A bottle of an elixir.

Seeking Life but Finding Death: Deadly Chinese Elixirs of Immortality

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The elixir of immortality (known also as the ‘elixir of life’) is a legendary substance found in many ancient cultures. This elixir is expected to grant eternal life to the person who consumes it. The history of China is filled with emperors and other important men who sought to live forever, but instead died an untimely death for their ambitions.

These elites would normally patronize Taoist alchemists, who would provide them with some sort of substance that would supposedly give them immortality. The ingestion of such elixirs, however, certainly did not allow them to live forever. In many cases the elixirs, which contain extremely poisonous elements, (ironically) were responsible for the deaths of those who consumed them.

Woodcut illustration of 'Putting the miraculous elixir on the tripod' from Xingming guizhi (Pointers on Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life) by Yi Zhenren, a Daoist text on internal alchemy published in 1615. (Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0)

Woodcut illustration of 'Putting the miraculous elixir on the tripod' from Xingming guizhi (Pointers on Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life) by Yi Zhenren, a Daoist text on internal alchemy published in 1615. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )

Chang’e and the Elixir of Immortality

The elixir of immortality is a concept that can be found in Taoist mythology. One of the best-known stories about this elixir is that of Chang’e, a Chinese lunar deity. According to Chinese folklore, Chang’e was the wife of Hou Yi, the legendary archer who shot down nine of the 10 suns that were burning the earth. As a reward, Hou Yi was granted the elixir of immortality.

Although there are variations as to what happened next, the story ends with Chang’e drinking the elixir herself, and, as a result, floating to the moon. One of the companions of Chang’e in her new residence is the Moon Rabbit (known also as the Jade Rabbit), which some say makes the elixir of immortality.     

A Chinese dragon; a medallion above it shows the White Hare of the Moon, at the foot of a cassia tree, making elixir of immortality.

A Chinese dragon; a medallion above it shows the White Hare of the Moon, at the foot of a cassia tree, making elixir of immortality. ( Public Domain )

Recipes for Immortality

Based on such literary references, the Taoist alchemists of ancient China sought to produce this legendary substance by themselves. The ‘recipe’ for such elixirs varies from one alchemist to another and may include ingredients from both organic (plants and animals) and inorganic (metals and minerals) materials.

One example of the former is the Lingzhi, which has been translated literally as the ‘Supernatural Mushroom’ and known also as the ‘Mushroom of Immortality’. This mushroom is found throughout East Asia and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than two millennia. Some texts have claimed that the regular consumption of these mushrooms would make one immortal, though this has not been proven to be true thus far.

Lingzhi or Reishi mushroom.

Lingzhi or Reishi mushroom. (Eric Steinert/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

As for inorganic substances used by ancient Chinese alchemists in the production of elixirs of immortality, the best known is without doubt mercury. As this metal is liquid at room temperature, it fascinated the alchemists of ancient China. Due to this unique characteristic of mercury, this metal is believed to have spiritual significance, and it was seen as the key to immortality. Thus, mercury was often used as an ingredient in the ancient Chinese elixirs of immortality. Apart from mercury, other long-lasting metals or minerals with unique physical properties, including cinnabar and jade, were believed to bestow immortality, and were thus also used in the production of such elixirs.

Cinnabar on Dolomite.

Cinnabar on Dolomite. (JJ Harrison/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Mercury, however, is also a highly poisonous substance, and its harmful effects include a decrease in cognitive function, kidney problems, weakness, and death. Yet, the knowledge that exposure to mercury is detrimental to a person’s health did not deter some of the most powerful men in Chinese history from seeking immortality through the ingestion of mercury-laden elixirs of immortality.

Death by an Elixir of Immortality

According to historical sources, numerous emperors from China’s various dynasties succumbed to the negative effects of the elixirs of immortality they were consuming. These include the Wuzong Emperor (Song Dynasty), the Jiajing Emperor (Ming Dynasty), and the Yongzheng Emperor (Qing Dynasty).

The most famous Chinese Emperor to have died by taking the elixir of immortality, however, is Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. The emperor’s obsession with attaining immortality is well-known in Chinese history and was recorded by ancient Chinese historians.

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