The Christ of Daoist Alchemy
To an outsider with an interest in East Asia like myself, one of the most striking things about the debate over Jesus, his life, and works is the narrow confines of the debate. Scraps of papyri are pored over for the most infinitesimal clues. Romans are contrasted with Greeks. Jesus is compared to other miracle-workers of the Hellenistic period. So thin is the evidence that trench warfare is fought over three or four contested paragraphs in a couple of ancient texts. What would it be like if we had a region with similar miracle claims, but with copious documentation? What if Jesus had left instruction kits for miracles? What if the Gospels had been written by men who had actually seen Jesus and others perform his miracles, and repeated them themselves? What would "miracle" mean in a society more technologically advanced and philosophically sophisticated than that of first century Palestine? What if the kind of evidence that apologists cite for the miracles of Jesus was actually greater for similar figures in another society?
To answer those questions, we must look across the Eurasian landmass to China, a society that had a full-blown bureaucratic state with state-funded military and scientific research institutes at the time of Jesus. Although, in most areas, China and the West were more or less on par at 500 BCE, by 50 CE China had raced ahead of the Greeks. Consider that by Jesus' time the Chinese had already been using the compass for 500 years, had invented or discovered negative numbers, the kite, relief maps, contour transport canals, hot-air balloons, the rudder, iron plows, seed tube drills, sunspots, Cardan suspension, cast iron, crank handles, deficiency diseases, geobotanical prospecting, cybernetic machines, lacquer (the first plastic), natural gas as fuel, calipers for measuring, paper, circulation of the blood, extracted higher mathematical roots and reached drilling depths of almost one mile. There was also a potent skeptical attitude among Confucian scholars that would have laughed Jesus out of the market. "The conclusion is that man has his happiness in his own hands, and that the spirits have nothing to do with it," stated Wang Chung, a towering first century thinker writing in a tradition that was already centuries old in his time. In first century China, the boundary of the miraculous was a lot farther away than in first century Palestine.
If we look at contemporaneous China, we find that there are reports of miracles and wonders among the ancient Daoist alchemists. These wonders are attested to in numerous documents over the centuries. As Joseph Needham, the author of the monumental work Science and Civilization in China, wrote in his introduction to the 4 volumes on alchemy in that work:
"The first question which is likely to occur to anyone curious about
the ways and means of finding out what China accomplished in the chemical
arts and sciences is -- what documents do we have? The answer is, a veritable
ocean, only a small part of which has yet been charted and explored; and
nearly all of this is in printed form."
In addition to the wonder stories, many of the people involved became deities who inspired other miracle workers. They are known and attested to by name, and specific miracles are attributed to them. Some of them are known historic personages.
In short, if we are asked to believe in Jesus on the evidence we have, we cannot but believe in the miracles of the Daoist adepts, because the evidence for them is far more copious, diverse and independent. For example, the adept Wei Po-yang, discussed below, is attested to by works from his own hand, works by his disciples, and other works doubtfully attributed to him. As we shall see, Wei is also deity credited with giving the elixir of immortality to a dog.
Daoist Alchemy: Some Basic Ideas
Daoist alchemical practices fall into two basic groups, those of the External Elixir (waidan), which sought eternal life through chemistry, and the Internal Elixir (neidan), which took a physiological approach. Both have common roots. Waidan practitioners flourished from about 200 BCE to 1000 CE, overlapping with the time of Jesus. It is on them we will focus.
The waidan adepts sought, among other things, to develop an elixir of immortality based on some combination of alchemical theory and experimentation. This immortality was material, not spiritual. The adept actually went on living in his physical body, preserved by the secrets he had learned. Such elixirs were made of precious metals and mercury in most cases, and were highly poisonous. It was the eventual early deaths of so many test subjects, including several Emperors, that caused the abandonment of this program and the gradual focus on neidan, the cultivation of the powers in the adepts's own body rather than in some external substance. Of course, waidan adepts developed gymnastic, sexual, respiratory and dietetic techniques for prolonging life. Taoists also put forth an ethical system to complement their magical system.
Many magical powers were attributed to Waidan adepts. In addition to immortality, they were also said to have turned lead to gold. "Various magical operations," as Needham notes, "[such as] confining a spirit in a bean and making images speak; are met with on every other page of Daoist philosophical books." Flying and riding the wind are commonplaces. In short, the miracles of Daoist adepts are more abundant and diverse than those of Jesus.
