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The Taoist search for the elixir of life (a life-extending potion) led to much experimentation with changing the state of minerals. The Chinese practice appears to have spread first to the Arab world and then to Europe. Chinese alchemy predates that of the Egyptians in Alexandria and other cities by about two centuries, beginning by 133 B.C.
Chinese alchemy used chemical techniques to prepare elixirs, which were perfected substances that brought about personal transcendence and eternal life. Elixirs could also be used for medical purposes and to transform ordinary metals into gold. That is how an alchemist might have defined "external alchemy" (wai-tan); its analogue, "internal alchemy" (nei-tan). used the language of the laboratory to teach meditational (or sometimes sexual) disciplines in which the adept's body was visualized as the reaction vessel and furnace. In the first millennium the two alchemies were regularly practiced together, but after 1200 little activity in the external art was recorded.
The materials and apparatus of alchemy were on the whole the same as those of pharmacology, with some contributions from metallurgy and other practical chemical arts. Certain developments, such as elaborate distilling vessels, appear so exclusively in alchemical literature that they may have originated there. The same may be said of gunpowder. What may be the earliest mention of flare mixture composition appears, oddly enough, in a list of external alchemists' misguided activities in a treatise on internal alchemy written not later than the end of the ninth century: "There was a case in which sulphur and realgar were mixed with saltpeter and honey, and burnt. Flames leapt up, burning the alchemist's hands and face and incinerating the building."
The roughly 100 remaining wai-tan books are probably the world's richest source for what was known about reactions and their products up to 1200. They reveal, in fact, that alchemy was not entirely qualitative; some adepts took a lively interest in what weights of reagents will combine to form a new substance.
Knowledge of chemical change was a means and by-product, but not the aim, of external alchemy. For some practitioners the goal was hardly distinguishable from that of medicine. Others were less interested in a product that would bring health or immortality than in the alchemical process, which they designed to serve as a model of the great cycles of nature, the rhythms of the Tao.
No mortal could experience the cosmic cycles in their millennial sweep. These alchemists accelerated the scale of time, using theories based on yinyang, the five phases, and numerology, to create, in a laboratory procedure that might require a few weeks to a year, an object of mystic contemplation. Their principle, like that of the Pythagoreans before them, was that to grasp the constant patterns that underlie the phenomenal chaos of experience is to be freed from the bonds of mortal finitude. As in the other Chinese sciences, the motivation that led to chemical discovery was connected to the deepest values of the seekers.
[ Last edited by changabula at 2007-2-9 04:51 AM ]