Professor Rosenquist is happily gazing at her two foo dog statues she transfigured out of chairs. Casting a simple levitation charm, she sends them to sit at both sides of the doorway to the classroom. Paper lanterns hang from the ceiling and scrolls of artwork hang on the walls. Each table has a red tablecloth draped over it. There is a tangerine sitting on a plate for every student. A golden dragon statue sits by the window. There is also a mountain of Chinese desserts that the professor may or may not have received from the kitchen staff.
Professor Rosenquist is busy eating an egg tart as students start to walk in. Putting away the tart for later, she clears her throat and stands up to address the class.
“Why do all of you look jittery today? Relax, you can snack on the tangerine if you’re nervous for your midterm. To ease your mind of your impending exam, let’s talk about what we will be discussing today. We are going over a country that I personally love: China. I feel I have learned the most from Chinese alchemists during my travels than those of any other country I’ve visited. The techniques, perspectives, concepts, and terminology are completely different and it’s fascinating that this type of alchemy flourished without any influence from the West. I can’t wait to start, so on that note, let’s begin.”
A Bowl Is Most Useful When It Is Empty
Chinese alchemy started around 500 B.C.E. and it basically sprung its roots in Taoism. Taoism, also translated as Daoism, is a philosophical, religious or ethical system that was started by Laozi (also known as Lao Tsu), a Hermes Trismegistus-like sage. Laozi is a legendary figure in China, being a poet and a philosopher as well as a deity in religious Taoism and Chinese folk religion. Some historians believe he lived around the 6th century B.C.E. while others put him during the Warring States period around the 4th or 5th century B.C.E. He is credited with writing the Tao Te Ching (Daodejing), one of the most significant classical Chinese texts. Although the true identity of the author has been debated for centuries, Laozi is our primary suspect. The Tao Te Ching is the basis of philosophical and religious Taoism. It also influenced other schools of thought and religions in China such as Confucianism, Buddhism, and Legalism. The text consists of 81 short poems that cover a broad range of topics, from political advice to practical wisdom, which allows the interpretations to be limitless. Laozi’s writings also influenced a majority of political leaders throughout Chinese history, as well as left-libertarianism. Clearly, he had some great ideas, especially if they have such an influence on our society, even in present times.
The Warring States period happened right after the Spring and Autumn period of the Zhou Dynasty, which, as you all know, is the time period Dzou Yen lived in. The Warring States period started around the second half of the Zhou Dynasty (approx. 481 - 403 B.C.E.) and continued on until the Qin state became victorious in its conquest of the contender states (221 B.C.E.). The reason why the time frame is so large is because when the Warring States period actually began, there wasn’t a single opposition to put an end to the conquest. The whole apex of conquests and the annexation of the different states were historical trends that also characterized the Spring and Autumn period. It was a huge political jumble, really. The period consisted of the seven major warring states: Qin, Han, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Chu, and Yan. You can see them on the map to your right. So why is the Warring States period relevant, besides it being the time that Laozi probably lived? While some Taoist ideas did develop from Chinese folk religions, many of the practices actually emerged from the phenomena of wu and fangshi during this period. Wu are witches and wizards from northern China that practiced divination (most commonly oneiromancy, also known as dream divination), healing arts, sacrifices, and rainmaking ceremonies. Fangshi encompasses a wider category of people, including your friendly alchemists, astrologers, necromancers, exorcists, monks, healers, and even your everyday wizard. Both terms referred to individuals that focused primarily on magic, divinatory arts, medicinal practices, and methods of longevity. While the wu were more geared towards shamanism, the fangshi relied on astrological and calendrical speculations when practicing divination.
Find a Light Inside Our Universe
Alchemy in China is majorly based on Taoism and has a completely different approach to what we’re used to in Western alchemy. In order to get a good grasp on this particular branch of alchemy, obviously you will need to know about Taoism concepts as well. Of course there isn’t enough time in one lesson to cover an entire religion, but here are some basic ideas that directly tie into Taoist alchemy.
Tao (or Dao) is the main concept of Taoism. It translates to “the Way” and can be described as the fundamental nature or flow of the universe. Tao is around us everyday of our lives. It’s a concept of the intuitive knowing of life, but it can’t be fully understood through just reading about it due to its ineffable qualities. In order to fully grasp or get a good understanding of the Tao, you experience it through living life and following its principles. Another term that will come up a lot is Te (or De), which is the active living or cultivation of the Way (Tao). Typically this refers to an individual practicing the Tao.