It is important to note some fundamental differences. There was a strong skeptical strain in Daoist writings. They pooh-poohed many folk beliefs and maintained that theirs were superior, because they had the support of an experimental methodology. They would also have found Jesus' miracles ridiculous, because they violated nature rather than worked with it, as the adepts claimed they themselves did. Some may regard this as the difference between "magic" and "miracles," but from this vantage point that distinction looks like simple ethnocentrism: your "miracles" are "magic," but my "miracles" are "true miracles." Each side had its own view of the Possible. There is, as a matter of practical ability, little to distinguish between the descriptions given in the texts of making someone immortal and raising someone from the dead. By any scientific standard, both are equally impossible.
Texts, and then Some
Speaking of texts, the sheer volume of them is staggering. There are more than 1,500 texts in Daoist canon. These were divided into three traditional groupings around 400 CE, when there were fewer texts. Four Supplements were added later, containing new works. Printing was common from the 8th century onwards in China, and the Daoist canon was printed in medieval times. Consequently, except for objects recovered from tombs by archaeologists, almost everything we have is printed.
However, these figures hardly scratch the surface. In addition to the texts by the alchemists themselves mentioned above, there are dictionaries and other lexigraphic tools, encyclopedias, dynastic histories of "unimpeachable historic quality," pharmaceutical natural histories (from the 200 BCE on), an enormous medical literature, and finally, numerous diaries, memorabilia, notes, personal observations and novels and works of fiction. The range of literature on Daoist adepts is vast, and no man knows even a small portion of it. New texts are found constantly as unopened tombs yield their wealth. For example, from the tomb of the son of the Lady of Tai (described below) were recovered texts describing how to achieve longevity through the use of planetary influences. Jesus never left us an instruction kit like that.
By comparison, Greek, Roman and Jewish works surviving from the first century are few. Jesus does not appear in any comparable contemporaneous works. Not until fifty to a hundred years or so after his own lifetime does he finally start showing up in plays, poems, stories, encyclopedias and so forth. The Daoists also left behind an inexhaustible trove of material evidence of their existence, in the form of archaeological data. Jesus left no material mark upon the world.
Glimpses of Nirvana
We'll begin by taking a short look at the Daoist concept of ascension, and a long one at an individual Daoist alchemist.
In the Hou Han Shu, there is a story of how the adept Gong Shang-cheng ascended into heaven, witness by two well-known scholars. This event is also recorded in another work, Chang Yen, although the names of the people in question are not the same. The Tai Ping Qing, written at the same time, also speaks of adepts rising to heaven. In 60 BCE we find the scholar Wang Pao bitterly criticizing immortals for cutting themselves off from humanity. Similar attacks are known from multiple sources from 196 BCE onward. The Prince of Huai Nan, the subject of a book written about 100 BCE, ascended into heaven with his circle of adepts, as well as their domestic servants and household animals. Dynastic histories, like the Shi Ji, also record Daoist adepts achieving immortality. A stone inscription from 7 CE, entitled Memorial of the Immortal, Tang Gong-fang, tells the story of a minor local official on the border between Shenxi and Sichuan who became a Daoist adept by studying with a master. Tang could conjure up scenery for those who wished, and magically call rats. He became the target of the King's ire when he refused to teach the King. To escape the King, he rose to heaven (with family, domestics, and livestock) through the assistance of his mentor.
Compare the enormous range of evidence contained in this small paragraph with that for Jesus. Not only do we have the testimony of the adepts themselves (no texts from Jesus have come down to us), we have eyewitness testimony, second-hand reports of eyewitness testimony, third-hand garbled reports, the testimony of the adepts' opponents (there is no corresponding record from Jesus' enemies), and inscriptions (none of Jesus). Clearly, by the standards of evidence applied to the New Testament by apologists, Daoist adepts were ascending into heaven on a regular basis. As we shall see below, it gets even worse for biblical apologists.
Wei Po-yang was an alchemical adept who wrote one of the earliest and most influential books of alchemical theory ever written, the Zhou Yi Can Tong Ji (hereafter termed "ZYCTJ"; it has several names). It was, literally, the Bible (later adepts simply referred to it as 'the Canon') and every Daoist magician worth his salt was familiar with it. It was written in 142 CE. Several other texts are ascribed to Wei, but the attributions are generally considered apocryphal.
