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Chinese Alchemy and Art by Jeannie Radcliffe

Does Alchemical Imagery in Chinese Alchemy contain codes that may help us understand the Alchemical Work?

Alchemy is a subject that has fascinated individuals for thousands of years. Even today this interest continues unabated albeit in many disparate forms. Billions of dollars are spent every year on scientists seeking techniques and formulas that will prolong life, heal illnesses and transform the populace to a higher standard of living. The debate of what alchemy is or is not makes this subject hard to penetrate as well as being difficult to define. For the purpose of this essay, Fabrizio Pregadio gives one of the best precis of the complexities involved in a study of this subject when he says:

"The definition of Alchemy varies according to the emphasis given to its religious, spiritual, intellectual, technical or proto-scientific features. Most scholars however, agree that the purpose of the alchemical practice is to accomplish a transmutation that affects not only the elixir ingredients but also the person who achieves it. As part of this larger process, the practice provides ritual and symbolic support to understanding the origin and nature of the cosmos and gaining access to the forces governing its functioning represented as supernatural beings or as abstract notions. Thus the elixir represents both the authentic state of the cosmos and the knowledge acquired by the adept. This definition also applies to Chinese alchemy but within this common frame waidan writings differ in the emphasis that they give to either religious or ritual features or to the principles of cosmological thought."

China is particularly interesting because it has a documented history of such endeavors that stretch back into the mists and legends of pre written history. The association of Alchemy with Daoism, which is a native and natural outcome of Chinese culture and history, has ensured that there is a lengthy history of various practices and materials associated with Alchemy that is absent from the pre - Christian Era of Western European culture.

My interest in the art and symbolism of Western Alchemy deepened in 1991 when I saw a colored version of the Mutus Liber in the University of Sydney library. Whilst I was familiar with this book and a number of other books that contained image sequences, I had never seen them in color. It was like a revelation to me, images that had seemed flat and lifeless, were immediately rendered more vividly meaningful. The 'red man and his white wife', the green lion, red dragon, the double mercury or hermaphrodite, not to mention the purple king and black Saturn, green Venus and blue Jupiter, were no longer abstract descriptive words but enlivened with color and context.

The span of the images is not restricted to the art used to describe alchemical processes, but also in depictions that show how alchemists lived their lives, how they were perceived by others and how they perceived themselves. Images range from the fanciful to drawings or paintings showing alchemists at work with examples of their equipment. Putting together art and text may enable us to gain a fuller insight into the lives of different peoples.

The study of Western Alchemy can be an arduous and often frustrating task although this has improved markedly since the advent of computer technology. It is not an innate part of our larger cultural experience but was imported and practiced by a very few. I think it would be fair to say that almost all of the extant manuscripts in English were originally translated from either Greek or Arabic into Latin before being translated into English. Some issues associated with this topic that may be relevant to explore briefly before approaching this subject:

(a) It is difficult to tell if a translation is meaningful or literal, fanciful interpretation or factual.

(b) Is the text an authentic laboratory recipe?

(c) An analogy for either an inner transformation process?

(d) Is it a coded pictorial description of certain rites and rituals carried out by different groups that have more to do with magic than Alchemy?

(e) Many alchemical recipes use symbols as a type of shorthand that must be explained by a person familiar with the technique.

In Western alchemy some of the more common symbols are used in astrology as well as metallurgy and chemistry. I would expect this would be similar in Chinese Alchemy if as Ko Hung suggests, it follows the Western pattern of keeping the practices hidden from the profane who seek to profit by the knowledge of others.

The immediate difficulty I encountered was my inability to read Chinese thus I am unable to check the text for myself. While it is easy to use a simple dictionary translation, words only serve to multiply the problem of interpretation. There are multiple meanings for one thing, for example there are at least ten or twelve main variants on terms for Mercury alone. In order to continue I decided to approach the subject from a visual perspective. This means I had to look for Alchemy in the arts and crafts of China, to seek out the signs and symbols that would point to where Alchemy had been, who was participating and what they were doing. In fact, could I, as a Westerner, be able to learn about this culture from this perspective?

In part what I have to do is to learn to recognize images, equipment, or themes that indicate its presence.

I am looking for images that would indicate to me if there was a specific culture related to the practice of alchemy, if there was a specific type of imagery or art that may be perceived as Alchemical, as well as Daoist.

"The majority of art historians in The West who specialize in Chinese art are generally unaware of the detailed history of Daoism, particularly religious Daoism: in this way they are not so different from the majority of western sinologists."

In this way alchemical imagery is probably largely unrecognized because of it's association with Daoism. By far the majority of alchemists in the translations from Chinese are involved in Daoism rather than Confucianism.

