking very stupid, he said to his people, " I am tired today. I have been helping the corn to grow long." His son ran to look at it, and found the corn all withered.'c This conviction that man's benefit lies in conforming to and when possible furthering the inexorably paced work of Nature lies close to the heart of Chinese quietism and Taoist ataraxy.d Equally, the realisation that the rate of mineral growth was controllable was one of the stoutest ideological props of the quest of the Taoist magus for a state of affairs in which, as Ko Hung, put it, 'my span of life is up to me, not to Heaven.'e That realisation was no innovation of the alchemist, although he was certainly the first to make philosophical use of it. In truth it is a distant cousin of the assertion often made about great artificers and inventors like Chang Hng2 (+78 to +139) that 'their ingenuity (or workmanship) rivalled (or equalled) that of the Shaping Forces.' fAs Eliade has shown for many cultures, and Granet began to demonstrate for China, a consciousness of superhuman responsibility for interfering in the life-cycle of minerals was embodied in the rituals (often obstetrical in imagery) of the miner who delivered the ores from their womb and the smelter who converted them rapidly into metals much further along the scale of maturity.g Both were taking unto themselves dangerous powers, and needed all the protection that tabus and rituals could provide. This need was also urgent in alchemy.h That metalworkers succeeded made them magicians and heroes.i The alchemists, who accepted the reality of the magic-ritual experiential universe of the smith, were at the same time ready to apply to it an abstract proto-scientific analysis. They saw the parallel between the metallurgist's midwifery and the operation of the Shaping Forces in Nature, and adapted to cosmic concerns the arts of maturing metals.

That the apparently artificial conditions of the laboratory could be made profoundly natural and responsive to the operation of the larger Tao is an axiom of alchemy. As the 'Supplementary Instructions to the Yellow Emperor's Nine-cauldron Spiritual Elixir Canon' put it,

When earth mixes with water to form mud, and is kneaded (hsien1) (by subterranean processes) below a mountain, there will be gold, and generally cinnabar above it. When this (cinnabar) is ceaselessly metamorphosed and cycled, and once again forms gold, this is merely a reversion to the root substance, and not something to be wondered at.a

How could the alchemist be sure that what went on in his reaction-vessel represented a cosmic process? If it did not, like the man of Sung he would be overruled by the Tao, and his elixir would wither. Given the character of the Chinese system of thought, success was bound to be a question of establishing correspondences which would ensure the identity of his process with that of Nature. The adept had at his disposal a diversity of approaches ranging from highly abstract theories to magical invocations. The complex design of most extant alchemical processes obviously depended upon so many considerations of every kind that today we can hardly begin to explain particular choices of ingredients, apparatus, and treatment. The one area in which we have at least begun to glimpse the rationale behind the concrete processes is at the same time the most abstract and very probably the most crucial, namely that which has to do with the application of correspondences by the use of qualitative or quantitative analogy.

There were three primary points of application which could be used to plan a particular process as a recapitulation of the natural evolution of metals: materials, apparatus, and the timing of combustion. We shall see that all three possibilities were actually exploited, generally in conjunction. Time was the key to all three, for the Way of Nature is cyclical. It was easily within the operator's means, through timing, to make his process a microcosm which 'succeeds because of its correspondence on a scale of thousandths.'c Since the cosmic cycles fall naturally into phases (generally marked by Yin-Yang states or the Five Elements), he had the option of temporally phasing some aspect of his treatment. For instance, he could vary the intensity of the fire so that it gradually increased or decreased at a measured tempo, analogous to that of the alternation of Yin and Yang in the course of the year. If this controlled variation in the temperature of the process was exerted upon two ingredients, or two main ingredients, he could expect that the phasing would set up inside his sealed vessel an alternating pattern of ascendance. First the Yin reactant would be dominant, and then the Yang one. The alternation would ensure that their qualitative correspondence to Yin and Yang became a dynamic correspondence to that rhythmic interplay of the positive and negative forces which was responsible for the maturation of metals as well as for all other growth. The alchemist could invoke further guarantees of fidelity to cosmic process by controlling the design or dimensions of the apparatus to produce a spatial microcosm as well. The furnace might be oriented with respect to earth and sky by what we would consider ritual means; then again, its measurements might be planned for numerological significance connected with the Order of Nature; or its form might be based upon that of the womb or its analogue the cosmic egg.

Let us now proceed to examine the ways in which these possibilities, and others created by their interplay, were actually applied, in order to throw more light on the ideas which evolved them. Again we can hope to do no more than demonstrate how a few basic strategies were embodied in a great variety of tactics. It is impossible to say very much about the development of these tactics when the chronological relations of so many sources can still only be guessed at. We must also remind the reader that some alchemists seem quite unconcerned with cosmic parallels, and indeed with any rationalisation of the process at all. But this almost purely pragmatic approach is the exception, and even so an acquaintance with theory is often implicit in its documents.

By the +16th century European alchemists had also come to appreciate the timing of reactions, and many a medieval Chinese adept would have agreed with the words of William Blomfield, written in +1557:

But if thou wilt enter the Campe of Philosophy

With thee take Tyme to guide thee in the way;

For By-paths and Broade wayes, deep Vallies and hills high,

Here shalt thou finde, with pleasant sights and gay;

Some shalt thou meete which unto thee shall say

Recipe this, and that; with a thousand things more

To Deceive thy selfe, and others; as they have done before.a

(i) Emphasis on process in theoretical alchemy

Although one cannot conclude that the Chou I Tshan Thung Chhi (+142) was the fons et origo of theoretical alchemy merely because it is the oldest book of its kind which we can still examine, it was certainly considered a basic canon by later theoretically oriented alchemists, who referred to it often and adapted its idea of a chemical process based upon cosmic patterns.b We have seen earlier that no one can even say with confidence what the book was meant to be about. It can be -- and has been -- read as a poetic treatise on the inner significance of the 'Book of Changes', on cosmology, on breath control, on sexual techniques, on laboratory alchemy, or on any combination of these.a Although the uncertainty is real enough, it is not very relevant to the later development of alchemy. Those alchemists who used the book simply assumed that it really was about the Outer Elixir, and that its purpose was to describe in recondite language the metaphysics of the laboratory process. So reading it, they were no less satisfied than those who applied its concepts (and still do, for that matter) to physiological disciplines.b

Here we recall a comment of the bibliographer Chhao Kung-Wu1 (d. +1171) on the 'Essay upon the Sun, Moon, and the Dark Axis' (Jih Yeh Hsan Shu Lun,2 c. +740) of Liu Chih-Ku:3

In the reign of the Brilliant Emperor he was Prefect of Chhang-ming4 in Mien-chou5 (Szechuan). At that time there was an edict seeking out gentlemen who understood the Elixir Medicine. Chih-Ku said that of the great Medicines of the immortals, none falls outside the scope of the Tshan Thung Chhi. He therefore composed this essay and submitted it to the court.c

The Lung Hu Huan Tan Cheh puts it just as unequivocally:

For the Cyclically Transformed Elixir there is no formula; the Chin Pi Ching6 and the Tshan Thung Chhi are its formulae.d

The preface to the oldest extant commentary upon the latter, written c. +945 by Phng Hsiao,7 a priest of the Chng-I8denomination of Taoism in Szechuan, sees in it the prototype of the cosmic model (though Phng was interested in laboratory alchemy only to the extent that its ideas and imagery were incorporated in 'dual cultivation').e He wrote:

(Wei Po-Yang) compiled the Tshan Thung Chhi to show that in preparing the Elixir one's Tao is the same as that of the Shaping Forces of Nature. Therefore he drew upon the symbols of the 'Changes' to develop this point.

But the surest sign of the book's importance is its ubiquity. The majority of later writings (especially of the Thang and Sung) which quote any authority on theory quote it, very often citing it simply as 'the Canon'.a

The process of the Tshan Thung Chhi, when it is read on the laboratory-alchemical level, involves two ingredients which are sealed in a reaction-vessel and subjected to the cyclically regulated influence of heat. The reactants, as we have seen, are likened to Yin and Yang both directly and by the use of many Yin-Yang embodiments -- dragon and tiger, fire and water, husband and wife, and so on. The equitably phased variation in the intensity of the fire is also explained in terms of the cosmic Yin-Yang cycles which condition the coming-into-being and passing away of phenomena. The sequence of steps is controlled by the use of the I Ching trigrams and hexagrams. The reaction vessel is likened to the undifferentiated primordial chaos (hun-tun1) from which phenomenal things are eventually formed. Each of these themes became perennial, but there was a less obvious influence upon later generations too. In the Tshan Thung Chhi the emphasis is on the process, and the product is practically ignored. There are no instructions for compounding, no rituals for ingestion, and a mere couple of cursory descriptions of that immortal beatitude which to pragmatic alchemists like Ko Hung was the whole point.b In this sense the Tshan Thung Chhi was a precursor of the extreme theoretical tendency in later alchemy. Among its posterity we find occasionally such a concern with gnostic rapture, achieved by contemplating the process, that the practical steps between understanding the reaction and becoming an immortal are skipped altogether. Perhaps the clearest of many examples occurs in the Thai Ku Thu Tui Ching2 (Most Ancient Canon of the Joy of the Earth),c an undated work, possibly Thang or earlier, on the fixing ('subduing', fu ) of minerals and metals:

This discussion of the Five Metals is not the great doctrine of the Perfect (or Realised) Tao. But if (the devotee) attains a clear and penetrating understanding of these Five Elements, one can proceed to a discussion of fire-subduing, and can then talk to him about the Tao of projection (tien hua4).e When he has comprehended every aspect of the Five 'Elements, he will be a man of balanced Realisation, and the Three Wormsf will leave his body.

(ii) Prototypal two-element processes

Although ink will continue to be spilt over the question of precisely what chemical reactions the Tshan Thung Chhi is describing,a the general outline of the process is unambiguously cosmogonic. It is recapitulated in this rhymed passage:b

Cinnabar is the seminal essence of Wood;

When it encounters Metal, they unite.

Metal and Water conjoin,

Wood and Fire are partners.

These four the chaos (hun-thun1),

Aligning as dragon and tiger.

Dragon Yang, its number odd;

Tiger Yin, its number even.

Liver, caerulean, the father,

Lungs, white, the mother,

Reins, black, the son:c

Three substances, one family,

Reunited at the centre (wu chi2).d

The apparent obscurity of this text begins to dissipate as soon as we recall the correlation between the Five Elements and Yin and Yang. Fire and Water represent the maximal or mature phase of Yin and Yang respectively (Fig. 1515). Wood and Metal stand for the phase in which one of the polarities is becoming dominant but is not yet at its height -- within the system of the year, naturally, the intermediate seasons of spring and autumn -- and so on. Seen in another way, they are intermediate phases in the alternating dominance of the polar complements. To use a metaphor the cogency of which will shortly become clear, Wood (immature Yang) is the son of Water (mature Yin), from which it emerges, but it is also the father of the Fire phase (mature Yang) which succeeds it.e Chinese thinkers ordinarily referred to these emergent phases as 'the Yin within the Yang, and vice versa. Earth is the neutral phase of balance in which, as we should put it, the polarities cancel out.

Read alchemically, Wei Po-Yang's verses begin by constructing the primordial Chaos out of the four 'unbalanced' elementary phases (in which either Yin or Yang predominates). Only one of the four, Wood, is explicitly identified with a substance, though it is natural enough to speculate that Metal stands for another. But we know already that the customary association of cinnabar is not with Wood but with Fire, which follows Wood in the Mutual Production succession order. We are constrained to allow for the possibility that 'cinnabar' is meant no more concretely than the dragon's odd number a bit further on, and that the first line may be asserting nothing more than the conventional genesis of the category Fire (as 'seminal essence')a from the category Wood. Be this as it may, Metal and Wood (immature Yin and Yang) unite, and also merge with Water and Fire (mature Yin and Yang) through affinity of like with like, to form the Chaos. What fills the functional categories Water and Fire --- whether other substances or alchemical treatment with water and fire --- is left open. Indeed the point may simply be that Wood and Metal mature within the Chaos in the direction of complete differentiation as Yang Fire and Yin Water, though this explanation would seem to be based on a rather confused notion of the Chaos.

Then in the course of the treatment the 'iron law of entropy' reverses itself, and the undifferentiated contents of the vessel segregate spontaneously into Yin and Yang components (tiger and dragon), which are thought of as spatially separate. These differ from the Yin-Yang components with which the process began in that their polarities are reversed. In the cosmological tradition the status of dragon and tiger as abstractions is ambiguous. They embody Yin and Yang emergent from their opposites, but early sources differ as to whether the dragon is Yang within Yin or Yin within Yang.b Here we can be reasonably sure that the dragon represents Yang emergent from Yin (its odd number is merely another Yang resonance), and the tiger the opposite.

The point is reinforced by the image of a family, in which the immature Yang, or Wood (identified by its visceral and colour associations) is the father, the immature Yin, or Metal, the mother, and the mature Yin, or Water, the son. This feminine son redeems his family through a return to the Centre, that is to say through his role as an intermediary in the formation of the Yellow Sprouts from which the Elixir is grown. The line 'Spleen, yellow, is the ancestor',c which appears in Chu Hsi's text, affirms this point while completing the family metaphor; the ancestor, corresponding to the medial Earth phase, is the neutral organising centre to which the son returns.a It is easy enough to find this metamorphosis delineated explicitly in later texts, as in this example from Chang Hsan-T's 'Mental Mirror':

The oral formula says: 'Use 8 oz. of lead, which is Yang, the Masculine, and the Tiger; and 9 oz. of quicksilver, which is Yin, the Feminine, and the Dragon. These two ingredients may metamorphose into a Lead which is also Yin. It corresponds to black, Water, and the number 1, and is Yin'.b

It is important to keep in mind that this concreteness closes many alternate avenues of opinion which the Tshan Thung Chhi leaves open, and which other alchemists later followed.

Thus summarised, the plot of the story incorporates the familiar separation of Yin and Yang out of the universal blend, which Wang Chhung1 had amply expressed sixty years before Wei Po-Yang. We have already discussed the marriage of the masculine and feminine forces, which engenders the phenomenal world, as it is described in the Huai Nan Tzu2 two centuries earlier still.c But here we see a new idea of great originality and religious depth: a double hierogamy, the first union resulting in complete undifferentiation and then complete differentiation, and the second union leading ultimately to the perfectly balanced and enduring organisation of the Elixir.d It would be tempting, though perhaps superficial, to point out a parallel with the basic spiritual process of Western alchemy, which unites the Stoic and Gnostic pioneers with the Christian magi of the Renaissance: the androgynous union as the Death of the Soul, and the perfect reconciliation of opposites in its resurrection.e

To return to our exploration of the alchemical level of meaning, in principle Yin and Yang may be brought to bear on the process in different ways and at different stages. First they can be represented by two reactants which are blended and sealed within the vessel, duality subsequently merging to constitute the Chaos. It is equally logical to apply Yin and Yang as cyclic phases which alternate in time, as the sealed vessel and its contents are subjected to the periodic variation of fire or some other treatment. The separation of the Chaos yields a 'pure' Yin and Yang, of supramundane perfection and thus no longer embodied in the ingredients. The new pair bears the same relation to the original substances as an immortal does to an ordinary mortal. Their polarities are reversed to signify the realisation of potential. Later alchemists and annotators spoke of the pair as Realised Lead (chen chhien1) and Realised Mercury (chen hung2,), or Realised Metal and Realised Water, and tended to think of them as actual substances, intermediates in the preparation of the Elixir.a Some, less interested in theoretical rigour than in results, simply took them as cover-names for ingredients.b Nevertheless, once the commentaries are set aside it is hard to see this second-stage Yin and Yang represented in the text as anything but functional categories.

