Alchemy in Asia and the Pacific

Asia and the Pacific

by Bradley A. Skeen
Most early societies have shamanic components within the scope of their religious practices. The shaman differs from the priest in claiming a personal relationship with the divine and in addressing his followers’ personal concerns, such as illness or purification from sin, rather than collective concerns, such as the community’s agricultural success, which may instead be mediated through priests. Practices that descend from shamanism are generally termed magic, while those as- sociated with priests are termed religion, although the sharp distinction between magic and religion is most commonly found in European and Middle Eastern cultures. Ancient shamanic practices remained prevalent in much of medieval eastern Asia, including in Siberia and among the Ainu people of northern Japan as well as in the cultures of Australia and the Pacific islands. By the Middle Ages, shamanic practices had long been institutionalized in the advanced civilizations of India and China. These practices took the form of various occult sciences considered part of philosophical learning, among them, alchemy, astrology, and medicine.

In India the traditional expert in the occult sciences was the yogi, or practitioner of yoga. Yoga is related to the English word yoke and refers to the joining together of the human and divine. The goal of the yogi was to become divine or godlike. This was to be accomplished by meditation, the conscious manipulation of autonomic bodily processes such as breathing, the use of plant and mineral drugs, the control of the body through asceticism (such as fasting, going without sleep, or refraining from sexual activity), and the practice of occult sciences such as alchemy. Through all of these practices the physical body would be transformed, such that the yogi would be able to perform miracles such as flying or becoming invisible and could prolong youth and life indefinitely. In the Middle Ages popular yoga traditions were transformed into proper philosophical schools (such as that of hatha yoga, which was formed between 1100 and 1400 and is still widely practiced today) and systematically recorded in a textual tradition, especially within the diverse school of practices usually referred to as tantra. Tantra is something like the English magic in the sense of being a collection of practices that are supposed to accomplish miracles and that may or may not be legitimate from the point of view of philosophy and religion.

The miracle of turning base metal into gold is found early in the Indian tradition; yogis may have achieved this “miracle” through the means of a simple sleight-of-hand trick on the order of modern stage magic in order to inspire followers. The Greek pseudoscience of alchemy was actually invented in Hellenistic Alexandria and was transmitted to India in the early Middle Ages. This practice had the aim of purifying other metals (especially mercury) into gold, not for the purpose of obtaining wealth in the form of gold but under the belief that the purifications performed on the metals by the alchemist also purified his body and soul. By the time the final transformation into gold was achieved, the alchemist would have also transformed his body into a perfect one that would remain eternally young and his mind into one that knew all the secrets of the universe. Later in the Middle Ages the penetration of Islamic culture into India (beginning with the Islamic conquest of part of modern Pakistan as early as 711) brought Islamic alchemy to India. Also, a version of Hellenistic astrology had been imported into India and flourished there essentially unchanged into the modern era.

In the 13th century a new school of medicine was developed in India, usually called iatrochemical medicine, since it used mineral rather than plant substances as drugs. (Iatrochemistry derives from the Greek iatros, or “physician,” and chemeia, or “alchemy.”) Alchemical in origin, the school revolved around empirical work performed in laboratories to create new compounds rather than around the mystical beliefs of alchemy. Texts of the school (by physicians such as Vrindra and Cakrapnai, of the turn of the 15th century) cite tantric yogis among its venerated predecessors. Modern versions of these texts do not claim to describe procedures that could result in eternal youth and immortality; they may instead be dedicated to the god who preserves human beings from sickness, old age, and death. Iatrochemical physicians may have been the first anywhere in the world to realize that various metals burn with distinctive colors when exposed to flame, a standard test in modern chemistry.

Daoism, which speaks of the Dao, meaning “the way” or “the path,” is a school of Chinese philosophy dealing with the creation and existence of the world. In China attempts to manipulate the world through magic have been part of Daoist practices. The purpose of such practices was to allow the sage to become a divine being. Purification would result not in the creation of a superior, immortal body but in the washing away of the body, leaving the sage a spirit no longer hampered by the limits of the physical. Alchemy developed independently in China, at about the same time as in the Greek world (in the third century b.c.e.), as the premier Daoist occult science. However, it was more limited in scope than Greco-Islamic alchemy, aiming at the single purpose of gaining immortality, that is, transforming a mortal into a divine being.

