Yan Liu-Price of Immortality: Elixir Poisoning in Chinese Alchemy (4th-9th century)


Thursday, February 13, 2014, 6:00pm to 8:00pm



The tradition of alchemy in China is long. Unlike Western alchemy that focused on transmuting metals into gold, Chinese alchemy primarily aimed to make elixirs to achieve immortality. The materials used in Chinese tradition were mainly minerals – many of them toxic by modern standard. These include cinnabar, mercury, lead, sulfur, and arsenic. These elixirs, once ingested, often caused traumatic bodily experiences, and death. If the appeal of the elixir was high, so was its price. Chinese alchemists, strangely, continued the practice for almost a millennium. This paper examined the flourishing period of Chinese alchemy (4th – 9th century), focusing on the medical implications of elixir taking. It asked two questions. First, why did the practice last so long, given its apparently harmful, often lethal effects on the body? Second, what caused its eventual decline in the 9th century, replaced by meditation-based practice? By studying four distinct stages during this period, the paper traced the complex and dynamic meanings of toxicity as understood by Chinese alchemists, bolstered by their changing views of the bodily experiences induced by the elixirs. I argued that Chinese alchemists’ changing perceptions of an “elixirated body,” in both material and cosmological senses, played a crucial role in the persistence and the ultimate decline of their elixir-making practice.