The implication of many commentators that the original ingredients are lead and mercury is also far from unambiguously justified, even on the assumption that the book was written to make chemical sense. In an extremely arcane argument which introduces sons and mothers, white tigers and caerulean dragons, sun and moon, purely for their categorical associations, it is perfectly possible that the metal lead is merely meant to stand for the corresponding element Water. Let us examine the only mention of metallic lead in context.c There it is juxtaposed with the River Chariot (ho chh3) which in later alchemy regularly refers to mercury. It would be poor method, of course, to assume the same specific identification in the Tshan Thung Chhi:

Knowing the white, cleave to the black,

And the spirits will make their appearance.

The white is the essence of Metal,

The black, the fundament of Water.

Water is the pivot of the Tao;

Its number is called One.

At the inception of Yin and Yang

The Dark (hsan4 holds Yellow Sprouts in its mouth.

It is the Master of the Five Metals;

The River-chariot of the North.

Thus lead, black outside,

Holds in its bosom the floreate essence of Metal.d

The mention of Yellow Sprouts establishes that these verses are about the Yin and Yang which have emerged from the Chaos, not those which went into it; even in the extant commentaries, none of which is committed to a wai tan interpretation, we find the white and black of this passage equated with Realised Metal and Realised Water.a ' The Dark' and 'lead' are thus arcane ways of referring to the Black Son encountered a few pages back --- the Yang Water out of which the Yellow Sprouts (and thus, in the longer view, the Elixir) is prepared. The 'floreate essence of Metal' in the last line is an already familiar way of designating the element which precedes Metal in the Mutual Production order, namely Earth, to which the balanced Yellow Sprouts corresponds.b The emphasis on the black, on Water as the pivot of the cosmic process, is anything but rhetoric. Of the post-Chaos Yin-Yang pair, black Metal and white Water, it is the former which becomes pregnant with the Yellow Sprouts.c

The early alchemist who was more concerned with finding practical instructions in this gnomic text than with plumbing its philosophical meaning could take either of two basic directions. He could interpret it as concerned with some operation involving lead and mercury, perhaps in an amalgam.d But he might also understand the direct reference to lead as a mere illustrative example of how a substance can be one thing on the outside (or actually) and something else inside (or potentially). On this reading the text is concerned in a very theoretical way with the metamorphoses of mercury --- or cinnabar, which as we shall see amounts to the same thing --- alone. Many alchemical treatises which follow in one way or another the tradition of the Tshan Thung Chhi merely deal abstractly with the deeper meaning of its correspondences or images, or the further development of its hexagram phasing system; these require no commitment to particular amounts of specific minerals or metals. But any Taoist who aimed to carry out a two-element elixir process had to come to a concrete chemical understanding of the Tshan Thung Chhi, within the limits of his access to the alchemical and technological knowledge of his time.

The intellectual history of the various choices that were made will be one of the most interesting chapters in the history of Chinese alchemy when the time comes that it can be written. In the meantime a couple of examples of actual prototypal two-element processes must serve to illustrate the interplay of theory and practice in medieval alchemy. We are here concerned primarily with practical experimentation but in considering this one should always bear in mind how deep was the impress of the two element processes upon physiological alchemy (cf. pt. 5.). Indeed the physiological adepts were, one might say, on the whole more faithful to them than the chemical alchemists.

The oldest mercury-lead process for which we have clear directions is in the 'Yellow Emperor's Canon of the Nine-Vessel Spiritual Elixir'. One of the sources of Ko Hung's Pao Phu Tzu (Nei Phien), the 'Canon' may indeed antedate the Tshan Thung Chhi. This is the 'Canon's' recipe for 'Black-and-Yellow' (hsan huang1),a an intermediary in the preparation of the Nine Elixirs:b

Take ten pounds of quicksilver and twenty pounds of lead. Put them into an iron vessel, and make the fire underneath intense. The lead and the quicksilver will emit a floreate essence (ching hua). This floreate essence will be purple, or in some cases may resemble yellow gold in colour. With an iron spoon, join it together and collect it. Its name is 'Black and Yellow', and it is also named 'Yellow Essence' (huang ching), 'Yellow Sprouts' (huang ya4), and 'Yellow Weightless' (huang chhing5).c The medicine is then put inside a bamboo tube and steamed a hundred times. It is mixed with realgar and cinnabar solutions and volatilised.

The point of the final instructions becomes clearer subsequently, when the alchemist is directed to dissolve the Yellow Sprouts in a weak mineral acid mixture (hua chhih6),d recover it by evaporation, and subdue it in the fire (fu huo7)e by heating for 36 days in a heavily luted vessel. f Then it is sublimed for another 36 days over an intense fire to yield the first of the series of nine canonical elixirs, 'Elixir Flowers' (or 'Floreate Essence of Cinnabar', tan hua8).

One can only guess once again at the chemical identity of Black-and-Yellow. Its colour is not necessarily yellow. It is not necessarily a sublimate, for there is no direction that the vessel be closed. Even if sublimation was involved, the product may have included the non-volatile portion of the reactants, for the instruction to 'join' (chieh9) the product while collecting it could conceivably refer to bringing together a sublimate and a residue. All sorts of helpful details are available in the late supplementary explanations (cheh10), which, for instance, treat the 'joining' (rather implausibly) as the formation of the amalgam, but these reflect their own time and not that of the 'Canon'.g Chhen Kuo-Fu has suggested that the product was a mixture of yellow mercuric and lead oxides, which would be skimmed off the molten metal with the iron spoon.a This is possible, but oxides thus prepared would not form the good crystals which the name of the product implies. Also, the likelihood of obtaining the yellow form of HgO instead of the red under such loosely defined conditions could only be determined by experiment.

An alternative possibility is that there was no sublimate, and that as the mercury was allowed to evaporate from the amalgam in an open vessel a dendritic crystalline growth of metallic lead, containing mercury in solid solution, formed on the surface. A modern chemist might not pay much heed to this phenomenon, but the alchemist, as we have seen,b tended to be intensely aware of subtle changes in crystalline structure and play of colour. The Yellow Sprouts might thus be a more or less oxidised form of lead. This possibility would, however, be ruled out if, as the instructions indicate, the temperature is kept above the melting-point of lead.

This procedure, or one like it, may have exerted some influence on the formation of the highly idealised type-process of the Tshan Thung Chhi, but cannot totally explain its operational basis. The 'Yellow Emperor's' Yellow-and-Black formula skips the crucial Yin-Yang segregation in the second stage, proceeding directly to a union of the opposites in the yellow element Earth, which represents their balance. It was much more usual in medieval alchemy to work out processes involving the conversion of two initial ingredients into Realised Lead and Realised Mercury.

By the Sung at the latest there is no difficulty about identifying the paradigmatic substances. The eclectic compendium Chu Chia Shen Phin Tan Fa1 (Methods of the Various Schools for Magical Elixir Preparations), of the Sung or slightly later, includes one of the many explicit statements:

The Realised Dragon is the quicksilver within cinnabar. It is born when the solar seminal essence (jih ching2) of mature Yang pours down and its realised chhi enters the earth. It is named mercury. The Realised Tiger is the white silver within black lead. It is born when the lunar floreate essence of mature Yin pours down and its realised chhi enters the earth. It is styled lead.c

To put this more prosaically, mercury and silver are the essences of cinnabar and lead because the former develop from the latter within the earth under the influence of the masculine and feminine chhi respectively.d

The alchemist re-enacts this evolution when he distils or sublimes mercury from its sulphide, and extracts from crude lead the silver which often occurs in appreciable amounts as an impurity.a Therefore his products become the realised pair which serve as the basis of the Elixir. There is no Chaos in this practical interpretation; the Realised Lead and Realised Mercury are extracted directly and individually from the mundane ingredients. A quotation in the same compendium, from a book the title of which indicates that it was directly derived from the Tshan Thung Chhi,b connects the two perfected substances with Yellow Sprouts, after emphasising that additional ingredients, and miscellaneous processes of the kind so popular with pragmatically inclined alchemists, are to be avoided. Mng Yao-Fu wrote:c

In 'using lead and mercury to make the elixir', most people erroneously take black lead for Realised Lead, or think that quicksilverd is Realised Mercury, or take yellow floreate essence of lead (chhien huang hua,,1 or massicot, PbO) for Yellow Sprout.e Some even boil down brine, or recrystallise salt and collect the essence (i.e. the cubic crystals), combining it with quicksilver, cinnabar, 'lead furnace' (chhien lu2),f and litharge, or the Two Caerulean Minerals, the Three Yellow Minerals, the Five Metals, the Eight Minerals, and that sort of thing. But the use of the Five Metals, the Eight Minerals, or any (merely) material substance (i-chhieh yu chih3) is no perfect method. As Yin Chen-chn4 has said: 'The material is not fit to be taken as your companion; even if you succeed by force in such a preparation, when ingested it will cause damage.' It is imperative that gentlemen studying the Tao should take care.

The lead and mercury of which I mean to speak are universally kept secret in the alchemical classics. If one is not told directly, there is no way to understand what they are. 'Lead' is silver; that is to say, the silver is obtained from within lead. Therefore sagely silver is Realised Lead, which is born out of the stimulus of the essential chhi of the moon; it is the Water essence of mature Yin.a If a man be able to subdue it by art to form the Elixir, and ingest it, how could he not live forever? For Realised Lead one must definitely use silver; there can be no further doubt of this. . .. The mercury is quicksilver which has been obtained from cinnabar, with shape but without matter (i.e. a liquid). It imbibes the chhi of silver and congeals to form a body.b Thus it is styled Realised Mercury. It is born out of the essential chhi of the sun; it is the Realised Fire of mature Yang.... Among the myriad phenomenal things, only from lead and mercury can the Cyclically Transformed Elixir be made; all the rest have no place in the proper method. The lead has the chhi,c and the mercury is originally without shape. The lead is Yang inside and Yin outside, so it serves as the ground of the Elixir (tan ti1). It lends its chhi to engender the Yellow Sprouts. We know clearly that it is through getting the Realised chhi that the Divine Sprout is spontaneously born, after which the Realised Lead can be discarded.d Chhing Hsia Tzu2 has said:e 'Lead is the mother of the Sprout, and the Sprout is the son of lead.' Once this golden floreate essence has been obtained, the lead is discarded and no longer used. Mercury is originally without shape, like the state (chuang) of chhi. Its inborn nature is completely Yang, and its shape completely Yin (i.e. liquid). If a hundred hu4 is put into a reaction-vessel it can be boiled until the pot is dry; thus is its immateriality made manifest. If it is planted within the lead it absorbs the essential chhi of the lead and metamorphoses its material substance, after which it is called Yellow Sprouts. Surely this is a going over from immateriality to materiality (tsung wu erh yu Chih5).f

So lead, irradiated by the cosmic Yin pneuma, becomes silver. In this realised form it serves as the passive vessel which, impregnated by the Yang mercury, bears the Yellow Sprouts. The sexual imagery could hardly be more patent, but the Tshan Thung Chhi's reversal of polarity in the realised substances is obscured. Just as the mercury is Yang here because it comes from cinnabar, the silver is still spoken of as lead, for Mng Yao-Fu is thinking of the realised substances as functionally equivalent to their sources. The idea that a substance can be Yin outside (as shown, for instance, by its liquidity) and Yang inside (determined by its function or by a product of its metamorphosis) is one more application of the old idea that there is a potential Yang within every Yin and vice versa.g

The identification of the two realised substances does not settle the question of the choice of process, but rather opens it in new directions. Space permits only a single example of a process for preparing Yellow Sprouts from silver and mercury. The following procedure comes also from Chu Chia Shen Phin Tan Fa, which does not name its source or originator.

Take realised and balanced a 'mountain and marsh' silver, five ounces, and with an iron pestle beat it into a cake round as the shape of the sun. Then with the iron pestle beat it a thousand and more times until it is extremely firm, in order to prevent quicksilver from contaminating the Yellow Sprouts. Then put it in an earthenware tube.bPut three ounces of mercury inside, and then insert the silver cake into the earthenware tube, leaving a space of two inches or so between it and the mercury. Seat it firmly and lute all around with six-one lute as in the usual method, leaving no cracks. Above it put into place a vase of water to cover the mouth of the earthenware tube completely.c Below it use a fire made from three ounces of charcoal to heat gently and uninterruptedly day and night for seven days. When this time has passed, open it; the quicksilver will have gone up and the silver will have grown Yellow Sprouts, shaped like needles, countless in number and all of white silver. This is called the Yellow Sprouts of the First Cycle. Again add three ounces of quicksilver and apply a nourishing heat for seven days and nights. When this time is up open the vessel and examine its contents; they will resemble the colour of, young sprouts from a cut tree (nieh1). Again add three ounces of quicksilver and apply a nourishing heat for seven days. When this time has gone by, open the vessel and examine its contents. The colour will be deep brown. Do not gather anything as yet. (The crystals) will be connected (i-li), and will have grown as if what you had planted were sprouting. On (each) seventh day open the furnace and add three ounces of mercury until seven times seven days have passed. This will have been seven cycles, and a total of 21 ounces of mercury will have been added. The product is called Purple Gold Yellow Sprouts,... the Mother of the Cyclically Transformed Elixir. The quicksilver in the tube will still be inside the cover, and will be as red as vermilion. When it is collected there will be a couple of ounces. It is also named Son Become Mother (tzu pien Mu3)or Single-bodied (tu-thi4) Vermilion.d This medicine, after being mixed with milk, steamed, and ground fine as flour, is made into pellets with jujube paste. Every day take three such pills with wine on an empty stomach as a tonic for the lower region of vital heat (hsia yuan5),e and to quiet the heart, pacify the animus, and still (ting6) the anima. It also cures cold disorders of the wind group (fng lng7)and other diseases. Its efficacy is so manifold that it cannot be described fully here. One can gather 12 ounces or more of the Yellow Sprouts which grow on the face (of the silver). There will be three or four ounces or more of the refractory mercury left under the silver cake.f That it has not been transformed is because this mercury has absorbed a sufficiency of chhi. It may be collected in another container, for it has its own utility when incorporated in medicines. The quicksilver and the Yellow Sprouts can be used as the elixir matrix (tan mu,), so they are called the Mother of the Cyclically Transformed Elixir. Cinnabar is called 'animus of the sun'; quicksilver and Yellow Sprouts are called anima of the moon'. There is a mnemonic verse which goes:

