Alchemy in China
The Elixir In External Alchemy
Although the first allusions to alchemy in China date from the second century B.C.E., the combination of doctrines and practices involving the compounding of an elixir, which is necessary to define alchemy as such and to distinguish it from proto-chemistry, is not clearly attested to in extant sources until the third century C.E. The first identifiable tradition, known as Taiqing (Great Clarity; Pregadio, 2005), developed from that time in Jiangnan, the region south of the lower Yangzi River that was also crucial for the history of Daoism during the Six Dynasties (third to sixth centuries). The Taiqing scriptures consist of descriptions of methods for compounding elixirs and of benefits gained from their performance and contain virtually no statements regarding their doctrinal foundations. The emphasis given to certain aspects of the practice and the terminology used in those descriptions, however, show that the central act of the alchemical process consists in causing matter to revert to its state of "essence" (jing), or prima materia. The main role in this task is played by the crucible, whose function is to provide a medium equivalent to the inchoate state (hundun) prior to the formation of the cosmos. In that medium, under the action of fire, the ingredients of the elixir are transmuted, or "reverted" (huan), to their original state. A seventh-century commentary to one of the Taiqing scriptures equates this refined matter with the "essence" that, as stated in the Daode jing (Scripture of the Way and Its Virtue), gives birth to the world of multiplicity: "Indistinct! Vague! But within it there is something. Dark! Obscure! But within it there is an essence."
In the Taiqing texts, compounding the elixir constitutes the central part of a larger process consisting of several stages, each of which is marked by the performance of rites and ceremonies. Receiving the scriptures and the oral instructions, building the laboratory, kindling the fire, and ingesting the elixir all require offering pledges to one's master and to the gods, observing rules on seclusion and purification, performing ceremonies to delimit and protect the ritual area, and making invocations to the highest deities. Ingesting the elixir is said to confer transcendence and admission into the celestial bureaucracy. Additionally the elixir grants healing from illnesses and protection from demons, spirits, and several other disturbances. To provide these supplementary benefits, the elixir does not need to be ingested and may simply be kept in one's hand or carried at one's belt as a powerful apotropaic talisman.
The methods of the Taiqing texts are characterized by the use of a large number of ingredients. Sources attached to later waidan traditions instead describe different varieties of a single exemplary method, consisting of the refining of mercury (Yin) from cinnabar (Yang), its addition to sulfur (Yang), and its further refining. This process, typically repeated seven or nine times, yields an elixir that is deemed to embody the qualities of pure Yang (chunyang) —that is, the state of oneness before its differentiation into Yin and Yang.
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