"There is much more evidence of the engagement of the Chinese literati of the Ming with Daoism than has hereto fore been recognized. Shen zhou and We Zhengming, the two leading masters of the Wu School of painting in the 15th and sixteenth century, was well versed in Daoist lore. In his poetry, Shen Zhou demonstrates a profound knowledge of Daoist alchemy and its history. The engagement of the visually sophisticated literati of the late Ming with Daoism is demonstrated in the subject matter of two well known masterpieces of deluxe woodblock printing, The Chengshi moyuan (Cheng Family Compendium of cake Designs: dated 1606) and the Shizhu zhai jianpu (ten Bamboo Studio Album of Letter Papers: Early 17th Century) The Chengshi moyuan presents a panoply of Daoist and cosmological images, beginning with the Taiji diagram. Among the most striking images in this book are the images of the gods of the twenty-eight lunar mansions accompanied by their Daoist talismans. Similarly the Shizhu zhai jianpu."
"One of the most brilliant examples of Ming woodblock printing includes an astonishing array of Daoist images, some straight forward and others utterly mysterious".

Here is a clue that the literati became more involved in Daoism and possibly inevitably alchemy.

A reading of the biography of Ko Hung, a Chinese alchemist of (A.D. 280 - 320) reveals the story of a simple person. Ko Hung portrays himself as the ideal of a humble sage who doesn't seek riches or fame. He lives in poverty with no servants and only his old wife and little children. His sole pleasure consists of collecting and copying texts, stories and recipes on aspects of attaining immortality. Ko Hung says he was unable to make any of the Elixirs, as he was too poor to afford the ingredients. His story is of someone spending a lifetime dedicated to collecting alchemical information to pass onto to others that they might benefit or succeed where he didn't.

The first image we look at depicts the site of Ko Hung's southern hermitage laboratory. (Fig 1)


The buildings were added to over the years and we are looking at 1200 years of tradition up until the 16th century when the image was made. Ko Hung was only one in a long line of sages in his family who practiced alchemy, both his uncle and father in-law were alchemical sages who came from a recognized lineage going back for many generations. Although he decries his poor state we can read that he was high enough in the civil service to get a transfer as a governor to an area where the best cinnabar was found. It is in this Southern area that this image was made albeit centuries later. A quick glance at the lineage shows that there were two main streams in which family tradition figures prominently with many of them being teachers or students to each other. (Fig.2)


We see that far from them being isolated hermits, they were part of a tradition. That they lived in communities isolated from the mainstream is not quite the same as being totally isolated hermits as most of the literature suggests. The next image, from the modern era, is a photo of a painted scroll depicting him in his cave/laboratory. (Fig 3)


One of the first things that you notice is that he is not doing the work but has more of the attitude or stance of an overseer. The equipment comprises of a mirror (far right corner) a furnace (center) and a vase like container towards the rear. A sword is sticking out of the back of the furnace and there are a number of containers at the entrance. Furnaces were a crucial part of the equipment but furnaces require fuel and I wonder what they would have used to heat them.

I wish to depart here and look at some of the concepts and analogical images associated with alchemy.

In the western alchemical literature the stages of alchemical colors in the work are black, white, yellow and red. The black color can be substituted with green when depicting the process of putrefaction or blue for the process of dissolution and this is often repeated in the imagery. Knowing if colour is one of the keys is often an important pointer when it comes to interpreting a text.

"In place of a color theory based on natural observation, the traditional Chinese painter inherited a pedigreed system of color symbolism, in which five colors were designated as representing the cardinal points of the compass and the primal forces of nature. The South is a red phoenix reflecting the nature of the tropical summer sun while North was the cold arctic winter represented by two black reptiles the snake and the tortoise. The East was a blue green dragon representing the sea whilst the West was a white tiger representing the tall snow covered mountain peaks. The stable center of the Chinese realm was symbolized by the yellow dragon. Heaven lies to the north and is black."

It is continually stressed in books on Chinese painting that every brushstroke is meaningful and meant to capture the spirit of that being depicted. Given that is true, we must necessarily take this into account when studying any piece of art and the place it occupied in Daoist society.

Penney shows how the hexagrams of the I Ching relate to the various stages of heating and sublimation, and the way the whole cyclic nature of the process imitates nature.

"The description of the alchemical process in these sources is based on three sets of emblems:"

(1) the lines, trigrams and hexagrams of the Yijing

(2) the five agents together with the associated categories of entities and phenomena

(3) Alchemical symbols proper."

It is not my intention to focus on inner alchemy, nevertheless it is important to recognize there is a crossover between the terms and imagery used in both. Some of the analogies of the principles found in inner alchemy and outer alchemy.

'True Earth (Philosophical Earth) Symbolism: The centre, the yellow court, medicinal spoon, yellow woman, the crossroads, the attainment of true intent".

"True Lead. Metal, black tiger, white tiger, iron man, golden flower, north star, metal within water, rabbit in the moon, one thing, the cultivation of true sense."

"True Mercury is represented by the dragon, the East, a blue dragon, a red dragon, the wood mother, the girl, the raven in the sun, mercury within cinnabar, flowing pearl, this is the depiction of the one thing of spiritual essence."