'The sage can rival the skill of the Shaping Forces;

Raising his hand, he plucks the sun and moon from the sky

To put in his pot.. ..'a

Thus solid silver is attacked by the fumes of mercury in a sealed vessel over gentle heat for seven weeks (not, by alchemical standards, an imposingly long period). After formation of a massive beta phase, the silver gradually accumulates a needle-like crystalline growth called Yellow Sprouts. Surface oxidation of the silver 'sprouts' accounts for the gradual darkening of this colour. The formation of the red 'cinnabar' sublimate (HgO) inside the top of the vessel indicates that despite the careful closure and application of lute, the atmosphere within the vessel is oxidising, due to diffusion of air through the porous lute during the protracted firing.b Actually there is no vermilion inside the vessel. This alchemist was unable to distinguish red mercuric oxide from the sulphide. The process just described makes use of a partly physical and partly chemical transformation to advance the elixir process one step, and the succeeding steps from Yellow Sprouts to Cyclically Transformed Elixir have rationales of their own (which are not germane here, but which invite investigation). An even more elegant conception is to base the whole elixir process on a single reversible chemical reaction. One might call this approach cosmological rather than cosmogonical, since it provides a model of the successive dominion of Yin and Yang in the cycles of the universe rather than of the stages in their definition out of the primal Chaos. As Chhen Ta-Shih puts it, 'That cinnabar should come out of mercury and again be killed by mercury: this is the mystery within the mystery'.c

In the Yin-Yang Chiu Chuan Chhing Tzu-Chin Tien-Hua Huan Tan Cheh2(Secret of the Cyclically Transformed Elixir, Treated through Nine Yin-Yang Cycles to form Purple Gold and Projected to bring about Transformation),d one pound of mercury is distilled from three pounds of cinnabar in the presence of alum and salt, and then, in the second cycle,a heated with four ounces of sulphur to yield cinnabar. But the cycle does not merely repeat itself. It is essential that the product reach a higher state of perfection at each step. Thus in the third cycle mercury is obtained again, but subsequently it is 'congealed' by boiling with borax, malachite, salt and alum until it loses its volatility and becomes 'subdued' (fu1),bjust as an immortal sheds his perishable body. The remainder of the process grows so complex chemically that one easily loses sight of the simplicity of its conception. To the alchemical theoretician the progressively more metallic products of each cycle were still in principle mercuries and cinnabars.

Just as the passage of recurrent time perfected minerals within the earth, the repetition of the simple mercury-cinnabar cycle was supposed to lead to a gradual metamorphosis, the product of which would be the Elixir of Immortality. The Chinese image of a cycle (chuan2) does not, in fact, convey the idea very adequately; since the outcome, whether geological or alchemical, is a substance both perfect and immune to decay. There is a linear component. In other words, the conception of the Tao thus implied was not a two-dimensional circle but a helix. That both cinnabar and Elixir are called tan does not signify their identity (the two senses were distinct in alchemy and medicine and not generally confused). Still, this sharing of a name could serve to support and preserve the idea of a genetic relationship. Some alchemists persuaded themselves that the maturation of the Elixir could be brought about by simple repetition of a cyclical treatment. This not very empirical notion appears, for instance, in the +8th-century Ta-Tung Lien Chen Pao Ching, Chiu Huan Chin Tan Miao Cheh (Mysterious Teachings on the Ninefold Cyclically Transformed Gold Elixir, Supplementary to the Manual of the Making of the Perfected Treasure; a Ta-Tung Scripture)c of Chhen Shao-Wei,4 a sequel to the seven-chapter monograph on cinnabar quoted earlier.d

At one point in this treatise Chhen is discussing a basic cycle in which mercury and sulphur are first heated together in a covered and tightly luted porcelain vessel to form 'purple cinnabar' (tzu sha5),a mixture of the mercuric sulphides cinnabar and metacinnabarite. From this material, in the presence of lead and salt, mercury is recovered by sublimation (fei). As the process is repeated, each cinnabar develops greater powers, as indicated by the progressively exalted name. He wrote:

For instance, mercury used in the second recycling (in the chapter on Treasure Cinnabar)e is twice heated with sulphur to make it into cinnabar, and twice put into lead. The mercury is sublimed from (the intermediate cinnabar), added to the metal, and transformed into cinnabar. Mercury used in the third recycling (Effulgent Cinnabar) is thrice heated and sublimed before it is ready for use. Mercury used in the fourth recycling to produce Wondrous Cinnabar is sublimed and heated four times. Mercury used in the fifth recycling (Numinous Cinnabar) is sublimed and refined five times. Mercury used in the sixth recycling to produce Spiritual Cinnabar must correspondingly be heated and sublimed six times. Mercury used in the seventh recycling to produce Mysterious Realisation Crimson Cloud Cinnabar, just as in the previous cases, must be heated with sulphur seven times to form purple cinnabar, and lead used seven times, subliming to make it revert to Numinous Mercury. For each heating one uses three ozs. of sulphur; to reconvert it to mercury one uses one lb. of lead, heating and subliming cyclically, controlling the fire as specified earlier. In the course of these metamorphoses brought about by heating and subliming, (the Mercury) will maintain its inner essential chhi of Water and Fire. Once the numerical correspondences (ta shu1) of the Seven Chapters have been satisfied, the chhi of the three luminaries, Water, Fire and Metal, will naturally be united in the product. When the seminal essences meet, it is transformed and becomes numinous; it attains enlightenment and becomes Realised Mercury.a

To the experimentally minded this airy theorising cannot have been very satisfactory. In order to bring about progressive changes in practice, the purity of the mercury-cinnabar idea had to be compromised by the use of additional reagents. Indeed, the practical instructions given by Chhen himself in his seven chapters on Numinous Cinnabar use ancillary ingredients, but he does not regard this concession as in any way a failure. The supernumerary substances are, by implication, as external to the process as the ancillary drugs used in medicine to guide the 'effective' component of a prescription to the site of the illness. Even though the products of Chhen's cycles resembled mercury and cinnabar less and less, they still corresponded functionally.

Finally it is worth while to examine briefly a technique called 'irrigation' (chiao lin2 or simply chiao), widely used in later alchemy.b It involves an interesting variant of the mercury-cinnabar cycle, a sort of compromise between the methods already described. First cinnabar is made from mercury and sulphur, then treated with other minerals to fire-subdue it (fu huo3).The product is superior to mundane cinnabar because it is no longer volatile, and thus invulnerable to erosion by the fire. The novelty involves sealing it with mercury in a special mineral-lined sublimation chamber. This chamber, commonly called the Bubbling Spring Casing (yung chhan kuei4),is then heated for days or weeks. Even though no sulphur is added, what appears to be cinnabar forms at the top of the vessel. When more mercury is added to this product more 'cinnabar' is formed, grander after each cycle, its elixir qualities more patent. From the chemical point of view it seems most likely that the initial Subdued Cinnabar is inert. It is certainly no longer cinnabar after passing through most of the fire-subduing processes. The products of the successive cycles are not cinnabar but the very similar red mercuric oxide, formed by oxidation of the added mercury within a certain range of temperatures.c If the fire is too hot (above 500), the mercuric oxide will break down. Whether some property of the red sublimate varies from cycle to cycle to support the idea of its gradual perfection could only be determined in the laboratory, because of the complexity and variety of the procedures outlined by various alchemists.a

The use of reagents to embody Yin and Yang and re-enact their cosmic play was not enough. Yin and Yang are in their profoundest sense temporal phases. Creating a microcosm thus involved laboratory techniques for phasing time, and these we shall now examine.

(iii) Correspondences in duration

The postulate that one period of time can correspond to another has already made its appearance in an excerpt from Tan Lun Cheh Chih Hsin Ching. The year required by the alchemist to prepare his elixir was likened to the 4320-year term of the natural cyclically-transformed elixir which forms within the earth.b Let us now return to that book as it proceeds to explain the correspondence:

Query: 'How is it that one year can correspond to the constant period (shu1) required by Nature to make a cyclically-transformed elixir ?'

Reply: 'One day and night in the world above is one year in the human realm. Now among men one year is twelve months, Of 360 days. One month is thirty days, and one day is twelve hours,c so one month is 360 hours. In sum, a year is 4320 hours, which corresponds to (the time needed by) Nature to produce the natural cyclically-transformed elixir.'d

What would be illogical and pointless in terms of the time metric of modern science makes perfectly adequate sense once we realise that here numbers are not measures. They are being used rather to mark members of a series of things which are qualitatively related, in the mode which Granet used to call 'emblematic'. We might say 'numerological'. That a year contains 4320 double-hours proved that it is functionally equivalent to the natural period of maturation.

We find the same set of correlations in the Y Chhing Nei Shu:e

A month contains 360 hours. Calculating a correspondence on the basis of hours, a year of twelve months comes Out to 4320 hours. Taking one hour as equivalent to (tang2) one year, we calculate (that the year is equivalent to) 4320 years, and corresponds to the (periodof the) natural cyclically-transformed elixir. It is the conjugation of Yin and Yang, (the alternation of) winter cold and summer heat, which give rise to the correspondence.

Both of these books belong to the late tradition of dual cultivation, which made much use of time correspondences in phasing breath-control and even sexual techniques. The most elaborate scheme of time correspondences evolved in China is from an explicitly Interior Alchemy treatise, the Huan Tan Nei Hsiang Chin Yo Shih1 (Golden Key to the Physiological Aspects of the Regenerative Enchymoma), written by Phng Hsiao2 in the middle of the +10th century. This book develops in exhaustive detail the use of the hexagrams in the Tshan Thung Chhi to mark periods of time, and thus to provide a terminology for phasing the breath. Each hexagram is broken into its six constituent lines to make available a system of 384 fine divisions (360 in practice). Here is part of Phng's argument for a whole repertory of correspondences, with a year of cosmic process equated to a month, five days, 21/2 days, and one day:

Thus one year of 360 days contracts (tshu3) into a month of 360 hours. Further, if within a month of thirty days, or 360 hours, we assign one hexagram to each morning and evening, we can then transfer these sixty hexagrams, with their 360 lines, collapsing them (hsien4) into five days, or sixty hours, so that this period again corresponds to a month. Two and a half days is thirty hours, which becomes thirty days, and (thus) also corresponds to a month. Having determined a hexagram for each morning and evening (in a month), again we assign 60 hexagrams, which comes to 360 lines, so that this again corresponds to a year, or 360 days. Again, if within 21/2 days, or 30 hours, we separate out a period of 15 hours, this responds to (ying5) a phase (yung shih6)aof half a month, or 15 days. Again we take this half-month, from the first to the fifteenth day (inclusive), and collapse it into the 12 hours. To the period from the (beginning of the) second half of the first hour to (the end of the) first half of the sixth hour (i.e. midnight to noon) will be assigned 30 hexagrams, which comes to 180 lines. This period therefore corresponds to that from after the winter solstice to before the summer solstice, and responds to half a year, or 180 days.. . The 'Book of Changes' says that the Masculine Factor is 360.b When this number of days has passed the Yin will have arisen and the Yang gone down. For their cycle we use the year of the sidereal circuit (of the sun), the great constant of the myriad phenomena. Now one year comes Out to 360 days, or 4320 hours. If to the morning and evening of each day we assign two hexagrams (i.e. one to each), this will give a total of 60 hexagrams (per month). With six lines per hexagram, their entire number will amount to 360 lines.c

This is only a sample of the relevant passage, but it is enough to convey the approach and the flavour. There remains only to reproduce an annotation which appears in the text at the end of the part we have cited:

Again this appropriates (to1,)a a year. The 360 days, (as we see upon) calculating the number, appropriates the 4320 years that the balanced chhi spends within the Spirit Chamber (shen shih, i.e. the reaction-vessel, or the tan thien in physiological alchemy).

This is numerology of the most extravagant kind, with its breathtaking transitions, its round number of sixty hexagrams, and its rounded-off sidereal year of 360 days.b In the literature of External Alchemy strictly defined we encounter nothing so elaborate, but multiple correlations are involved even if their rationale remains tacit. Phng Hsiao's passage offers at least a hint as to why the normal quantum step in the fire-phasing cycles which we shall now examine was 2-1/2 days.

(iv) Fire phasing

Fire is the great agent that nourishes and matures the Elixir. Since the heat of the flame thus stands for the active forces, the re-creation of the cosmic process depends upon the binding of fire by time. The key to the success of the Work, the great test of laboratory skill and assiduity, particularly in the strain of alchemy concerned with ideal processes, was the technique of gradually increasing and decreasing the intensity of the fire (huo hou) by the use of precisely weighed increments of fuel.

This is the closest thing we find in the ancient world to a quantitative conception of degrees of temperature. A constant increase in the weight of fuel does not cause a constant increase in the temperature of the thing heated, but that was beside the point before the thermometer provided a standard for testing the correlation.c The idea of fire control, in the sense of using an amount of fuel specified by weight, is an ancient one in the chemical arts, because to each weight of fuel, burnt in the same way, corresponds a set temperature and a predictable product. What the alchemists did was to make this concept of huo hou dynamic, varying the weight of fuel and thus the temperature in a regular way. They were bringing their processes under the control of one of the few exact measuring instruments at their disposal, the balance.d

Intensity of heat, controlled in this necessarily indirect manner, was the time-dependent variable, and the overall profile could be as precisely cyclical as the seasonal changes to which it corresponded point by point:

The amounts of fuel to be weighed out are increased and decreased in cyclical progression according to the proper order of Yin and Yang. They must conform with the signs of the 'Book of Changes' and the 'Threefold Concordance',a tally with the four, eight, 24, and 72 seasonal divisions of the year, and agree with the implicit correspondences and pneumatic manifestations (chhi hou1) of the year, month, day and hourb -- all without a jot or tittle of divergence .c

To see the beginnings of the notion of heat phasing we must return to the Tshan Thung Chhi. It devotes much space to the association of the trigrams and hexagrams of the 'Book of Changes' with temporal phases. As we have seen in a previous volume in connection with the fundamental ideas of Chinese science, six of the trigrams were used to mark off segments of the lunation cycle, and twelve of the hexagrams were assigned to the twelve double-hours of the diurnal cycle.d The correspondences are simple and schematic, for the diagrams were used as a kind of graphic representation of the interplay of Yin and Yang in each phase. For instance, the diurnal cycle begins with Fu, Return, no. 24 in the normal order of the I Ching. Recalling that one reads the hexagrams from the bottom up, we see in the single solid line of Fu the rebirth of Yang beginning when midnight, the point of mature Yin (Khun, Receptor, no. 2 in the textual order) has passed. The third double-hour is represented by Thai, Upward Progress (no. 11), in which the Yang has advanced a step. Halfway around the cycle, the mature Yang phase (Chhien, Donator, no. 1), having had its dominion, is replaced at the seventh double-hour by Kou, Reaction (no. 44), as the Yin begins to reassert itself, and so on. The thesis behind this progression is simply that the six trigrams and twelve hexagrams, chosen to represent various stages in the endlessly repeated complementary growth and decay of Yin and Yang, can be assigned to the successive phases of any temporal cycle governed by the interplay of the opposites. In principle, the trigram and hexagram sequences are merely alternatives to the Five-elements phasing system, carrying rather different qualitative connotations.