Alchemy gained prominence in medieval China owing to its earlier patronage by Qin Shi Huang (260–210 b.c.e.), the first emperor of a unified China. He wished to gain immortality and extend his personal rule indefinitely. One action in the effort to accomplish this was the dispatch of explorers in search of islands said in ancient myth to be inhabited by divine beings. Another action was the assembly of a committee of scholars whom the emperor commanded to produce an elixir of life that would make him immortal. The scholars decided that since gold is imperishable and since mercury is useful in refining gold, the emperor should consume large amounts of gold and mercury compounds (including the naturally occurring mineral cinnabar, or mercuric sulfide). This poisoned him, causing his mental impairment and premature death at age 50. Many later emperors held the same ambition and were likewise poisoned throughout the medieval period, into the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Many of the alchemical theories produced during the time of the first emperor were collected and transmitted to the Middle Ages in the Nei pian (Inner Chapters), which was written in the early fourth century of the Common Era by the philosopher Ge Hong. Medieval alchemical texts interpreted the first emperor’s search for the land of the immortals as a symbolic expression of an inner journey of spiritual purification that the alchemist had to carry out together with purification of the body through such ascetic practices as long periods of fasting. Gold also was a metaphor for the purity found within the human spirit. Chinese tradition considered that all matter consisted of five elements—water, fire, wood, gold, and earth—and that these also constituted the human body, respectively corresponding to the kidneys, heart, liver, lungs, and stomach. Cinnabar was important in this system because its red coloration associated it with blood. If cinnabar is heated, pure mercury melts out of it, a transformation that was understood as expressing the possibility of physical rebirth through the alchemical manipulation of the body. Alchemists believed that ingesting cinnabar would reverse the effects of aging and purify the body until it was light enough to take flight. In this way, Chinese alchemy revolves around the manipulation of chi within the body. Chi, literally “steam,” is the vital breath that animates the body and is also the animating force of the whole cosmos. Purification consisted in properly balancing the chi. These same operative principles were the foundation for traditional Chinese medicine. In Zen alchemy, developed after 1100, physical experiments upon metals and the ingestion of metallic drugs were dispensed with entirely. The transformations described in older alchemical texts were interpreted as taking place only within the alchemist’s mind and spirit. The purification of intellectual gold could in this way be used to give birth to the elixir of life.

Limestone guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion with 11 heads; China, Tang Dynasty, ca. 703 (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Charles Lang Freer)

Astrology was a Greco-Arabic occult science imported into China in the Middle Ages. In its most spectacular application in China, the Buddhist monk Yi Xing (683–727) designed a water-powered armillary sphere, that is, a machine used to simulate the motions of the stars and planets. His design incorporated the invention of the escapement, a mechanical device that regulates the motion of a pendulum, allowing for precise clockwork movements. Similar mechanisms were not invented in Europe for another 500 years. This work was commissioned in 725 by the emperor Xuan Zong (685–762) to determine astrologically the best times for him to sleep with his wives and concubines so as to most likely produce male offspring.

Korea and Japan received overwhelming influence from Chinese culture. In certain instances ancient shamanic practices in these regions persisted unchanged, never having the chance to evolve in the face of already sophisticated Chinese religion and philosophy. Such practices were also preserved intentionally as a means of maintaining a separate national identity against Chinese influence. For instance, Shinto, the national religion of Japan, produced a new cult in 1279, the Izuna shugen (shamans of Mount Izuna). Followers of this cult sought to achieve magical effects by controlling fox spirits. The cult was widely patronized at the imperial court and by local feudal lords and was especially practiced by samurai, since the spirits in question were believed to bring luck in combat and to magically inspire skill in the martial arts. The peoples of Australia and the Pacific islands did not have extensive contact with outsiders until the era of European exploration, well after the Middle Ages. Their religions remained essentially shamanic: individuals mediated their  own contact with a spirit world seen in dreams and manifest throughout all of reality. Early European anthropologists tried to use concepts from these cultures to find universal definitions of religion and magic, but that effort has generally been discredited because they relied on Western science’s preconceptions. Many peoples in Polynesia, for instance, see the whole world as permeated by manna, a sort of divine energy that animates everything; to term this belief “magic” is a Western stereotyping of the native idea that does little or nothing to explain the concept within the context of the cultures where it existed.


Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Africa

Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Europe

Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Americas



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