Wu wei is a Taoist concept that translates to “non-action” or “non-doing.” This refers to an effortless, natural way of behaving, such as how the planets revolve around the sun. The planets are simply revolving; they aren’t being forced to revolve, they aren’t trying to revolve, and nothing is controlling them. This spontaneous, effortless, and natural way of behaving is what Laozi calls the goal of spiritual practice. The universe is harmonious in how it works, but when someone acts against this harmony, they are disrupting the balance. That doesn't necessarily mean don't do anything at all, but rather be conscious of how you act in relation to the universe’s natural processes.
Taoists texts tend to relate wu wei to the aspect of water, as they both yield in nature and can take any form or shape they inhabit. Those who want to delve more into water magic typically look into Taoist philosophy to fully understand the aspect. The natural push and pull in wu wei is seen in water observed in nature. Water magic reflects this natural motion. It’s very calm, but it can also be equally powerful within the boundaries of nature. When getting into more advanced water magic, it’s certainly more strenuous on the caster as they are trying to manipulate water outside of the normal boundaries of nature. However, learning about the operation of the universe helps form an understanding of how to work with nature instead of, for example, simply conjuring a water cyclone on a sunny day. The more you understand and implement your knowledge into water magic, the less strenuous it will become and the more effortless it will seem, almost like a natural extension of your body.
A key concept of Taoism that is closely related to wu wei is Ziran. Ziran refers to naturalness and it translates to “self so; so of its own; so of itself.” It’s a description of the primordial state of things and it’s a basic characteristic of the Tao. It also is closely linked with creativity and spontaneity.
Remember how we talked about the Three Primes last year? In Taoist alchemy, they have a similar equivalent called the Three Treasures. The Three Treasures consist of Shen (Spirit), Chi (Vitality), and Ching (Essence). They are equivalent to Mercury, Sulfur, and Salt, respectively. There are differences, however, between the two concepts that primarily has to do with the Eastern and Western viewpoints. The best way to describe the Three Treasures is to look at a burning candle. Shen is the light given off by the flame. Chi is the heat given off by the candle. Ching is both the wax and wick, making it the structure as well as the condensed energy of the fuel.
Shen is considered the most important of the Three Treasures as it’s considered the guiding spirit or mind that directs the energy of Chi. It’s also experienced as an actual presence or spirit within yourself that produces an all-embracing sense of compassion that resides within the heart. It gives people the ability to rise above the mundane world, their spiritual radiance, and is the source of our knowledge that everything in the universe works as one.
Chi is the energy that moves in our body, giving us vitality. It’s a universal energy that’s created by the constant interaction of Yin and Yang. Chi embodies both contraries of Yin and Yang; fast-moving Chi is considered Yang while slow-moving Chi is thought to be Yin. Movement and function is the result of Chi, as its nature is to keep moving. In esoteric anatomy, Chi is carried in our blood and in the air we breathe. Blood is produced through our body’s metabolism and Chi is extracted from food we eat through the spleen. The Chi that enters the lungs from when we breathe goes into energetic pathways throughout the body is known as meridians. The interaction of Yin and Yang is seen in the body’s blood cells. Red blood cells are related to Yin because they nourish our bodies by transporting oxygen while white blood cells are considered to be Yang because they protect the body from infections and other foreign substances. We will go into more detail about this in Year Five when we discuss Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Ching is a type of mysterious substance that’s given the nickname “superior ultimate.” The name itself means “regenerative essence.” Ching is considered to be a concentrated energy that manifests physically, inside of the body. It’s a perfect blend of the Yin and Yang energy, however unlike Chi, it’s a type of heavy, static energy. Ching operates the body’s cells and organs and is necessary for life. It exists before the body is formed and it becomes the root of our body when we’re born. There’s even a belief that if there was a way to conserve and accumulate Ching, we could live long and vigorous lives. Could it be the key to immortality? Possibly so.
Alchemist Spotlight: Ge Hong
I’m sure you are super familiar with this name. For those who are new to the course, let me introduce one of the most influential Chinese alchemists of all time.