There is no hint in the text of the Tshan Thung Chhi as to how these progressions are to be applied to laboratory operations. Looking at the text itself, all we can say for sure is that it is using the trigrams and hexagrams to divide the month and the day into qualitatively distinct phases which govern the alchemical process. The traditional view that this governance was exercised through alternate heating and cooling makes sense, but there is no evidence in the classic itself that the temperature of the furnace was graded through many steps, or controlled by weighing the fuel. Alchemists and commentators united in finding a heat phasing system in the passages on the mutational diagrams.a So, for that matter, did those who interpreted the book as respiratory or sexual alchemy, for they applied the huo hou concept to rhythmic cycles of breathing or sexual penetration.b These adepts would hardly have hesitated to read the sophisticated idea of heat phasing by weight into the ancient and obscure Tshan Thung Chhi if they had felt inclined to do so. They always found it natural to assume that the older a canonical book the deeper and more sophisticated were the ideas expressed in it. Generally, indeed, Taoists thought of the history of alchemy as a devolution rather than a progressive unfolding. They conceived the Art as something forced gradually downward by the inability of devotees to recover the austere and authentic revelations with which the tradition had begun, and by the credulity and bad faith of vulgar amateurs who contaminated the ancient doctrines.c

Ko Hung, early in the +4th century, maintained no more than the simple distinction between gentle and strong fires. The only securely datable early appearances of heat phasing techniques, shortly after his time, also take no notice of the Tshan Thung Chhi. These procedures, primitive by comparison with those popular from the Thang on, appear in the Mao Shan alchemical documents which passed through the hands of Thao Hung-Ching (c. + 500).d The treatise on the 'Lang-kan Gem Floreate Essence Elixir' does not use weighings of fuel but rather varies the distance of the vessel from the chaff fire below it in the stove (tsao1). The alchemist is cautioned to keep the fire moderate, but no constant weight of fuel is specified. First the fire is maintained one foot from the vessel for 20 days, and then at distances of six and four inches for twenty days each. The flame is advanced to one inch from the vessel for ten days, and is adjusted so as just to touch it for another ten. Finally the flame is allowed to half-envelop the vessel for twenty days. A hundred days have passed and the first-stage elixir is finished (Fig. 1517).a A similar scheme, with a more constant gradient applied over 120 days to a 28-ingredient elixir, is given in the 'Liquefied Gold Spiritual Chhi Canon.' Although this work is probably much later, its Mao Shan provenance is guaranteed by a chapter of revelations borrowed from Thao's Chen Kao.b A third example also comes from another of the very few texts clearly linked to the community of Mt. Mao, suggesting that heat phasing by distance was a traditional speciality of theirs.c The second of Thao's scriptures includes a method of the same kind, with a rather irregular gradient, but also a second technique called 'doubling the fire' (pei huo1), which ambiguously suggests quantitative regulation of fuel. Unfortunately the definition given is too opaque to allow us to judge whether this was a precursor of fuel weight regulation, or merely a sequence of timed stages (though the times given in the distance-phasing schema, unlike this one, do not increase exponentially).

As for the doubling of the fire, first heat for one day, then heat to respond to (ying1) two days. After that, heat to respond to four days, and then to respond to eight days, and then to sixteen days. The constants for every period (shih2) should accord with these.

The mature concept of phasing by fuel weight can be located among the handful of definitely pre-Sung works only in the writings of Chhen Shao-Wei,3 probably not long after +713. There is no reason to believe that Chhen was its originator, since he applies the concept in a matter-of-fact way in his 'Numinous Cinnabar' treatise. But he is responsible for one of its grandest variants, found in his second work, on the 'Nine-cycle Gold Elixir'. Both are worth describing fully.

Simple huo hou systems involve a linear increase in fuel weight as a function of time. In order to complete the cycle, the fuel is then decreased at the same rate until the starting weight is again reached.b This use of two lines of constant slope (a 'zig-zag function')c to approximate a sinusoidal function is one of the most characteristic patterns of Chinese science. We perceive it in early figures for variation of sun shadow length with the seasons, the variation in respiration over the course of the day in breath disciplines, the rise and fall of Yin and Yang in the Tshan Thung Chhi series of kua, and so on.

Here are Chhen Shao-Wei's instructions for linear phasing as they appear in his treatise on the 'Numinous Cinnabar Seven Times Cyclically Transformed'. We are not able to comment upon the chemical reactions involved because of the large number of ingredients and, in a couple of cases, the uncertainty of their identification. They include malachite, halite, Epsom salt, huang ying4 (probably a form of selenite) and hua shih5(which might be translated literally as 'fluxite', but we have been unable to determine what mineral it designates). In this particular process only the increase gradient appears, but the full cycle of increase and decrease will be reflected in a more elaborate system of Chhen's which we shall describe presently. Here he wrote:

Method of subduing by volatilisation. According to the supplementary instructions, five days is one phase (hou6); three phases is one chhi period..d In eight chhi periods, twenty-four phases, or 120 days, the subduing of the cinnabar is completed.e In the five days allotted for one phase of subduing by volatilisation, four days are governed by the kua Khan and one day by the kua Li. By 'the trigram Khan' is meant simmering in water for four days. By 'the trigram Li' is meant volatilisation over a Yang fire for one day. When the Ying fire is first laid, use seven ounces of charcoal, standing it on end below the reaction-vessel. One must see that there are seven ounces --- no more, no less-of well --- coked charcoal below the vessel at all times. After each cycle increase the amount of charcoal by one ounce and volatilise (the reactants again). Keep adding charcoal until after the fifth cycle, when suddenly a black chhi (= smoke) and a sublimate of mercury will come out (of the reactants). Collect the sublimate and again mix it with 1/20 ounce (pan chhien1) of previously fused halite (mineral NaCl) in a bowl. Grind lightly with a jade pestle until the mercury is completely absorbed. Then place the material in the reaction-vessel as before, and subdue by volatilisation using the Khan and Li trigrams until the twelfth cycle is completed. Add two ounces more of charcoal per cycle. Spread 1/8 ounce (pan fn2)of previously fused and powdered halite on top (before) closing (the vessel in the first place).a A total of two ounces or so of mercury sublimate will sublime. The void glow of the sublimate ... b The residue in the vessel should gradually turn brown or purple. Collect the sublimate and the mercury (?), mix with 1/10 ounce of halite, and grind thoroughly in a bowl. Put the reagents into the reaction-vessel and subdue by volatilisation, phasing the heat as before until the eighteenth cycle has been completed. Increase the charcoal by three ounces (per cycle). The colour of the residue should be scarlet. Through the twentieth cycle, add four ounces of charcoal (per cycle). Only a half-ounce or less of mercury sublimate will sublime. It will be solid and hard as bronze chips (phien3), yellowish-white and lustrous. It is also to be mixed with mineral salt and ground in a mortar. Put into the reaction-vessel and subdue by volatilisation through the twenty-fourth cycle. The phasing of the cinnabar will be complete, the subduing by fire ended. (The residue) will be blazing red, lustrous and handsome; the cinnabar has been subdued.

Thus one begins with a weighed amount of fuel and increases it at a rate which is kept constant for several cycles (Fig. 1518). The gradual increase in the increments is doubtless meant to accelerate the subduing of the cinnabar. The interaction of Yin and Yang is reinforced by alternately subjecting the cinnabar to wet and dry processes. The invocation of correspondences to the trigrams Khan and Li (immature Yin and Yang respectively)d suggests a debt to the Tshan Thung Chhi, which is confirmed by Chhen's habit of quoting apothegms from 'the Canon'.

The elaborate system in Chhen's second treatise (an elixir preparation for which the subdued Numinous Cinnabar was only a preliminary) not only models the ups and downs of cosmic cycles in the varying intensity of the fire, but by shifting successive cycles upward also manages to represent the gradual perfection of the Natural Cyclically Transformed Elixir in what we have no choice but to call a helical phasing scheme. Chhen begins by designing apparatus the shape and measurements of which are completely determined by cosmic correspondences. We shall study them in their place, taking note here only that the furnace of three tiers, standing for heaven, earth, and man (Fig. 1375), has in the central tier twelve doors which stand for the twelve double-hours of the day and night (chhen1, to which the twelve Jupiter Stations were also functionally equivalent).a The fire-phasing instructions are so extended and repetitive that we shall quote only their beginning, and represent the rest schematically (Table 118). Chhen says:

Formula for fire control. The formula for the use of fire also corresponds to Yin and Yang, the twenty-four chhi periods, and the 72 five-day phases. Five days make up one phase, three phases make up one chhi, and two chhi make up one month. Seventy-two phases thus correspond to twenty-four chhi, making twelve months. Twelve months make a round year, in which the cycle of Yin and Yang reaches completion and the elixir is finished.

As for the time of firing the furnace, the fire should be applied at a midnight which is also a sexagenary hour 1, on a sexagenary day 1 in the eleventh month. b Begin by firing through door A for five days, using 3 liang of charcoal. There must always be three liang of well-coked charcoal, neither more nor less, in the furnace. Then open door B and start the fire, firing for five days, using four liang of charcoal. Then open door C and start the fire, firing for five days, using five liang of charcoal. Then open door D and start the fire, firing for five days, using six liang of charcoal. Then open door E and start the fire, firing for five days, using seven liang of charcoal. Then open door F and start the fire, firing for five days, using eight liang ofcharcoal. These six doors are the Yang doors. The charcoal must be put in place vertically in order to bring the Yang chhi into play. Then proceed to door G and start the fire, firing for five days, using nine liang ofcharcoal. Then open door H and start the fire, firing for five days, using eight liang of charcoal. Then open door I and start the fire, firing for five days, using seven liang ofcharcoal. Then open door J and start the fire, firing for five days, using six liang of charcoal. Then open door K and start the fire, firing for five days, using five liang of charcoal. Then open door L and start the fire, firing for five days, using four liang of charcoal. The charcoal must be put in place horizontally through these six doors, in order to maintain the correspondence with the phased alternation of Yin and Yang.a The fire has thus been started through door A and rotated through the twelve doors, using a total of seventy-two liang ofcharcoal in the furnace, corresponding to the seventy two phases (in a year).

Thus four chhi, twelve phases, sixty days, and two months have passed; this is the first cycle.b

Table 118. Chhen Shao-Wei's helical fire-phasing system

(Based on TT884, pp. 12a-16b, and YCCC, ch. 68, pp. 19b-24a). See also fig. 3 in Sivin (14)

 
cycle
Yang doors
Yin doors
A
B
C
D
E
F
H
I
L
1
Wt. of charcoal, ozs. 

Total wt. used

Cosmic significance of wt.

3
5
6
8
9
8
7
5
4
72 pentadic phases (five-day periods) in a year 
2
Wt. of charcoal, ozs. 

Increase in total wt.

Cosmic significance of increase

5
7
8
9
10
 
9
8
7
6
5
4
12 nodal divisions of solar year (chieh
3
Wt. of charcoal, ozs. 

Increase in total wt.

Cosmic significance of increase

8
9
10
11
12
11
10
9
8
7
6
24 chhi divisions of solar- year (chhi
Wt. of charcoal, ozs 

.Increase in total wt .

Cosmic significance of increase

10 
11
12
13
14
13
12
11
10
9
8
(as in cycle 3) 
Wt. of charcoal, ozs. 

Increase in total wt.

Cosmic significance of increase 

11 
12 
13
14
15
16
15
14
13
12
11
10
 
(not stated) 24
6
Wt. of charcoal, ozs. 

Increase in total wt.

Cosmic significance of increase

17
18
19
20
21
22
21
20
19
18
17
16
(as in cycle 1) 72
 
In this remarkable intellectual construction we see each cycle divided into a Yang phase of increasing intensity and a Yin phase of decrease. Even the vertical and horizontal orientations of the pieces of charcoal are meant to induce the proper action of Yin and Yang upon the reactants. Each of the sixty-day heating cycles begins at a higher level than the one before and results in a more exalted product.

The modern scientist naturally thinks of the exaltation as caused by the upward shift in the successive time-temperature curves. But resonance rather than physical causality is what would have been in the alchemist's mind as explaining the formation of the Elixir. Its gradual perfection was induced, he would have said, by the correspondences he had designed into the process. The rise and fall of heat, which was only one of many correspondences, paralleled the rhythmic shaping force exerted by the cosmic organism upon the Natural Elixir maturing in the bowels of the earth.

The overall symmetry of the system is not seriously compromised by minor asymmetries introduced in the interest of stronger cosmic correlations. In the first cycle only, the weight of fuel is maximal at door G, even though the transition from Yang to Yin was supposed to come after door F. This Chhen found necessary in order to correlate the total weight of fuel in the first cycle with the 72 annual pentads. The exceptionally large increment in the sixth cycle can be explained in a similar way.

In Yang Tsai's 'Pronouncements of the Immortals on Cyclically Transformed Elixirs' (Huan Tan Chung Hsien Lun1) written in +1052, such minor anomalies are unnecessary. The helical phasing system described there has attained perfect structural symmetry and regularity at the cost of a few correspondences. The alchemist is directed to choose the proper day and compass orientation, and then to build a furnace platform of pounded earth in three layers. The furnace is octagonal, with eight doors. Above the doors is a cover on which is placed the reaction-vessel, with a second vessel for cooling water resting above it. The basic cycle is an ideal month Of 30 days, divided into six phases (hou2), each subdivided into two parts:

First phase, first day: corresponding weight of fuel (chih fu),1 ounce. After 21/2 days (30 hours) increase to 2 ounces (until) 60 hours (have elapsed). Second phase, 3 ounces. After 21/2 days (30 hours) increase to 4 ounces (until) 60 hours (have elapsed) . . .

The total configuration over nine months is apparent from Table 119.

Table 119 Yang Tsai's helical fire-phasing system

(Based on TT230, pp. 16b-17b)
 

 
 
Cycle
Fuel wt. per half-pentad, ozs.
 