Very little is known about the early life of Wei Po-yang. He is not mentioned in any of the dynastic histories. A fourth-century tradition relates that he was from the state of Wu in what is now Zhejiang. In his own work Wei states that he was from Guiji and that he avoided government service, apparently refusing a post at court about 121 CE. A later tradition had him passing on his art to a high administrative official in Loyang, a known figure who left his post about 150 CE. Based on the dating of his book and other evidence, his dates are generally thought to be roughly 100 CE to 170 CE.
How do we know that ZYTCJ was written so early? Barely eighty years later there is a commentary on it by the scholar Yu Fan. Ge Hong, a famous fourth-century adept, noted it in a bibliography he compiled, and it pops up in Sui and Tang bibliographies. The Shen Xian Chuan,
a fourth-century text, scornfully records that "ordinary Confucians, knowing nothing of alchemy, have commented on it as though it were a treatise on the Yin and Yang, thus completely misunderstanding it." The earliest extant edition is a printed version from about 1550 CE, but the innumerable commentaries and criticisms of it make clear we have a good text. The Dao Cang, a compilation of about 1,500 Daoist texts dating from the Tang (but recompiled in the Song several times) contains no less then ten commentaries on it. Its enormous influence continued well into modern times, and commentaries were still being written as late as 1820. In the Ming a group of scholars even produce a faked "original version" of it, a move reminiscent of the fortuitous discovery of the Law in the Temple in the Old Testament.
The topic of ZYTCJ is the preparation of magical elixirs. In addition to ZYTCJ magical elixirs are attested to many other contemporaneous works. The Tang or Song (eighth to tenth century) work The Yellow Emperor's Canon of the Nine-Vessel Spiritual Elixir, with Explanations, incorporates a second-century text that gives names and recipes for magical elixirs.
Biographies of adepts of the period are preserved in numerous texts, hagiographies and dynastic histories. Pharmaceutical texts, such as Shen Nong's Materia Medica, an early fourth-century text, also attest to the healing power of alchemist's potions. In fact, the neighboring nation of Annam (Vietnam) recorded a healing of its Emperor by the famous adept Tong Feng in the second century. Contemporaneous accounts, as we just saw, also attest to the achievement of immortality by various Daoist adepts, and the general feeling that it could in fact be done.
Wei's work is heavy with metaphors and light on direct details. His use of Chinese was considered exquisite by later commentators, which tells us more about their love of obfuscation than Wei's ability to express ideas. Many of the chemical reactions are referred to in vague and cryptic terms, specified in later alchemical texts and commentaries. Wei warned his followers to be circumspect in introducing others to this knowledge, and stressed the paramount role of oral transmission of knowledge through a master, rather than mere reliance on a text.
A theoretical work, ZYTCJ emphasized processes that were based on Yin-Yang dualism as expressed in the Yi Jing, familiar to westerners as the Book of Changes. The sequence of steps is controlled by the use of trigrams and hexagrams from the Yi Jing. Reactants, always in pairs, are put in a sealed chamber, where they are subjected to heat in a cyclical fashion. ZYTCJ is less interested in products, and rarely refers to them. The practical steps in getting from reaction products to immortality, as Needham noted, are simply left for later alchemists to work out. In the lone instance where he gives a recipe for an elixir of immortality, he uses euphemisms for the two main ingredients. Naturally, that passage excited much frustrated commentary over the ensuing centuries.
Despite his neglect of details, Wei does, however, maintain that it is possible to become a true Daoist immortal "through taking drugs [made from] substances of the same category." Category theory was a crucial aspect of Daoist alchemy, and even in the 2nd century of this era Wei was already the aware of several centuries of development of the idea. However, it was not a classification system a la Linneaus, but an elaboration of partly mystical concepts of relationships between things in the world. As such, it could never serve as the basis of a science, and never grew into one. Wei provided a basis for alchemy, but ensured that it would never break free of its mystical shackles. On a practical level, his emphasis on mercury, lead, sulfur, gold and other poisonous substances ensured that successful followers would lead short lives.
Wei's theoretical treatise became the foundation of Chinese alchemy and all later practitioners drew on it. It is not merely a collection of chemistry recipes, but a philosophical system and belief system that produced hundreds of thousands of adherents, commentators, disciples, and adepts. In addition to its influence on Chinese chemistry, some of its ideas reached the West as transmissions from China. In short, it has had a global, though subtle, influence.
