Chinese Alchemy - Magical Arts

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Chinese Alchemy
Magical Arts

Although “alchemy” is used to describe Chinese and Western traditions, their techniques and goals are not identical. Chinese alchemy places far greater emphasis on longevity and immortality than on the transmutation of metal and accumulation of wealth. Rather than acquisition of the Philosopher’s Stone, the Chinese alchemical obsession has traditionally involved discovery of a potion, pill or magical technique that would produce immortality. Metal, considered a fifth element in Chinese metaphysics, is used to obtain these goals. Although people frequently died during alchemical experimentation, allegedly these experiments were sometimes successful.

In addition to metal, it was believed that manipulating and absorbing another person’s magical power or life essence (see DICTIONARY: Chi) could also provide immortality, or at least extended longevity. Methods for absorbing another’s life essence often involved sophisticated sexual techniques. Eastern Alchemists were, thus, sometimes identified with incubuses, vampires, and fox spirits. (See ANIMALS: Foxes.)

In China, alchemy was identified with Taoism, the indigenous Chinese spiritual philosophy that emerged from shamanism. Sometimes, particularly in older texts, “Taoist” is used as a euphemism for “alchemist.” Alchemy was as disreputable in China as elsewhere; Buddhists and

Medieval alchemists were familiar with seven metals: they identified these with the seven known planets, the seven days of the week, and the zodiac signs. Each metal also had a symbol, based on astrological and planetary correspondences. Some planets are affiliated with two zodiac signs.


Confucians often tried to associate it with Taoism specifically to discredit Taoist sages.

Even if discredited and controversial, Chinese alchemy remained an unbroken, if secret, tradition for millennia. This was not the case in the West.

In 290 CE, the Roman Emperor Diocletian decreed the destruction of all works regarding the alchemical arts. Diocletian specifically condemned “old writings of the Egyptians which treat of the ’chemeia’ of gold and silver.”

Virtually all Egyptian alchemical texts were destroyed following Diocletian’s decree, thus the crucial significance of Zosimus’ work. Among the other few exceptions are two thirdcentury CE papyri discovered in a Theban gravesite. It is believed that because these papyri were buried, they escaped Diocletian’s massacre of manuscripts. These papyri were written in Greek and are now named for the cities where they can be found:

Image Leyden Papyrus X includes formulas for making alloys and for making metals resemble gold, a process known as “tinging.”

Image The Stockholm Papyrus contains about 150 recipes, of which 9 deal with metals and alloys. The remaining formulas relate to color dyeing, the production of artificial gems and pearls, and techniques of whitening pearls.

The study of alchemy in Alexandria centered in a building adjacent to the Temple of Serapis, which was destroyed in 391 CE on the orders of Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria. The study of alchemy went underground in Egypt. Persecuted scholars fled to Athens where some joined the academy of Proclus, the Thracian Neo-Platonist. However, this was only a shortlived solution as all Pagan traditions including alchemy were forbidden by the Emperor Justinian in 529.

Knowledge of alchemy survived in Arabia. Arabic scholars translated many ancient alchemical works, originally written mainly in Greek. Many ancient manuscripts survive only in Arabic translations. Alchemy officially reentered Europe when the Moors settled in Spain from the early eighth century onwards. (Jewish alchemists in Europe practiced discreetly; the strong identification of alchemy with Jews in medieval Europe enhanced its subversive aura for Christians.) Increased contact between Moors and Western Europeans beginning in the twelfth century eventually reintroduced alchemy to Christian Europe.

Chemistry (and modern science in general) is the daughter of alchemy, albeit an ungrateful one that usually tries to disparage and disavow its parent. Chemistry is the secular derivative of this once sacred art. Not that this would have been more respectable or less subversive during the witch-hunt era: many natural sciences were once also considered heretical by the Church.

The scientific laboratory is based on that of the alchemist, and many scientific procedures and instruments were first developed by alchemists. The word “experiment” was first used in the Middle Ages to refer to the practice of summoning spirits and is used in this context in medieval grimoires. Alchemists inspired the concept of the now clichéd “mad scientist.” Moreover, many of the founding fathers of modern science were alchemists and occultists, as, for instance, Sir Isaac Newton.

Alchemy still exists; this is not an extinct art. There are still alchemists, however the emphasis is no longer so much on metallurgy as on its spiritual, transformational aspects.

See also BOOKS: Library of the Lost; CREATIVE ARTS: Literature: Burn, Witch, Burn.