 
 
1A
1B
2A
2B
3A
3B
4A
4B
5A
5B
6A
6B
 
 
1
1
2
3
4
5
6
6
5
4
3
2
1
 
 
2
2
3
4
5
6
7
7
6
5
4
3
2
 
 
3
3
4
5
6
7
8
7
6
5
4
3
 
 
4
4
5
6
7
8
9
9
8
7
6
5
4
 
 
5
5
6
7
8
9
10
10
9
8
7
6
5
 
 
6
6
7
8
9
10
11
11
10
9
8
7
6
 
 
7
7
8
9
io
11
12
12
11
10
9
8
7
 
 
8
8
9
10
11
12
13
13
12
11
10
9
8
 
 
9
9
10
11
12
13
14
14
13
12
11
10
9
 
 
Perhaps the last significant conceptual improvement in 'fire-times' (huo hou1) was two-variable phasing, in which the weight of both fuel and cooling water fluctuate to represent the dynamic interrelations of Yang and Yin. This we find in the 'Confidential Instructions on the Manual of the Heaven-Piercing Golden Flower Elixir' (Chin Hua Chhung Pi Tan Ching Pi Chih2), of Phng Ssu & Mng Hs,4 a 'dual cultivation' treatise of +1225 which seems to be concerned with laboratory processes, albeit in a rather abstract way.a Mng outlines a symmetrical 30-day schedule to be used with sealed vessels incorporating water reservoirs and cooling tubes of various designs.b The cycle begins at the new moon (the maximal Yin phase) with 1 ounce of charcoal and 14 ounces of water. Each day the fuel weight is increased by 1 ounce and that of the water decreased by the same amount, until on the 14th day the proportions are reversed. The weights remain constant for 3 days, doubtless to allow leeway for the precise moment of the full moon, the point of maximal energy. Then from the 17th to the 29th the weight of fuel is decreased, and that of water increased, so that the initial weights are in force for a total of 3 days (the 29th, 30th, and 1st) around the time of the new moon. The combined weight of fuel and water is always the same, 15 ounces, and this is explained as the sum of the numbers 6 and 9, which are used for the Greater (or mature) Yin and the Greater (or mature) Yang in the 'Book of Changes' and the Tshan Thung Chhi. Again, if for the moment we think of Yin and Yang as two sinusoidal functions out of phase by 180 (say curves representing the sine and cosine of /2), we see them approximated here by two interdependent zig-zag functions (see Figure 1519).

From documents of the kind just cited one can see that number and measure were being used in a way only indirectly related to their employment in modern science. The use of measurement to control the time-temperature profile of, say, an organic synthesis is familiar enough today. In ancient and medieval alchemy the specification of quantities by which the process is to be controlled derived, by way of a theory, from prior observations and measurements, just as it does in contemporary chemistry. Its elaborate cosmic phasing aside, the alchemical process did have to transform one substance into another, and so at some point certain physical and chemical conditions had to be satisfied. It is obvious enough that alchemy and chemistry differ in the number and vagueness of the links between the control specifications and the theory, and those between the theory and the original observations. But if we were to stop there we should remain unable to account for the remarkable specificity, the over-determination, of the ancient formulas. The next step, therefore, is to realise that although in both alchemy and chemistry prior experience has to be shaped by a theory to evolve a new process, modern chemical theories are essentially mathematical while alchemical theories were numerological. The ancient adepts used numbers freely in a way which Granet in his classical study called 'emblematic' -- ranking phenomena and things in a qualitative order which would also reflect their special qualitative values.a The numerals one to five could be used as strict equivalents for the Five Elements, and thus for the Five Spatial Orientations, Five Sapidities, Five Emotions, and so on.b Nine called up in the mind of the alchemist all the attributes and associations of the Greater or mature Yang, including such subtle notions as that of the inevitable inception of decay once the bloom of maturity is past. But Chhen Shao-Wei's use of a three-tiered furnace was not meant merely to symbolise, or allude poetically to, the classical triad of Heaven, Earth, and Man. It aimed actually to bring to bear on the process the synthetic unity which this triad embodied. The twelve firing doors (the basis of Chhen's combustion cycle) were placed in the middle tier because that tier had precisely the same significance within the system of the furnace as man had in his capacity as mediator between heaven and earth (Yang and Yin) within the cosmic Tao. The significance of a given number came from its order in a sequence, and that sequence as an organic whole derived its qualitative meaning from correspondences with other sequences. For instance, if 1 and 2 stood for primal Yin and Yang, 3, as their sum, stood not only for the synthesis which reconciled the antitheses but for the sentience of man which was capable of that synthesis, in another context, which energised another sequence, 3 might serve a different and even logically contradictory function. For instance, in the five-elements order 3, like 8, stood for the creative phase Wood, and carried all the immature Yang associations of East, Spring, and so on. It could be equated with, or used to mark, other things which carried the same associations, but that was no static classification into species. The Five Elements were functional phases of a dynamic cycle or configuration, not set qualities, and they could only be defined individually by relation to the total system. The Aristotelian approach, based on a rigidly structured biological taxonomy in which genera and species were individually defined, was not present here. One can find a few static definitions, but the only ones which had any standing were archaic. Later Chinese taxonomy might be considered a kind of 'degenerate case' of functional and dynamic systems of correspondences,b just as efficient causation occurs in Chinese physics as a degenerate case of resonance interaction. Students of ancient Chinese biological ideas have worked so hard at digging out implicit taxonomies that they have had no time left to explain why explicit taxonomies were so unimportant.c Despite the appeal of static notions of the Five Elements and other phase-sequences to Western students of Chinese philosophy, in so far as such conceptions are specific they are inapplicable, and indeed their role in the historical development of the five-elements theory and its applications was negligible.

Now a fire-phasing system is also a dynamic sequence of numbers used to induce cyclic behaviour in a chemical process. The uniqueness of these particular systems is due, at first glance, to the fact that they were applied quantitatively as measures. But that can hardly be the whole story so long as Mng Hs feels free to define the constant total of fuel and water weights in his two-variable phasing system as the sum of the emblematic I Ching numbers 6 and 9; so we must look further. Another point which should not be ignored is that the established qualitative associations of individual numbers in a fire-phasing system need not come into play, though indeed latent. Some of these correspondences may be activated, as in Chhen Shao-Wei's use of the total weights of fuel per cycle to stand for the various divisions of the year. A third element is that the fire-phasing systems were ad hoc. If the usual correlations of individual numbers could be ignored, the alchemist was free to design his own system instead of accepting or building on an old one. He would have no such freedom if he were trying to explain some aspect of his process with a theory made up of five coordinate concepts, for he would be unable to avoid the customary five-element associations.

Once all these characteristics are put together, the contrast between a classical emblematic system such as the Five Elements and a fire-phasing system becomes much clearer if somewhat less absolute. To understand either, one has to be aware of two related kinds of emblematic significance. One is the mode of action or behaviour implied by the whole system seen as a sequence of phases. This significance Granet called 'hierarchical', for he thought of it as the construction of a hierarchy (in the case of the elements, a five-valued one) and the ranking of phenomena within it.a We prefer to use some such phrase as 'phase-sequential', in order to emphasise that the ranking was neither static, absolute, nor vertical, and that time was one of its most basic parameters. Spatial configurations were no less characteristic than temporal sequences, as we shall see; but in place of a cycle, what they imply is a continuum.c The second kind of significance is determined by the qualitative associations of individual elements. These associations could be applied to phenomena on a one-to-one basis, even though they were functional and originally derived from the role of the element in the system. This is Granet's 'formal function' (fonction protocolaire).d We recognise it in the application of the number 5 to invoke the cosmic associations of Earth, which within the five-element system represents the phase of balance, neutrality, or undifferentiation. In the classical systems, Yin-Yang, trigrams and hexagrams and the Five Elements, there is somewhat greater emphasis on the formal function in most theoretical applications, although both functions are generally in evidence and one tends rather clearly to imply the other. The ubiquity of qualitative associations sets a limit to the truly mensurational applicability of these systems. A fire-phasing system, on the other hand, is an ad hoc construction in which the formal function does not come into play unless the alchemist chooses in certain cases to assign cosmic significances. We have seen that such choices were responsible for the anomalies in Chhen Shao-Wei's schema, and that Yang Tsai achieved much greater simplicity without them. With a minimum of individual qualitative correlations, there is little in a fire-phasing system to make gravimetric applications confusing. The significance of such a system is almost completely concentrated in the sequential profile of its cycle.

Still, the metaphysical basis of a fire-phasing system was in no way different from that of, say, the Five Elements. Quantitative fire and heat control was a remarkable first step in the use of quantity to unite theory and practice, but somehow it did not carry within it the implication of further steps in the direction of mathematised science, and historically it was also the last stage of this kind in Chinese proto-science as such.f Nevertheless it was known and practised later in both Arabic and European alchemy, as Ben Jonson's 'Alchemist' may by itself sufficiently prove.

Mammon: Lungs, I will manumit thee, from the Furnace;

I will restore thee thy complexion, Puffe,

Lost in the Embers; and repair this Brain

Hurt wi' the Fume, o' the Metals.

Face: I have blown, Sir,

Hard for your Worship, thrown by many a Coal

When 'twas not Beech, weigh'd those I put in, just

To keep your heat still even; These Bleard-eyes

Have wak'd, to read your several Colours, Sir,

Of the pale Citron, the green Lyon, the Crow,

The Peacock's Tail, the plumed Swan....

(5) COSMIC CORRESPONDENCES EMBODIED IN APPARATUS

The dearth of individual correspondences in fire-phasing did not hinder the alchemist much, for he had many other means at his disposal for bringing cosmic correspondences to bear on his process. As we have already looked at the choice of reagents in this light,a we can now proceed to consider cosmic correspondences in the alchemist's equipment. These were established by a variety of related means, including spatial orientations, analogical shapes, and numerologically defined dimensions of furnaces and reaction-vessels. Here we shall find many more data on the formal significance of measurements in Chinese alchemy.

Although the Tshan Thung Chhi is full of microcosmic correspondences, these are not developed much numerically. There is a chapter which has circulated separately under the title 'Song of the Reaction-Vessel' (Ting Chhi Ko1) and may indeed be later than the rest, on the canonical dimensions of the reaction-vessel;

Round three five,

Inch and a tenth,

Mouth four eight,

Two inch lips ... lb

But the significance of these numbers, whatever it may be, remains entirely implicit. Nor is there anything of this kind in the 'Yellow Emperor's Nine-Cauldron Spiritual Elixir Canon' (late Han?), nor in the Inner Chapters of the Pao Phu Tzu book (c.+320). In the early Mao Shan documents (c. +5oo at the latest) there are lucid instructions for centering the furnace in a space oriented by the cardinal points. A thatched elaboratory has to be built facing south. The furnace is set up precisely at its centre, and the reaction-vessel placed centrally within it.c But again the significance of this centering is not pointed out.

For explicit cosmic correlations we must return to the furnace and vessel within which Chhen Shao-Wei, probably in the + 8th century, phased the firing of his 'Ninefold Cyclically Transformed Gold Elixir'. In TT884 we read:

The furnace and reaction-vessel for the Great Elixir must also be made in such a way as to incorporate (ho2) heaven, earth, and man (the Three Powers), and the Five Spirits (wu shen = the Five Elements). The vessel must be made from 24 ounces of gold from the seventh recycling, in order to respond to the 24 chhi periods. Sixteen ounces of it is cast into a round (or, spherical) vessel with a capacity of nine liquid ounces (ko2); and eight ounces into a cover.b The use of 16 ounces to make the vessel incorporates the number of (ounces in) a pound. The capacity of nine ounces embodies the Three Origins (san yuan3 = the Three Powers) and the maximal Yang (number, 9). The 8 ounces of the lid responds to the Eight Nodes (the beginnings and midpoints of the four seasons). The vessel and lid are thus 24, incorporating these great constants. The vessel must be emplaced according to the Eight Trigrams and the Twelve Spirits (shih-erh shen, = the 12 hours) before the mixed Purple Gold Granules are placed in it. It is tightly closed and luted so that no Yang chhi (i.e., vapour) can escape, and is put into the furnace.

Formula for building the furnace. On a 45th sexagesimal day falling in a 41st sexagesimal decade,b in a place oriented toward the southwest and the ninth duodenary branch,c take clean earth and begin by building it up to make a platform eight inches high and two feet four inches broad. On the platform make a furnace 2 feet 4 inches high, in three levels, with free access of chhi from bottom to top. The upper level, 9 inches high, is Heaven. Make nine openings in it, to correspond to the nine stars (of the old Great Bear). The middle level, 1 foot high, is Man. Make 12 doors, which stand for the twelve hours of the day. A fan (shan3) must be installed in each. The lower level, 5 inches high, is Earth. Open 9 passages,which correspond to the Winds of the Eight Directions. The interior of the furnace must be 1 foot 2 inches in diameter.

These correlations are all paradigms of the use of number to call up qualitative associations. Their referents are rather scattered --- from the balance to the Great Bear --- but images patently cyclical and temporal are in the majority. All of these influences operate upon the furnace and vessel, and contribute to the formation of the Elixir. Numerological correspondences of this sort become common in later alchemy, and can even be found in physiological alchemy and magic.f

(i) Arrangements for microcosmic circulation

In one of the basic collections on 'irrigation' processes, the Chhien Hung Chia Kng Chih Pao Chi Chhng6 (Complete Compendium on the Lead-Mercury A-G Perfected Treasure),g incorporating generally Sung or later materials,h the effect theoretically induced within the reaction-vessel by bringing the cosmic forces to bear is clearly visualised.

Upper and lower reaction-vessels (ting1).The body has a circumference of 12 inches to respond to the 12 months, and is 8 inches long (i.e., high) to correspond with the Eight Nodes. The width of the body of the upper vessel is twice that of the lower vessel, in order to bring to bear the 24 chhi. The upper vessel is heaven, and the lower earth. In the upper there is ascension, so it is Yang; in the lower there is descent, so it is Yin. The Yin chhi wants to ascend, and the Yang chhi wants to descend. This responds to the formative power of Yin and Yang. The length and breadth must be neither larger nor smaller than (the dimensions given). If larger, the chhi willdisperse instead of collecting; if smaller, it will be forced to overflow. Thus (in neither case) can it be made to rise and fall equitably and harmoniously.

The motion described here is unquestionably a circulation, although explained rather vaguely, apparently in terms of the automatic reversion of Yin and Yang once they have reached their limits. The author does not seem to be very concerned about the contradiction of a Yin chhi wanting to ascend when it is defined by its tendency to descend. Perhaps he would have explained such a movement by the urge towards creative union.

This apparent discrepancy is handled more overtly in a late text which envisions, at least for meditative purposes, a vessel with cooling water above and fire below. The explanation may not be chemical, but it is certainly physical. The writer says:

Now for the method of preparing the Elixir.d The reaction-vessel has three legs in order to respond to the Three Powers. The two containers, upper and lower, correspond to the Two Instrumentalities (earth and heaven). The legs are 4 inches high to respond to the four seasons. The furnace is 8 inches deep in order to match the Eight Nodes. In the lower part 8 doors are opened to admit the Winds of the Eight Directions. The charcoal is apportioned in 24 pounds in order to arouse the 24 chhi. Yin and Yang are inverted, with Water and Fire meeting and struggling. Above is Water, responding to the pure chhi of Heaven. Below is Fire, receiving the turbid chhi of Earth. The celestial chhi descends, while the terrestrial leaps upward: Heaven and Earth meeting in mutual stimulus, the primal pneumata (yin yn) conjugating. They come together to form the Two chhi (Yin and Yang), which, once joined, blend to become one. (The product) is named the Great Elixir of the Two chhi, and its marvellous function depends upon these (correspondences). In a dozen hours (i.e. a day) the process asserts a power which it takes the Shaping Forces a thousand years to exert.