In addition to his alchemical writings, Wei also founded a school of self-cultivation, known as lian-yang. Its long reach is still felt by Daoists doing physiological alchemy even today. Thus, his work created two schools, one of macrobiotic alchemy, the other of physiological. In addition to the proto-chemistry, it appears that Wei was aware that useful substances could be obtained from urine, in other words, he knew of a tradition of proto-endocrinology as well. Daoist writings are couched in allegorical language, and much of their knowledge was kept secret, so it is difficult to know for sure.
There is, however, another side to Wei, one of interest to us. He is one of the Daoist Immortals, a divine being. In Daoist tradition Wei is known as the "Highest Purity Adept" or the "Cloudy-Banner Master." There is an extensive hagiography of Wei. An encyclopedia published in the Ming (1670 CE) tells us he learnt the art of immortality from Yin Chang-sheng, an early adept who is associated with many apocryphal writings.
By the fourth century there was already an old tradition of Wei's immortality. One of the oft-retold stories about him is related in a text of that time usually attributed to Ge Hong (but most likely not by him). Wei, it seems, went into the mountains to prepare elixirs. With him went three disciples, two of whom he felt lacked faith in him. He decided to test them. He made an elixir of gold, and gave it to a dog. If the animal lived and soared into the air, he told them, then the liquid would be safe for human beings, if it died, then the liquid would be unsafe. Wei gave the elixir to a dog and the animal promptly died.
Wei then dolefully confessed that he had screwed up the potion, and asked the disciples for their suggestions. They replied by asking him if he would take it himself. Wei noted that he had already forsaken the world, so why not? He popped it in his mouth and fell down dead.
Observing this, one of the disciples reasoned that his master must have had some idea of what he was doing, so he took the potion and expired. The other two disciples chickened out and left to get coffins for the unhappy trio of dog, disciple and demigod.
After they had gone, men and beast revived, no worse for the wear, and went off to tread the paths of the immortals. But on the way, they sent a letter by a friendly woodcutter to the two disciples thanking them for their kindness in procuring coffins. The two reprobates were filled with regret when they read the letter.
This popular story is noteworthy for many reasons (among them the idea of animal experimentation in the fourth century) but also because it contains elements that any literary analyst would immediately recognize as mythic. Two, the faithless disciples and the return from the dead, are also features of the Jesus myth.
Having sketched (just) some of the fabulous history of Wei Po-yang, we are now in a position to take a comparative look at the "evidence" for the divine status of Wei and Jesus, and what it means. Since a picture is worth a thousand characters, let's do it in tabular form.
The table above incorporates some typical claims of apologists, a few criteria I have put forth on my own, and a couple of satirical reflections on history. Nevertheless it illuminates a singular point about Wei: if you accept, on the evidence, that Jesus was a god with miraculous powers, you must also accept, on the same or even better evidence, that Wei was a god with miraculous powers too. In fact, it is clear that there are a few areas where Wei exceeds Jesus. For example, Wei has some practical knowledge about the world, Wei left a firsthand text, and the efficacy of Wei's magical system is attested to by numerous contemporary and later records and texts. Jesus raised humans, Wei raised humans and animals. On the negative side, Wei never claimed to be a god, but then Jesus was somewhat ambiguous on the issue as well. Nobody ever claimed Wei's father was a god, either.
Historical arguments also confirm Wei's divinity. Wei founded a system that spread throughout his culture area, as did Jesus. Jesus' system continues today. So does Wei's. History is on Wei's side too. Wei's followers killed only themselves and others, a handful compared to the millions killed in Jesus' name. Wei's followers did not suppress documents and beliefs unfavorable to them. Christians did. As we will see in the last paragraph of this piece, archaeology confirms the extraordinary chemical accomplishments of the Daoist adepts, whereas it has nothing at all to say about Jesus.
In sum, there is little or no major evidence that can be asserted for Jesus that cannot be asserted for Wei as well. Widespread influence? Got it. Second-hand evidence of miracles? No problem. Raising the dead? Been there, done that. Promise of eternal life? You betcha.