Ge Hong (can be translated as Ko Hung) was a minor southern official that lived from 283 C.E. to 343 C.E. during the Jin Dynasty. As a child, he was raised up on the strict moral doctrines of Confucianism, but he embraced Taoism with open arms as a young man. Taoism spurred his interest in longevity, thus he became an alchemist and spent the rest of his life searching for the Elixir of Life. In his monumental literary work, Baopuzi, or He Who Holds to Simplicity, Ge Hong writes a nice blend of Taoist and Confucianist philosophy. The first part (Neidan, “inner alchemy”) details his alchemical studies and even includes a recipe to an elixir called the gold cinnabar. Ge also describes breathing techniques, meditation techniques, and defends attaining immortality through alchemy. The second part (Waidan, “outer alchemy”) stresses the importance of ethical principles in Confucianism. However, alchemy was the topic of only a portion of Ge Hong’s literary works. The rest of his texts spanned across a broad range of content and genres such as historical commentaries, biographies, and rhapsodies.
In one of Ge Hong’s treatises, he described three different types of alchemy practiced in China. The first concerned preparing a drinkable gold liquid that produced longevity. The second type was about producing an artificial cinnabar, or red stone, that could be projected to perfect any substance instantly. The third kind concerned actual transmutation of base metals into physical gold. However, alchemists that aimed to transmute base metals into gold didn’t necessarily want material wealth. The Chinese were much more focused on extending life and gold was seen as an essential ingredient in the Golden Elixir of Immortality. Much like the Elixir of Life we’re familiar with, the Golden Elixir was said to be sent from the gods and it gave the user immortality.
Dark and Wild
The final two concepts I would like to talk about today don’t necessarily link straight to Taoism, but they are directly linked to Chinese alchemy in general. While they do have a role in Taoism, they are also associated with classical Chinese sciences, philosophy, naturalism, traditional Chinese medicine, astrology, and even martial arts. More importantly, they’re directly linked with each other.
The first concept is Yin and Yang, two contrary forces that work in the natural world. It’s the concept of a duality forming a whole. So when something is whole, it is unchanging and complete. However, when you split that wholeness into two separate parts, it upsets the balance and the two parts begin to chase each other. They are dependent on each other and one force’s end is another force’s beginning, such as day turns into night and night turns into day. In order to maintain the wholeness, as one force increases, the other decreases.
Yin roughly represents femininity, negativity, contraction, the moon, and water. Yang refers to masculinity, positivity, expansiveness, the sun, and fire. While Yin was heavy and had a tendency to descend into the Earth, Yang was light and wanted to rise to the sky. Yin, the unperfected soul, quenched the yearnings of Yang, the perfect spirit. This interaction is what created the material universe.
Many of you have probably seen this symbol before. This symbol is the second part of a larger five-part diagram called Taijitu. It is a visual way of representing how Yin and Yang make up the circle. Notice how Yang has a black dot in it and Yin has a white dot in it. This is symbolic for how everything has Yin and Yang in it, such as shadow can’t exist without light.
Our final concept today is Wu Xing, which can be translated to the Five Elements. The Chinese devised an element system that could be considered equivalent to the Western world’s Four Aspects, yet it’s so different and can be found in all natural phenomena. This concept can be found in martial arts, geomancy, cosmology, traditional Chinese medicine, music, art, divination, and even military strategy. This system is still used today and it’s really amazing that you can see this tie into normal everyday activities. These are the five elements that compose Wu Xing:
What’s particularly interesting about Wu Xing is that it’s cyclic in nature. All five elements are a giant process that is woven together through several cycles. First off, there are two Cycles of Balance, a creation cycle and a destruction cycle between the phases. Both cycles have a certain order that the elements are arranged in and each element should be combined with the element either before it or after it in the cycle no matter what field you choose to use Wu Xing in.
Notice how the elements build each other up, but they also present a sort of dominance over each other.
Along with the two Cycles of Balance, there are two Cycles of Imbalance: an overacting cycle and an insulting sequence. An overacting cycle occurs when something disrupts the balance in the creation cycle. When this happens, one element becomes excessive and begins to overcontrol another. The insulting sequence is the destruction cycle in reverse. The equilibrium between two elements breaks and the element being broken down begins to “insult” the dominant element. Think of it as a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors where the paper somehow beats the scissors.
That wraps it up for today! Let me go ahead and pass out your midterm. When you’re done, turn it in at the front of the classroom and you’re free to go. If you enjoy poetry, there is an extra credit assignment about a Chinese poetry form called jueju you might like to check out. If you have any questions, I will be here with this lovely arrangement of desserts ready to help. Good luck!