If the task is to explain a cyclical motion within the vessel, the crux will lie in accounting for the half of the motion which is contrary to the customary sense of Yin and Yang. This tractate derives the reverse movement from the configuration of the apparatus, which from the viewpoint of Yin-Yang theory can be considered inverted, since the fire (Yang) is below and the water (Yin) is above.a Since the two chhi are out of their proper static (or rather configurational) orientations, they must move to regain them.b What we might for the moment visualise as the kinetic energy of their collision, responsible for the exalted level of organisation of the Elixir, is accounted for.

But if the circulation is divided into two temporally distinct halves, it becomes nothing more nor less than an oscillatory cycle. This we find a bit further on in the Chhien Hung Chia Kng Chih Pao Chi Chhng (TT912), as the 'four seasons' heating technique (ssu shih huo1).The sealed vessel is moved back and forth each day between a 'Yang furnace' (Yang lu2), which is heated from below, and a 'Yin furnace' (Yin lu3), which has a container of water below it and is heated from above, in order to set up an oscillatory motion within the vessel (Fig. 1520). The text runs:

Use 'four seasons' heating for 7 days and nights, in order to develop the great power (kung4) (of the Elixir). Water, Fire, and the reactants: these respond to the Three Powers, heaven, earth, and man.c In this 'four seasons' heating the fire of spring should be mild, that of summer intense, that of autumn warm, and that of winter weak. For this method, select the first double-hour (11 p.m.- 1 a.m.) of the first day of a duodenary cycle, place the vessel on its fitted three-legged support, and put it into the Yang furnace. Under the belly of the vessel pile (charcoal), extending it 3/4 inch (or of the way, san fn 5) up the body of the vessel. Use a gentle fire so that the contents conjugate for 1-1/2 hours. Next increase the fire, piling the charcoal close to the vessel up to half its height for 11/2 hours. Then make the fire intense with a full charge of charcoal, building it 3/5 of the way up the body of the vessel. After 1-1/2 hours gradually decrease the fire. Use a weak fire, so that the contents of the vessel will be warm and the warm chhi remains controlled for l-1/2 hours until the sixth double-hour (11 a.m.-1 p.m.). Withdraw the vessel and start the Yin furnace, placing the belly of the vessel over the mouth of the small pot (of water which has been buried in the earth at the bottom of the furnace). Use ashes to bury the body of the vessel to 3/5 of its height. Then with a cloth wipe any water off the upper vessel. After it is dry put the fitted fire-pan (ting phan) in place, and in it put one pound of burning fuel. This is called 'inserting the spring fire', which causes the mercury inside the vessel to descend slowly for 1-1/2 hours. Only then may the charcoal be piled up above the ash layer and packed against the vessel as (the fire) is gradually increased for 1-1/2 hours. Finally the full charge of burning fuel is packed about the vessel from the fire-pan to the ash layer. This gives a strong combustion, and the flame bums intensely for 1-1/2 hours. Then gradually remove the fire above the vessel and heat weakly from below,a so that the Medicine within the vessel is kept at a controlled warm heat for l1/2 hours until midnight, the first double-hour of the day. At that time the vessel is again shifted into the Yang furnace, and as before (the Medicine) is made to go through a cycle of ascent and descent in the chi chi and wei chi furnaces.b After 7 days and nights the power of the fire will have brought the process to completion.

Thus although there are four major phases, which correspond to the four seasons beginning with Spring, the transitions are not at all abrupt. The phasing is moderated and made gradual by finer variations of both fire intensity and area of vessel in contact with the burning fuel, but fuel weights are not prescribed. This particular process does not happen to maintain the symmetry of water and fire throughout the cycle, but depends on fire alone during the Yang phase. Since the 'Yang furnace' (which had no water vessel and was usually heated from all sides) and the 'wei chi furnace' (with fire above and water below) both induced the Yang mode of action within the vessel, the alchemist was constrained in choosing between them only by his taste for abstract symmetries.

In another compendium of 'irrigation' methods, the Kng Tao Chi4 (Collection of Procedures of the Golden Art),e written some time after +1144, there is a 'Bubbling -Spring Perpetual-Life Casing' method (yung chhan chhang shng kuei5)in which water below and fire above' is alternated with 'fire below and water above' for 21/2 days each. The fuel is increased a day at a time from 1 ounce to 16, and then decreased to 1 ounce again. We are informed that 'this is the Bubbling-Spring fire phasing system (yung chhan huo hou1) concealed within Master Wei (Po-yang's) Tshan Thung (Chhi). Here as in the earlier examples, the two-reactant system, the heat phasing, and the correspondences of the apparatus are interdependent.

By good fortune we are not limited to verbal descriptions of the two types of firewater apparatus. In the seventh cycle of the formula for the 'Nine-Cycle Potable Gold Great Cyclically Transformed Elixir' (Chiu Chuan Chin I Ta Huan Tan) in the Chin Hua Chhung Pi Tan Ching Pi Chih (Confidential Instructions on the Manual of the Heaven-Piercing Golden Flower Elixir) of +1225, detailed instructions are given for heating the reactants,b sealed within a golden 'chaos vessel', first with 'water below and fire above' for two months, then with 'fire below and water above' for one month.c Although the weight of fuel remains constant within each of the two phases in this particular process, a single apparatus is converted from one function to another by substituting parts (Fig. 1448). Although, as has been pointed out above (p. 73), the 'water below and fire above' apparatus somewhat resembles a still with two sidetubes, the text indicates that the water-container with its two arms is not open to the reactants, and that they remain sealed within the egg-shaped reaction-vessel. The arms could thus serve only to lead water into the reservoir and to let steam escape. It is not unreasonable to suppose, however, that this design was prompted by knowledge of water-cooled stills. In practice its effect would have been only to lower slightly the temperature in the vessel. On the other hand, the water reservoir in the 'fire below and water above' apparatus resembles a funnel and protrudes from the condenser head into the reaction-vessel, but its lower end is closed.d

With this in mind we are able to go back another 50 years in time and recognise the same alternation in two illustrations in the Tan Fang Hs Chih4 (Chymical Elaboratory Practice) of +1163.e The apparatus on the left in Fig. 1446, with the reaction-vessel and furnace above and the water reservoir with side-arms below, is labelled 'wei chi furnace', while that on the right, with its water reservoir above, is marked 'chi chi furnace', as in the Four Seasons heating technique which we have just examined.f In all these texts, as in others of less certain date and import,g we may be seeing landmarks in the history of distillation transmuted into instruments of microscosmic induction. They and their background will require much further study.

(ii) Spatially oriented systems

The paramount importance of time in alchemical processes has led us to give much emphasis to the significance of phased cycles. But spatial orientation was also regularly used by some alchemists in their models of the Tao. Since the Tao is the organic totality of space and time, it cannot be apprehended in its wholeness except by a mystical intuition which not every Taoist could hope to summon up at will. The adept who wanted to find his way to enlightenment through knowledge and contemplation used abstract correspondences and partial visualisations. He could concentrate on the temporal aspect of the Tao, turning his attention to the cyclical behaviour of the cosmos or one of its sub-systems. Another alternative open to him was to hold time constant, apprehending the organismic pattern as reflected in a momentary configuration. In other words, as we have suggested in passing a few pages earlier, a configuration of several organically related elements plays the same role in spatial correspondences as a cycle (a special time configuration) plays in temporal correlations. The two modes are interdependent and functionally interchangeable. As the great systematiser of five-element correspondences, Tung Chung-Shu, put it about -135, 'Thus Wood has its place in the east and has authority over the chhi of spring. Fire has its place in the south, and has authority over the chhi of summer', and so on.a What held spatial east and temporal spring in their equation was the sun's annual motion, of which they both represented a quarter.b Each of the temporal sub-systems based on the year (the 72 pentadic phases, 24 chhi periods, 12 months, 8 nodes) which we have seen invoked above had similar correspondences -- to each chhi belonged 1/24 of the sun's annual path,c and so on -- which the alchemist could make explicit if he wished.

From the birth of alchemy to its demise, the Five Elements were used to characterise locations throughout space, dividing it into the four cardinal directions and a centre at which opposite modes were neutralised and harmonised. The Five Elements categorised places and at the same time organised them into a system.d

Examples of spatial orientation have already appeared in several of the documents above.e Alchemical specifications of location were so tied conceptually to temporal correspondences that they are practically never found in isolation. One of the very few exceptions is particularly interesting because it is early, its context is medical, and it is concerned implicitly but unmistakably with emplacing the reactants within the reaction-vessel in such a way as to create a microcosmic configuration. This is not an alchemical elixir but a 'Panaceal Sublimed Yellow Powder' (kuang chi fei huang san1), prescribed for sores and ulcerations in one of the great medieval compendia of medical prescriptions, Wang Thao's Wai Thai Pi Yao (Important Medical Formulae and Prescriptions revealed by a provincial governor) of +752. That its ultimate source was alchemical is more than likely. Yoshida Mitsukuni has pointed outa, similarities to a recipe in the Thai-Chhing Shih Pi Chi4(Records of the Rock Chamber; a Thai-Chhing Scripture -- before +806), a practical collection of alchemical and iatrochemical formulae with Mao Shan associations. What Wang Thao says is as follows:

Take: Laminar malachite (tshng chhing) Magnetite (tzhu shih)

Orpiment (tzhu huang) Realgar (hsiung huang)

Fibrous arsenolite (pai y shih) Cinnabar (tan sha),

one ounce of each. Grind the above six ingredients to fine powders, and emplace them according to the colour correspondences of the directions: laminar malachite to the east, cinnabar to the south, white arsenolite to the west, magnetite to the north, and realgar in the central position. Two earthenware urns (wa wng5) are coated inside with yellow clay two or three times in order to make (a lining) five- or six-tenths of an inch thick. Then place powdered orpiment in the bottom. Combine and sieveb the other ingredients and put them on top, afterwards laying (the other) half of the orpiment on top as a cover. Spread clay closely on the joint (between the two vessels, the mouths of which are now joined); and do not allow any of the chhi to leak out.c

Here the five-element correspondences are organised conventionally

 
Substance
Colour
Direction
Element
 
Laminar malachite
caerulean
east
Wood
 
Cinnabar
red
south
Fire
 
Arsenolite
white
west
Metal
 
Magnetite
black
north
Water
 
Realgar
yellow
centre
Earth
 
 
This microcosm transcends the two-dimensionality of the five-element concept by adding a higher and a lower plane. Orpiment serves for both, its yellow colour indicating the bond of the up and the down to the centre, and thus their neutrality in the scheme. If the originator of this process had wanted to bring the Yin-Yang correlations of 'up' and 'down' to bear, he would have used two different substances to represent them.a

Another preparation (unfortunately more confused) given by Wang Thao employs a vertical stack of five reactants in addition to the five which are horizontally emplaced:

Take cinnabar and place it to the south in an earthenware basin (wa phin1). Orpiment is placed in the centre, magnetite to the north, laminar malachite to the east, and quartz (pai shih ying)to the west, with arsenolite above, talc (shih kao3) next in order, and stalactite (chung ju4) on the bottom. Realgar is the cover, and muscovite mica (yn mu5) is spread thinly beneath. (Use) 2 ozs. of each, first pounding and sifting into the basin. Cover it with another basin....

The wording is not exact enough to determine where the horizontal and vertical axes intersected, or even the precise order of the vertical ingredients. Reasoning from the way formulae are usually worded, we might suggest the most probable order (from the top down) to be realgar, arsenolite, calcite, stalactite, and muscovite. All are white except the realgar, which the Chinese associated closely with orpiment (as does modern chemistry), and which took the central place in the other configuration.

If we trace the idea of alchemical colour associations as far back as we can, we find them being applied along with other cosmic associations not to the contents of the reaction-vessel but to the lower of the three regions of vital heat ('Fields of Cinnabar', tan thien6) in physiological alchemy.c The Lao Tzu Chung Ching7(The Median Canon of Lao Tzu) is a pre-Thang treatise on the physiological microcosm and its gods which maintains the pre-Mao-Shan tradition (based on a prone meditation position) with respect to the location of the tan thien.dBefore noting that the divinity resident in the tan thien is named Confucius, it states that

the interior of the tan thien is scarlet in the centre, caerulean on the left, yellow on the right, white above, and black below. It goes from square to round within (a length of) 4 inches. The reason that it is located 3 inches below the navel derives from (the triad of) Heaven, Earth, and Man. Heaven is 1, earth 2, man 3, and the seasons 4; thus it is said (that the length is) 4 inches. Based on the Five Elements, there are the 5 colours.

In this passage there is no attempt to assign a function to the array of colours, or to account for the fact that their directional associations are not those of the five-element convention. It may be, therefore, that the Five Colours were introduced for the simple numerological purpose which becomes plain in the final sentence of our excerpt. Still, this highly regarded treatise existed thenceforth as a precedent for deeper speculations.

Between Wang Thao's sophisticated and abstract configurations laid out within the confines of a sealed reaction-vessel and the simple centering of the vessel within a directionally oriented elaboratory in the earliest Mao Shan documents lies a great gulf.a In the latter we can still glimpse the ritual origin of the organisation of space. Even after the idea of configuration had been transmuted philosophically into chemical techniques, the demarcation of inviolate sacred spaces in Taoist rituals continued alongside. The following example of a rite for the protection of the alchemical furnace, included in Wu Wu's1 Tan Fang Hs Chih (Chymical Elaboratory Practice) of +1163, uses at least three of the same colours and directions as Wang Thao's formula, though they are represented by different materials. It runs:

To the south, one foot from the furnace platform, bury 1 pound of crude cinnabar formed into a 5-inch long 'wire' (hsiew) after being mixed with vinegar. To the north bury 1 pound of lime; to the east, 1 pound of cast iron; and to the west, 1 pound of white silver. Above, three feet from the reaction-vessel, hang an ancient mirror, and set out lamps for the 28 lunar mansions and the Five Planets. In front set up a fine sword. Before the furnace provide a basin of water from a previously unused well, refilling (the basin) once every seven days. Use a bench of peach-wood on which to place the incense burners. Put them in every location and keep them charged day and night. By the fourth cycle the elixir will be in contact with the gods and spirits (shen ming), and there is danger that demons (mo) will come and encroach upon it. Guard it therefore tranquilly, saying these words of prayer:

'I respectfully call upon the Emperor of the Abscondite Origin, the Most High Ancient Lord (Hsan-yuan Huang-ti6) and Thai-shang Lao-chn7 (an emanation of the Tao) to

Cycle and combine the Creative and the Receptive,c

Ward off invasions by diabolical beings

Trying to touch our Perfect Medicine.

Venerable Creative (= lead)d has safe refuge,

Iron buried to the east,

Ardent fire in the south,

A man hidden in the west,

A barbarian standing in the north.

Above hangs a mirror;

Where the Five Elements are matched

The Ghosts and Spirits will not come.

Let this place be tranquil,

Let the Realised Immortals protect me

As I hold firmly to the Perfect Tao.