Of course, Wei is hardly the only figure out of Chinese alchemical history I could adduce. There are numerous others with varying degrees of attestation. Ge Hong, whose dates are 283 CE to 343 CE, is in many ways an even richer figure who left a number of writings and is attested to by many contemporaneous documents. In addition to alchemy, Ge Hong left his mark as a physician, and in the fields of mineralogy, meteorology, and astronomy. He was also an officer in the army for a time. His famous bibliography of alchemical texts has 206 entries, few of which have survived. His own works are very widely cited and commented on.
Ge Hong's most famous work, Bao Pu Zi, which discusses the creation of gold, was written about 320 CE. It is chock full of supernatural events. People, Ge Hong avers, can turn into animals, men into women, and thus, by extension, lead into gold. Many "natural" examples of metamorphosis are cited, such as sparrows into clams, pheasants into mussels, alligators into tigers, and others. "I guarantee you that…gold and silver can be [successfully] sought," he says. He adds, of course, that due to wars and financial difficulties, he has not yet done it himself. His master had, however. Once, when Ge Hong asked him why they didn't use genuine gold for research into immortality, his master replied that poor adepts couldn't afford real gold, and thus, were forced to make it!
As for personal experience, Ge Hong had seen, touched and worked with artificial gold, and is able to tell us many things about it. In fact, it is, in his eyes, better than the real thing. Ge Hong also describes medicines for melting ice instantly, floating on water, and returning certain frightened souls to the body. According to his first-hand testimony, incense was used in his laboratory to purify his laboratory of demons. Common drugs, he claims, can restore the dead. He provides lists of famous immortals, and stories of supernatural events, both of which have "independent confirmation" in other extant texts. The thinking person will make his or her own decision whether multiple citation constitutes confirmation of the supernatural.
The stories of Ge and Wei also illustrate another point. Far from being handicapped by the lack of mention of Jesus in contemporary records, Christians in fact benefit from the dearth of information about their man. We can test Wei's recipes and assess the veracity of his claims against the rich tradition of Confucian scholasticism and later Taoist writings. Had Jesus been as exhaustively recorded, it is doubtful that any objective record would show the alleged miracles that took place at his execution, since none do now. More records would simply mean more contradictions, more hard-to-explain-away stories, and more uncomfortable details. Without countervailing evidence, Christians are free to go by the book they have edited and redacted over the years, the New Testament. The lack of records puts skeptics at a disadvantage. We have to argue from their (edited) evidence.
I beg the reader's indulgence to add one more story about the amazing alchemists of ancient China. In the 1970s the Tomb of the Lady of Tai was discovered during construction for a hospital in Hunan. Needham writes of that tomb: "...but an unprecedented finding then showed that the ancient Daoists knew how to achieve an almost perpetual conservation. A large tomb excavated at Ma-wang Dui near Changsha proved to the of a Lady of Tai, apparently the wife of the first Lord of that [kingdom] ... She would have died about 186 BCE, and the painted outer coffins were filled with a great variety of rich and beautiful objects, then sealed tightly with layers of charcoal and a kind of sticky white clay ... when the body was finally uncovered it was found to be like that of a person who had died only a week or two before. The elasticity of the subcutaneous tissues was conserved in an extraordinary way, for when the skin was pressed it at once returned to normal when the pressure was released. Similarly, preservative solutions when injected raised swellings which after a short time subsided. The body was partly immersed in a brown aqueous liquid, which contained mercuric sulfide, the atmosphere in the coffins was largely methane under some pressure, the temperature had been constant at about 13 C, and the coffin complex had been air-tight and water-tight."
Jesus left us nothing as astounding as that.
 Needham, Joseph. 1974. Science and Civilization in China, Vol 5:2. Caves Books, Taipei: Taiwan, p.1
 Needham, Joseph. 1974. Science and Civilization in China, Vol 5:2. Caves Books, Taipei: Taiwan, p. 83
 Needham, Joseph. 1974. Science and Civilization in China, Vol 5:2. Caves Books, Taipei: Taiwan, p. 303-4. Han tombs were underground and thus temperatures remained constant. Most were either pillaged by grave robbers or flooded; few have survived intact.
Information for this article was drawn from Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, Volume 5, sections 2-5, from Temple, Robert, The Genius of China, Simon and Schuster, 1986, and from Ancient China's Technology and Science, compiled by the Institute of the History of the Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Beijing: Foreign Language Press.
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