I visited Fu Yue, bestriding a dragon,
Joined in marriage with the Weaving Maiden,
Lifted up Heaven’s Net to capture evil,
Drew the Bow of Heaven to shoot at wickedness,
Followed the Immortals fluttering through the sky,
Ate of the Primal Essence to prolong my life.
“Li Sao” (離騷 “On Encountering Trouble”)
After a long day of riding dragons, marrying maidens, fighting wickedness and admiring the flying Immortals, there’s nothing like a healthy bite of Primal Essence and perhaps a strong shot of the Golden Elixir, according to this Taoist poet writing in China around 300-200 BCE.
The Golden Elixir or Elixir of Life was believed to make one immortal, able to fly, live in jade towers on distant mountains and spout fountains of wisdom.
To modern ears, the Elixir of Life sounds like a folk tale. But, for the Taoists of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) it fit with their belief in the transformation of qi, the life force of everything, which led the universe through constant cycles of creation and re-creation. Alchemy, then, could also be found in the transformation of qi—turning base metals such as lead into noble metals like gold.
In 60 BCE, the Han Emperor appointed a scholar to be what could be translated as Master of Recipes (or Formulas) to “make alchemical gold and prolong the Emperor’s life.”
The Taoist alchemists faced quite a challenge: where do you find the true formula for the Elixir of Life? Where do you even begin?
Logically, you begin with what you already know: medicinal substances such as saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and sulfur combined. The alchemist compounds were viewed as the most sophisticated medical treatments of the day, even though many compounds were toxic. Saltpeter and sulfur combined were used to treat malaria, skin diseases and to purify infections and toxins.
In 142 CE, Han Dynasty—some 200 years after the Master of Recipes began his work (See timeline below)—the alchemist, Wei Boyang, observed in his book on alchemy, Book of the Kinship of Three, that heat caused his compound “to fly and dance” violently. Over the years, other alchemists experimented. In 300 CE, alchemist Ge Hong wrote of adding heat to a mixture of saltpeter, pine resin and other carbon materials in the first printed recipe for what we now recognize as gunpowder.
Although the alchemists of China were far from discovering the elixir of life, they were unknowingly developing recipes for proto-gunpowder. In a 492 CE text, it was noted that burning saltpeter emitted purple flames. Many alchemists noted the purple flames.
About 350 years later, in Classified Essentials of the Mysterious Tao of the True Origins of Things (858 CE) an alchemist wrote:
Some have heated together sulfur, realgar, and saltpeter with honey; smoke (and flames) result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house (where they were working) burned down.
The latest Elixir of Life recipe must have exploded burning the alchemists and destroying their house in fire. It was coolly noted that this combination was not the true elixir of life.
But, it was a clear demonstration of the power of gunpowder if they were willing to make the connection. Alchemists called the exploding mixture “fire medicine,” which is still the term for gunpowder.
Fifty years after the burned house was reported, gunpowder was first used in battle to enhance a long familiar weapon: the 1000-year-old flaming arrow. The new idea was added to a well-known weapon. Gunpowder provided the jolt to ignite flaming arrows in flight in battle in 904 CE.
By 969, gunpowder was first used to propel fire lances in battle. By the end of the tenth century, Chinese military and bureaucrats organized to manufacture gunpowder at industrial levels. They invited anyone in the realm to present gunpowder use ideas. Good ideas were handsomely rewarded. Within 50 years, the Chinese had “thunder clap bombs,” fireballs, gunpowder pots and caltrops (a type of land mine.)
Timeline for the development of gunpowder over 1029 years:
|60 BCE||142 CE||300 CE||492 CE||858 CE||969 CE|
|Royal decree: Master of Recipes||Flying & dancing powder||1st gunpowder recipe published||Purple flames||House burned||Gunpowder propels fire lances in battle|
|Time elapsed:||202 years||148 years||192 years||366 years||111 years|
Chinese fireworks using gunpowder first appeared sometime in the Tang Dynasty, 618-907 CE.
The Chinese used to burn bamboo to explode its air chambers. The violent noise was believed to scare off evil spirits. Sometime in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) a Chinese monk, Li Tian, “founder of [fire] crackers,” burned bamboo packed with primitive gunpowder producing an even louder explosion to drive even more spirits away. (Interestingly, one of the early gunpowder weapons was the thunder clap bomb which exploded loudly in the air over the enemy soldiers, frightening them off the battlefield.)
For more than six centuries the Chinese failed to see the potential of gunpowder in warfare. Why? By at least, 142 CE, they had identified the key ingredients—saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal. According to science and Chinese scholar, Joseph Needham, “All the conditions necessary for the first discovery of gunpowder were present in China by Han times.” (206 BCE to 220 CE) Needham argues that it was only a matter of time before the alchemists discovered gunpowder. The ingredients—their volatility and combustibility—were known.
Why did it take more than 600 years?
It’s extremely difficult to determine why something happened. It is even harder to understand why something didn’t happen. Many have speculated:
- Taoist principles prevented new weapons.
Some have argued that peaceful Taoist principles made acquiring new weapons unacceptable. It is true that the Confucian scholars and bureaucrats—felt superior to the military and its needs. But, in the same time period the Chinese produced many innovative weapons: repeating crossbows, pivoting catapults, trebuchets, stirrups to allow the horsemen to shoot arrows hands-free and even chemical warfare—blowing toxic powder at the enemy through a bellows mounted on a chariot.
- New weapons were not needed during peace time.
Maybe the Chinese dynasties established peaceful empires eliminating the need to seek new weapons and prepare for war. From the Han Dynasty, the era of the first combination of gunpowder ingredients, to the Song Dynasty, when gunpowder was first used in battle, China knew only three eras of relative peace, the longest lasting about 95 years. The rest of the time empires faced invasions, civil wars, rebellions and bandits.
- Early formulas were weak and unstable.
Some argue that the early recipes for gunpowder were not strong enough to fire a bullet or were unstable to handle. The first military use of gunpowder was as an incendiary arrow. In the early 10th century, gunpowder was applied to arrows to help ignite the arrow in flight. Prior to the 10th century, the alchemists sought to avoid fire and explosion. However, after realizing the military potential of gunpowder, the 11th century
Chinese bureaucracy organized intensive gunpowder manufacture, circulated the formulae among scholars. They invited anyone to present ideas on gunpowder and many were rewarded with fine silks. The government distributed hundreds of thousands of gunpowder lances and arrows to military outposts across the empire.
As Joseph Needham says the development of gunpowder by the Chinese was inevitable. The ingredients were known and used in compounds for centuries.
However, the desire for the Elixir of Life never diminished. What began before the Han Dynasty, 2nd century BCE, was still an active search in the 9th century CE. By looking for the Elixir of Life, were the alchemists blinded to the other possibilities of gunpowder/fire medicine?
Any sparkle, flame or fury of the mixtures was a digression from the true search. The volatility of what became gunpowder was a danger not an asset.
Like an optical illusion, for over 600 years, an entire culture saw only an elixir of life and could not pierce their assumptions to see a military edge and a destroyer of life.
Modern society is lost in the flip side of the optical illusion: we are obsessed with “new and improved” military technology. One ancient society could not see military potential and our modern society cannot imagine an elixir of life.