Urgently, urgently, as by lawful order a

Again let us transpose these correspondences into a table:
 

 
Substance
Colour
Direction
Element
Iron
caerulean
east
Wood
Cinnabar
red
south
Fire
Silver
white
west
Metal
Lime
grey?
north
Water
 
There is no fifth element, because the point of the ritual is to put the furnace and its contents in the place of Earth and thus induce the state of undifferentiation and harmonisation of opposites which Earth implies. The centering simultaneously protects the Elixir, of course, from malicious spirits.

The idea of furnishing the microcosm with its own firmament lies midway between rite and metaphysics at a point where the distance between them is particularly short). Only a post-Enlightenment man would maintain a hard distinction in principle between the ritual function of hanging up 28 lamps and the theoretical point of working the number 28 into a weight or dimension. The only practically relevant difference is that the rite, however directly derived from the Five Elements and other physical conceptions, was primarily and directly meant to produce an effect upon the Unseen World -- negative upon the riff-raff of that realm, positive upon its functionaries going about their business -- rather than upon the ingredients of the Elixir.

There is no reason to assume a corresponding difference in the level of abstraction of the correspondences in ritual acts and in the alchemical Work. None of the alchemist's convictions about the universe and his Art forbade even the actual depiction of earth and sky on the floor and ceiling of the elaboratory, on the furnace, or on the reaction-vessel. Given the preference of most, adepts for abstraction, we can hardly expect anything so literal to be common, but one text suggests that it was not unheard of. This is the Shang-Tung Hsin Tan Ching Cheh1(An Explanation of the Heart Elixir Canon: a Shang-Tung Scripture), undated but probably long before the middle of the +15th century when the Chng-Thung Tao Tsang was printed. Despite the suggestion of the enchymoma conveyed by the title (which was meant concretely, as we shall see anon), this treatise provides clear instructions for laboratory preparations.a It has this to say about the design of the furnace:

If you use the Ninefold Cyclically Transformed Magical Elixir (technique just given) to treat the Three Yellow Minerals (i.e. sulphur, realgar and orpiment), the result will be equivalent to the Yellow Emperor's Nine-Vessel Sublimed Elixir. The method (is as follows). Set up the furnace platform (than) as above,b carry out the purification rites, and then display the Nine Palaces and the Eight Trigrams.c Use a tortoise-shaped combustion-chamber (kuei hsing lu), with the top made according to the pattern of the sky and the bottom according to the configuration of the earth (shang an thien wn, hsia an ti li.4 The Three Yellow Minerals are placed on top of the cinnabar (i.e. the elixir), and covered with the 'sky-plate'.d After this is done sublime the ingredients with fire above and water below. Brush the Arcane Frost down, and take a dose the size of a millet grain.

This could conceivably be the furnace with a round top and square base often used in similar cases, but the choice of words here definitely suggests decoration, whether painted or moulded. Thien wn1in astronomy refers not to the shape of the celestial vault but to its constellations and planets, and ti li in geomancy and cartography to the lay of the land. Thus images in two or three dimensions may well have been used at some point in the history of alchemy to stimulate the action of the cosmic forces upon the microcosm of the furnace.

(iii) Chaos and the egg

If the furnace was the Cosmos in little, the reaction-vessel was the Chaos out of which the Elixir was differentiated, the womb in which it was nourished. We have already cited in passing images like these which described the Elixir container,d and it is only necessary here to emphasise that for the alchemist they were not so much metaphors as identities, brought into play by the resonance of analogous configurations. In order to think of the vessel as a womb, some alchemists even took the trouble to mould it about a sphere of wax which was subsequently melted and poured away through an aperture. This sphere was called, in fact, a womb (thai).

The Chinese conviction that correspondences implied functional identity is perhaps best illustrated by another universal organic image of Chaos, namely the egg. It was common in alchemy so to denominate the reaction-vessel. Mng Hs,4 for instance, in the Chin Hua Chhung Pi Tan Ching Pi Chih5 (Confidential Instructions on the Heaven-Piercing Golden Flower Elixir) of +1225, speaks of it as the 'Chaos Egg and Spirit Chamber' (hun-tun chi-tzu shen shih6),f noting that it was often made in the shape of an egg.

Phng Ssu7 in the same book, in a passage already quoted, did not hesitate to speak of the ingredients within the reaction-vessel as the 'elixir embryo' (tan phi1).a Similarly, a book of much earlier date, ascribed to the Chin but more probably Thang, the Chih-Chhuan Chen Yen Chiao Chng Shu,2 follows the same thought. After speaking of gold, lead, white frost of lead, potable gold, etc. it goes on to say:

Union and maternity bring completion, so that bones and flesh are formed, and the foetus or the embryo comes to the birth. In this way the potentialities of the Shaping Forces are determined, and there is the glorious manifestation of the conquest of the element Wood by the Metal element --- that is the whole idea of it.b

Another interesting occurrence of cosmic egg images is found in that very philosophical work on the chhi techniques of physiological alchemy, the Yuan Chhi Lun of the mid-Thang. Detailing the steps in its pneumatic cosmogony, it says that before the chhi (of Yin and Yang in the Thai Chi4 phase) separated, they had the configuration of a young foetus (phi5)like in shape to an egg. The original chhi was quite round, its shape perfect, so it is called the Grand Unity (Thai I6).c

Wu Wu, writing in +1163, tells us that for success the reaction-vessel must be as round as a hen's egg (chi tzu). A little further on he cites a shadowy predecessor as follows:

Chhing Hsia Tzu10 says: 'The chemicals in the reaction-vessel are like the chick embryo in the egg, the child within the womb, or the fruit upon the tree;e when once they have received fully the requisite chhi they ripen and develop and come to perfection of themselves. But when the chemicals have been placed in the 'womb', it is always necessary to seal it firmly and securely for fear that any leakage of the perfected chhi (chen chhi11) may occur.' He also says: 'That the sealed "womb" (ku chi thai,12) may not leak, and that change and transformation may proceed, it is necessary to insist that it be made spherical like heaven and earth at their beginning. If there should be any crack or seam in the vessel it must be so tightly luted that not the most minute trace can escape of the numinous cyclical evolutions (shen yn) going on inside.

This is reminiscent of what Wang Chhung4 had had to say about developing eggs towards the end of the +1st century. The 'formless mass' (hung-jung15) of yolk and white at the beginning was regarded by him as a harmless liquid homogeneity, organised only by Yang chhi during the warmth of incubation.

Not long after Wu Wu's time someone who was trying to reason out the best possible way of making a container represent an egg hit upon the unsurpassable solution --- he used a hen's egg itself.a This may have come earlier, as early as the +9th century, but more probably it was a little later, in the Southern Sung. The 'Complete Compendium on the Lead - Mercury Perfected Treasure' (Chhien Hung Chia King Chih Pao Chi Chhing1)by Chao Nai-An,, cites 'Secret Directions for the Yellow Sprouts Great Elixir' (Huang Ya Ta Tan Pi Chih3). One stage of the preparation goes as follows:

Orpiment, 1/2 ounce

Sal ammoniac, and

White arsenic, 1/4 ounce each

First grind the orpiment; then grind the arsenic and sal ammoniac separately, fine as flour. Take an egg and make a hole in it. Get rid of the yolk but keep the white.b Spread half the arsenic and sal ammoniac on the bottom inside the egg; put the orpiment in the middle, and half the arsenic and sal ammoniac to cover it. Take somewhat less than half an egg-shell to cover the hole, and seal it on with iron oxide solution (chiang fan shui4) which has been mixed (with the egg-white?).c Then take a pound of minium (huang tan5) and an iron reaction-vessel (ting6). Put half the minium into the vessel and place in its centre the medicines in the egg. Then cover them with the rest of the minium, applying a little pressure. Fill the vessel with lime (shih hui,7 evidently raw) and lute it tightly. Using half a pound of charcoal, heat it gently in an ash bath.d When it is taken out it will be finished. For each ounce of pai hsi8 (zinc or tin)e use a piece the size of a red mung bean (hsiao tou9).fFirst melt the metal, and when it is liquid project the medicine upon it. Pour it out and wait for it to cool. It will then be the colour of gold.g

The porosity and fragility of the egg rule out its serving both the metaphysical function of the cosmic egg and the practical function of a sturdy and impregnable container, so the two functions are separated and the latter assigned to an iron vessel. The white arsenic and sal ammoniac and the reddish-yellow orpiment represent the albumen and yolk.

Since all three of the primary reactants were volatile, there was some danger that their vapours might explode the egg. The text is not entirely clear about whether or not the albumen was removed at some point; its presence would surely have complicated the placing of the inorganic substances and the course of the reactions. If it was there (which is unlikely), complex organo-metallic compounds might have been formed. If not, the vapours of the ingredients might have diffused gradually outwards and reacted with the lead and calcium, depending on the tightness with which the minium and lime were packed around the egg and the gentleness of the heating. The specifications given do seem designed to minimise the danger of explosion. That the procedure given by Chao Nai-An is workable we have no reason to doubt, pending a laboratory trial. At all events, it is extremely improbable that an egg would have been chosen as an inner reaction-vessel for any practical motives.

Exactly what form of aurifaction was taking place here is not immediately obvious. The reagents heated together were arsenic trisulphide, ammonium chloride (or carbonate), arsenic trioxide, ferric oxide, lead tetroxide and calcium oxide, with or without, as the case may be, a protein as source of carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen. Whether or not the tin or zinc was tinged golden only superficially is not clear from the description: if so, arsenical and other sulphides might have done just as well by themselves (cf. pt. 2, p. 252 above). If, on the other hand, copper was meant though tin or zinc actually stated, then a uniform-substrate golden alloy of arsenical copper could easily have been produced by projection as described (cf. pt. 2, p. 223 above). It will be remembered, too, that in the medieval lists of 'golds' which we studied earlier, a pai hsi chin' regularly appears (pt. 2, p. 275), which supports the practicality of what was described here, but our conclusion again has to rest upon whether after all copper was present. This is on the face of it unlikely. As for whether the metal meant to be transmuted was zinc or tin, it is difficult to see how any possible product of this formula could tint either yellow. Zinc oxide would of course be yellow when hot, but the instructions specify that the golden colour is visible after cooling. We leave this as a problem to be solved in some future laboratory devoted to the investigation of medieval alchemical procedures.

There can be no more fitting climax to this sub-section than a remarkable passage in the Shang-Tung Hsin Tan Ching Cheh, even though we are unable to establish whether it is earlier or later than Chao Nai-An's collection of formulae. In it the egg as reaction bomb (shen shih,2 lit., 'spirit chamber') is clearly linked with the subterranean growth of the Natural Cyclically Transformed Elixir. At the same time, the organic character of this application is emphasised by correlation with the human heart. These leitmotifs, together with an allusion to the abiding of the spirits, constitute almost a recapitulation of the chief themes of all alchemical thought.

In this process for the Heart Elixir, cinnabar which has been digested with other substances is divided among four 'spirit chambers' made by emptying eggs and coating them with thickly ground Chinese ink.a The author of the supplementary instructions (cheh continues:

When I make the caps (for the holes in the eggs) I use a shoe-soling needle to pierce seven holes at equal intervals around the circumference of four eggs. These holes correspond to the seven apertures of the heart. The four egg-shell caps are also coated with ink as already specified. Eggs are white, so the spirits cannot abide there. But if they are tinted black with a black pigment, the spirits can remain secure inside. That is why the vessel is called 'the spirit chamber'.b

Once the appropriate rites have been carried out and the eggs have been charged,c they are placed in a bed of lime, arsenic and other white minerals, within a ' Five Elements Jade Casing' (wu-hsing y kuei). Then to this ambiance of white material are applied the very technical terms which Su Ching had used in the middle of the +7th century for the matrix out of which large cinnabar crystals grow:

Where cinnabar grows, beneath it there are white substances; above a white bed there is a white jade 'shrine' (khan4).d In the preparation of this elixir both the medicines used to seal the 'spirit chamber',e and those within the casing which serve as the ground in which (the eggs) are planted, are white. This is in order that they may correspond to the jade bed and jade shrine of the cinnabar (growth). It is like the pericardium in human beings (because the vessel corresponds to the heart).f

Here one cannot forbear from a comparative glance at similar ideas in other cultures. Probably all of them have seen in the development of the cleidoic egg of fowls, so sharply bounded off from all external things, a model of the creation or evolution of Cosmos from Chaos. As is well known, the cosmic egg was a notable theme in Greek mythology,g but similar ideas may have been current much earlier in Babylonia.

Certainly the parallelism of the reactants-and-vessel with the foetus in utero was prominent in European alchemy, with its oft-pictured vas philosophorum or Philosopher's Egg of glass, 'Hermetically' sealed. a And we have already quoted the parallel between the chick's incubation and the development of gold in the earth (or in the elaboratory), as stated in Ben Jonson's play.b Sometimes, finally, the analogy was reversed, as in the Secretum Secretorum of Pseudo-Aristotle translated by Roger Bacon (on which see p. 368), where on physiognomy we read:

Thou knowest that the womb is for the embryo as the pot is for the food. Therefore whiteness, or blueness, or extreme redness (of the face) indicates imperfect coction in the matrix. . ..Therefore beware, etc.

The remarkable practice of using eggs as models for Chaos outlasted the heyday of laboratory alchemy in China, surviving like so many other alchemical methods in iatro-chemistry. We see it last in the +17th century, in Fang I-Chih's'1 collection of notes Wu Li Hsiao Shih2(Small Encyclopaedia of the Principles of Things). Fang, one of the first Chinese to pay serious attention to the whole spectrum of European knowledge then being introduced by the Jesuit missionaries, refers to the ultimately literal method of maturing inorganic medicines recorded by Ning Hsien Wang (+1390 to 1448) Prince of the Ming, Chu Chhan, an amateur of every sort of arcane knowledge:

Incubating medicinal eggs (fu yao luan5). For any medicine, make an egg of silver which can be opened and closed with a small cover.e Insert the medicine and seal it with lacquer. Put it in a nest of eggs and let the hen incubate it for exactly seven weeks [some people rotate it among several hens].f Its effects upon the circulation of chhi (in the patient's body after ingestion) are marvellously beneficial. It may also be irradiated by sunlight or nurtured over a warm fire for a hundred days. Its special virtues are due to changes stimulated when it is incubated by the female of the species. This is also the point of the procedure given by the Emaciated Immortal (Chh Hsien6): 'Raise separately white cocks and hens. Take an egg (from one of the hens), extract the yolk and white, take cinnabar, grind and blend them, and put the mixture into (the shell). Seal the opening with wax. Then let one of the white hens incubate it along with its own eggs. When the chicks hatch from the others, the medicine is finished. Take it mixed with honey. Or mix realgar with the egg-contents, seal it, and heat it over a feeble fire for three days and nights.'