When the Japanese monk Ennin traveled to China in the year 838 AD, he collected not only Buddhist texts but also commissioned artists to copy several large paintings from the monastery. His goal was to take a copy of these paintings back to Japan as they helped illustrate certain teachings that had been imparted to him orally. It is suffice to say that art played a large part of religious life. As objects of meditation, mandalas are used to focus the mind and to allow one to become one with the imagery, to literally 'get' the picture.

The Three Essentials according to imagery used in inner alchemy show the diversity of images used for the same concept approached from different directions and according to different situations and levels and the degree of fire required to complete the work.

In this image, a scene from Wu Liang tomb shrines (c +147)(Fig 4)


This image ostensibly shows magician-technicians at work. This image is interpreted as being mainly concerned with divination. If, however one looks closely one can see a number of elements that may be interpreted as alchemical. In the center foreground there is a table which contains two plates containing unidentifiable substances as well as four objects that look rather like the reaction vessels reconstructed and used by Nathan Sivin in 1962 to make the "Scarlet Snow and Flowing Pearls Elixir'.
(Fig 5)


To the right of this is a vessel that could be used as a ritual vessel or a vessel used for alchemical operations. The sage at the far left back is pointing at the board on the wall as well as to what is sitting on the table to the center rear of the picture. The other sage looks as if he is getting ready to lift the lid on the vessel. Part of the difficulty of interpreting any image lies on our ability to recognize what we are looking at.

The fact that not all Daoists lived lives of poverty is borne out by the images available. Most of the images depict the masters accompanied by one or more disciples and are seen living in communities that comprised of different families and their associated lineage. Certainly they did not live in total isolation since most sages are depicted as having one or more disciples. Disciples also traveled to and lived in places where they had contact with other practitioners or teachers.

In examining the images of alchemists for coded meanings, it is difficult to find anything apart from those things that identify them personally.

Time in a society was a luxury and time to study and practice away from people was almost a prerequisite.

The banner from the tomb of the Lady of T'ai is a highly colored intricate embroidery. (Fig 6)


This banner covered a series of highly decorated lacquer coffins that were covered in Daoist imagery. This may be a purely allegorical depiction but it shows also that there was in existence a sequential and hierarchical aspect that had readily identifiable symbols such as the dragons, the sun, moon, toad and blackbird. If one looks at the banner as an overall theme, it can be seen that there are definite shapes that could be considered in certain ways. For example the shape at the bottom of the panel looks like a bottle or jar. The vessel may be seen as a sublimation vessel with the unredeemed matter (wingless dragons) at the bottom, the arena above it contains the cooking vessels in this way the material is raised up through the higher levels until one reaches the immortal realm.

Although the inner coffin contained mercuric sulfide, I have seen no information that links this image with anything specifically alchemical. Indeed as an image, this is not generally considered to have any connection with practical alchemy, per se. There is one particular scene on the banner that shows a large quantity of vessels, large and small that may be interpreted as cooking ware or ritual vessels. The goods in this tomb show she lived in incredible opulence and occupied a high place in society. She must also have been associated with those who were able to obtain and distil the precious Mercurial liquid. It is difficult from the information available to correctly identify the uses of the ritual vessels. The multi purpose uses of the vessels make it even more likely that the link between ordinary cooking vessels and scientific usage is not made. In most of the images, the alchemist is shown with a furnace of one sort or another.(Fig 7)


In the image of Thai Hsuan Nu, a woman alchemist, the equipment she is using looks much like that which can be found in almost any kitchen but is much simpler than that depicted on the funeral banner as already seen above. It would be quite difficult to try and work out what she was actually working on. In contemplating any western alchemical image, great attention is often paid to detail, gestures and colors, the types of plants or trees may be very important in correctly identifying methods and materials. In this image the vegetation is outside the wall. Here we see that she appears to be pointing at the wall, but is impossible to find any real meaning in this image.

To find images that are strictly alchemical is made difficult because the terminology, concepts and vessels are used for day to day things such as direction, elements, taste, object, color and gender.

On the simplest level, certain images exist that are common to both eastern and western alchemy. Dragons, phoenixes, the sun and moon, the red (yang) man and his white (yin) wife are among some of the more common images. There are different colored dragons, winged and wingless, symbolizing certain things in the Chinese pantheon with similar images in the western tradition.

In studying this subject, it became obvious that there were similarities between western and eastern alchemy that was not so much obvious in the art but the culture. In both the East and West this particular culture was protected not so much by its secrecy, as by the real meaning of the processes being given only to those initiated into an oral tradition. Alchemists generally avoided the limelight and tried to live away from the crowds where their actions would come under the scrutiny of the uninitiated.

Any further in depth study would require access to a greater range of art works than were covered here. My original idea of codes contained within the images did not gain any support from this study.

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Jeannie Radcliffe 2001