(6) PROTO-CHEMICAL ANTICIPATIONS

Our understanding of alchemy places it in the mainstream of traditional Chinese scientific thought, heterodox though it was (unlike mathematics and astronomy) for conventional scholars. In its theoretical aspect it was a deductive proto-science on quite the same level as medicine, acoustics or magnetic geomancy, based on the same general laws and the same natural rhythms, its essential difference lying in the selection of phenomena which it set in order. Each of these sciences was determined by an original demarcation of a field of observation and experience, defined by imposition of the common natural philosophy, and developed partly by working deductively through the various permutations of particular facts. But if alchemy consisted wholly of this special application of an organicist philosophy of Nature on the one hand, and eclectic compendia of elixir recipes (with no indication that the reactions were understood) on the other, it would be necessary to conclude that nothing in Chinese alchemy was truly relevant to the pre-history of chemical thought.

Such a view would badly underestimate the ability of the alchemist to respond to his experience.a A more direct appreciation of the fact of chemical change can be documented at least as far back as Ko Hung's dictum that minium (Pb304) and white lead (2PbCO3.Pb(OH)2) are transformations of lead.b If only early craftsmen had been literate, we could doubtless trace that same appreciation back to the beginnings of chemical technology in China. Even at this initial stage of research, in which our greatest accomplishment is to gauge what we do not know, it is possible to discern attempts to develop theories of substantial change. Generally these theories reflect the lack of clear distinction between physics and chemistry, inevitable so long as the language of quality and function was used for both. For example, the Thien Kung Khai Wu,1that great technical encyclopaedia of +1637, offers a physical explanation of substantial change: 'Cinnabar, mercury, and vermilion are originally the same substance. The difference in name corresponds to a difference in fineness and degree of coction (ching-tshu lao-nun).'cThere is every reason to believe that this idea was first worked out in an alchemical context.

Our study has given us grounds for hope that a broad and consistent theoretical picture of substantial change -- though certainly very different in its definitions and assumptions from modern chemistry -- can be drawn together from data scattered through the surviving literature of external alchemy. An enormous work of collation and intellectual reconstruction will be necessary, but the potential contribution to a comparative history of chemistry would more than justify it. In the meantime we can only offer a couple of clues on the approach toward chemical reasoning which we hope eventually to see delineated out of the Chinese sources. We shall return briefly below to the role of number in alchemical thought, first concentrating on gravimetric ideas, the use of the balance, and finally take up the development of category theories to explain the reactivity of one substance with respect to others.

Further pursuit of the sprouts of early chemical thought in China should not neglect the less obvious sources, such as for example the Neo-Confucian literature. In the thought of Chhng I (+1033 to +1107) there are interesting things to be found. At one place he says:

The physicians do not sufficiently consider organic pattern-principles (li2); when compounding drugs in prescriptions they do not exhaustively investigate their natures (hsing). They know only the therapeutic uses of each, and not what happens when the substances form combinations; how then can they understand their (real) natures? For instance, myrobalan (ho tzu4)c is yellow, and alum (pai fans) is white, yet when they are mixed together the mixture is black. When what is black appears, that which was yellow and that which was white have disappeared. If we put a and b together we get c, so that c manifests itself, and a and b are no longer visible. But if we got back a and b again, then c disappears. If we have c and continue to look for a and b in it, if we have black and persist in looking for yellow and white in it, then we are failing to understand the nature of things. (This is why) the ancient (sages) investigated to the utmost the organic pattem-principles of things (chhiung chin wu li6)they studied tastes, smelt odours, differentiated between colours, and acquired knowledge of what substances will mix or combine together (chih chhi mou wu ho mou7)

What he was talking about here was the production of the deep blue-black pigment formed when tannins are brought into the presence of salts of iron; the metal combines with the polyhydroxy-benzoic acid derivatives to give the colours still to this day used for inks. Chhng I seems to have realised half-intuitively that something essentially new had been formed in the reaction. But as usual with the Neo-Confucians, he did not systematically pursue this line of enquiry. Elsewhere, however, he said:d

Sound, colour, smell and taste, are all alike, in themselves empty, yet full of meaning. Every thing that has corporeal form has to have these four qualities, and out of them arise significance, appellations, images and numerical values.

These, no doubt, were numerological still, rather than quantitative in our sense. But the one could slide into the other.e In a third passage, directed evidently against that metaphysical idealism to which his equally eminent brother was rather addicted:

The Master said: 'To investigate exhaustively the organic pattern-principles of things is to investigate how they come to be as they are. The height of the heavens, the thickness of the earth, the appearance and disappearance of expansion or disaggregation, and of contraction or agglomeration, all must have some manner of coming into being. If it be said that all these things are just our way of talking about the world, and no more, then how and why did they come into existence?

In the literature of Neo-Confucian philosophy we may well find many further speculations upon distinctively chemical examples of coming-into-being and passing away.

(i) Numerology and gravimetry

From the standpoint of the comparative development of chemistry, one of the most cogent themes to emerge from the study of early Chinese alchemy is its concern with quantitative factors. This is not a mere matter of the specification of amounts in formulae; Sumerian medicine had reached that point by - 2500.a But we find evidence of a truly gravimetric application of number in the following excerpt from Chhen Shao-Wei's1, great monograph on the alchemy of cinnabar, Ta-Tung Lien Chen Pao Ching, Hsiu Fu Ling Sha Miao Cheh (Mysterious Teachings on the Alchemical Preparation of Numinous Cinnabar) written, it seems, not long after + 712. At this point Chhen is discussing, in descending order of purity, natural crystalline varieties of cinnabar (Fig. 1522), and their substitution for each other in an elixir preparation. He says:

Now from 1 lb. of lustrous cinnabar (kuang ming sha one can distil 14 ozs. of mercury, lustrous white and free-flowing. This indicates that lustrous cinnabar of the highest quality contains only 2 ozs. of mineral chhi. From 1 lb. of white horse-tooth cinnabar (pai ma-ya sha one can distil 12 ozs. of mercury; it contains 4 ozs. of mineral chhi. From 1 lb. of purple numinous cinnabar (tzu ling sha)one can distil 10 ozs. of mercury; it contains 6 ozs. of mineral chhi. From 1 lb. of superior translucent (commercial) cinnabar (shang s thung ming [sha])4 one can distil only 7 ozs. of mercury; it contains 9 ozs. of mineral chhi.aMineral chhi is the void chhi of Fire and rock (huo shih chih khung chhi5).bAfter the mercury has been extracted there will be about an ounce of Mineral Embryo (shih thai6), a greyish ash.c

Thus some alchemists twelve and a half centuries ago knew that 13 or 14 ozs. Of mercury can be distilled from 16 oz. of the best native cinnabar. A more exact figure, according to modern calculation, would be 13.8. Chhen had learned the importance of experimentation with weighings, on principles which must at some point have come from metallurgists (unless a mercury-smelter furnished him with the figure).d Not only that, but he knew that this ratio must vary with the purity of the cinnabar, so that a cinnabar of lower quality will contain less mercury and more 'mineral chhi' resolved by the treatment into irrecoverable pneuma and a residue of Mineral Embryo.e What is perhaps most significant, and certainly most original, is Chhen's assumption that when each kind of cinnabar is broken down into its constituents they always total 16 ozs. in weight. This was only a hypothesis, for there was no way of collecting and weighing the chhi which had presumably escaped, but it was just the sort of hypothesis which in much more recent times pointed the way to a chemistry based solidly on measure and number. In this way Chhen seems far ahead of his time.

But it is not quite so simple as that. Where did Chhen get his figures for the yields of mercury from different types of cinnabar? First we must ask how different in fact the four varieties were. This question can be answered, at least in a rough way. All four are, first of all, exceptionally large and rare crystalline forms, far superior to the ordinary article of commerce. It is obvious from their descriptions that they did not normally contain perceptible quantities of admixed earth and stone.

Lustrous cinnabar fits the description of translucent, nearly vitreous, rhombohedral crystals of cinnabar, such as are still used in China, whole as semi-precious stones, and pulverised as the pigment in very high grades of seal ink (yin ni1). White horse-tooth cinnabar, despite its designation, is not white in colour. Su Ching, in the mid-seventh century, points out its suitability for artist's vermilion pigment, and describes it concretely enough to allow its identification as small tubular crystals rather than granules (which are not usually translucent):

The next quality comes from within rocks or from streams, and occurs in pieces of which the largest are the size of a thumbnail and the smallest the size of apricot stones. It is lustrous and without admixed rock mineral. It is called 'horse-tooth cinnabar', and another name is 'undoubled mineral' (wu chhung shih). It is excellent for use in drugs and also for painting, but (like lustrous cinnabar) not much of it finds its way into the possession of ordinary people.

The white is explained as the colour of its lustre in the supplementary instructions to the 'Yellow Emperor's Nine-Vessel Spiritual Elixir Canon' (probably early Sung):

There are also tablets coarse as horses' teeth or like small rolls (hsiao chan), brilliant with radiant depths, their matter compact and their white lustre dazzling to the eye --- they are styled cinnabar.b

This is less ambiguous than the statement of Chhen Shao-Wei earlier in his treatise that it 'shines with a radiant white light the colour of mica.'c Thirdly, there is nothing in the sources to deter us from considering purple numinous cinnabar as a true cinnabar of darker colour than normal.d Last, superior translucent cinnabar is, unlike the other varieties, a common article of commerce, although still of very high grade. The specification of translucency indicates that it is still a crystalline (and thus tolerably pure) form of mercuric sulphide. To sum up, although disparities in crystal size and transparency could have convinced the alchemist that the four varieties of cinnabar differed sensibly in their places on the hierarchic scale of matu, ration, their chemical purity can hardly have been very unlike. Impurities might occur from time to time in the form of mechanical admixtures, but the proportions would be random rather than constant within each type.

Since the four varieties of cinnabar do not apparently differ greatly or consistently in chemical purity, all the numbers except the first must be based, not on laboratory experience, but on the conviction that a difference in kind must be associated with a difference in number, and the further assumption that these differences must form a series of rather regularly graded steps which reflect, by implication, steps on a hypothetical mineral maturation curve.

The same frame of mind shows itself in other asseverations of Chhen Shao-Wei; for instance:

One oz. of lustrous cinnabar, when taken orally, is equal in potency to 4 oz. of white horse tooth cinnabar. One oz. of white horse-tooth cinnabar, when taken orally, is equal in potency to 8 oz. of purple numinous cinnabar. The potency of creek cinnabar (chhi sha1) or earthy cinnabar (thu sha) is not of an order comparable with these.a

Yet the intensity of the physiological reaction to a dose of any of these varieties (with the probable exception of earthy cinnabar, which might contain much gangue impurity)b would have been very much the same. Even if it were different, it is not easy to imagine an experimental arrangement for determining the precise comparative dosage required to metamorphose experimental subjects into immortals soaring in the empyrean. There was indeed an objective verifiability of alchemical immortality, in a certain sense, but hardly the possibility of its operational quantifiability.c

The figures we have just seen applied to the mercury yield of cinnabar also appear metamorphosed in a discussion concerned with yields of elixir and of the intermediate 'subdued cinnabar' (fu huo [tan sha]):

Furthermore, when 1 lb. of lustrous cinnabar is Subdued in the fire, 14 ozs. of subdued (cinnabar) are obtained, which when heated in a furnace urged with bellows yields 7 ozs. of the 'Perfect Treasure'. When 1 lb. of white horse-tooth cinnabar is subdued in the fire, 12 ozs. of subdued (cinnabar) are obtained, which when heated in a furnace urged with bellows yields 6 ozs. of the 'Perfect Treasure'. When 1 lb. of purple cinnabar is subdued in the fire, 10 ozs. of subdued (cinnabar) are obtained, which when heated in a furnace urged with bellows yields 3-5 ozs.d of the 'Perfect Treasure'. When 1 lb. of creek cinnabar, earthy cinnabar or other cinnabars of diverse kinds is subdued in the fire, it is possible to obtain 6 or 7 ozs. of subdued (cinnabar), which when heated in a furnace urged with bellows yields 1 or 2 ozs. of the 'Perfect Treasure'. So it is quite clear that the chhi with which creek cinnabar and earth cinnabar are endowed is impure --- sluggish, turbid, and heterogeneous. In order to succeed in making Sevenfold-recycled (Cinnabar) or Ninefold Cyclically Transformed (Gold Elixir), a lofty and enlightened gentleman must first choose the proper cinnabar and then correctly phase the fire, regulating it to accomplish the desired end.

If we look at all these quantities together (Fig. 1523), it is not hard to tell where Chhen got them. They can only be a priori, generated by numerological reasoning in order to construct three hierarchies -- mercury yield, physiological potency, and Elixir yield -- based on the fundamental hierarchy of cinnabar quality. That the first of the three was anchored to a number derived by measure out of chemical experience reminds us of the interpenetration of the two functions of number -- mathematical and numerological -- in all ancient and medieval Chinese minds. This is only one more instance of the way in which the 'advanced' aspects and the 'retrograde' or 'unscientific' aspects of early science (which once led a distinguished positivist historian to call research in alchemy, astrology, and related areas 'the study of wretched subjects') turn out to be not only balanced, but so intimately connected as to be inseparable.

Actually, in the case of Chhen Shao-Wei we see an important early stage in the definition of gravimetry. It is beginning to define itself out of an almost Pythagorean faith in number as a reflection of underlying reality on the one hand, and out of the metal-workers' use of the balance to control manufacturing processes on the other.a In the alchemical literature there are many other specifications of yield, potency, and ability to transmute base metals which must be closely examined, and if possible experimentally tested, before the history of the concept of combining weights in ancient China can fall into place.

At this point we can only suggest that the strength and integration of numerology in Chinese thought did much to encourage truly mathematical approaches to natural phenomena, but at the same time it was difficult to see that such approaches were something different from numerology.a In Europe the application of a mathematical physics to earthbound experience was inevitably revolutionary, for it undercut the most fundamental metaphysical assumptions of the traditional way of looking at the universe. Since mathematics, according to Aristotle, dealt with perfect and eternal bodies and their relations, it could only be rigorously applied to astronomy, for nothing below the orb of the moon was perfect and eternal. The very success of the Aristotelian synthesis at imposing reason and coherence upon most of man's concerns over two millennia gave it a strength which could be overcome only by that total confrontation which we call the Scientific Revolution.

In China there was no such tension. The basic system of natural concepts --- Yin and Yang, the five elements, and so on --- were at bottom no less qualitative than Aristotle's, but number was one of the established ways of expressing quality, and no one denied that its application to terrestrial measure reflected deep realities too.b Thus since the +1st century a truly mathematical approach to acoustics, a human artifact, was thought of as parallel to mathematical astronomy; indeed most of the dynastic histories discuss the two together. But while the prevalent natural philosophy easily accommodated both numerology and mathematics, it did little to encourage their separation, or even to keep in view the distinction between them. In alchemy, numerologically derived quantities were treated as though they were observational; in mathematical astronomy, observational constants for periods of revolution were often metaphysically accounted for by 'deriving' them numerologically. We suggest then, as a hypothesis which only many more case-studies could establish or disprove, that this very ease of accommodation meant less tension of the kind that might have led to an autonomous definition of exact science.





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