Once upon a time, in ancient China, there was a great desire among the emperors, nobles, and officials to find the secret to living forever. They believed in the existence of a magical substance known as the elixir of immortality. This elixir was said to grant eternal life to those who consumed it, and people were willing to go to great lengths to obtain it.

In the land of China, there were two main schools of thought when it came to achieving immortality – Neidan and Waidan. Neidan, also called Internal Elixir, focused on using the human body itself to attain everlasting life through practices such as meditation, breathing exercises, and a special diet. On the other hand, Waidan centered around creating the elixir of immortality by combining various substances.

One of the methods in Waidan involved using toxic substances like mercury and lead. These elements, representing Yin and Yang, were believed to be refined and combined to create a new substance with the qualities of Pure Yang. However, the reality was that exposure to mercury and lead was highly toxic and often led to illness and death.

Despite the dangers, the Chinese elite continued their pursuit of the elixir of immortality. Even in the 18th century, people were consuming this deadly substance in the hopes of achieving everlasting life.

In 2019, archaeologists made a groundbreaking discovery in the city of Luoyang. They unearthed a bronze pot containing liquid in the tomb of a noble family from the Western Han Dynasty. Upon analysis, it was revealed that the liquid consisted mainly of potassium nitrate and alunite, providing the first archaeological evidence of the elixir of immortality in China. The pursuit of immortality was not without its share of stories.

Story1: King Qingxiang (Kingdom of Chu) & Medicine of Deathlessness:

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a wise and powerful king named Qingxiang who ruled over the Kingdom of Chu. One day, a mysterious guest presented him with a special gift known as the ‘bu si zhi yao’ – a medicine of deathlessness, or an elixir of immortality.

Excited about the prospect of eternal life, King Qingxiang eagerly sent the elixir into the palace. However, on its way, a vigilant guard at the gate stopped the chamberlain carrying the elixir. Curious, the guard asked if the mysterious potion was edible. The chamberlain assured him that it was, and without hesitation, the guard took the elixir and consumed it.

When the king discovered what had happened, his excitement turned into rage. How could the guard have dared to taste the elixir meant for him? Filled with anger, the king condemned the guard to death for his audacious act.

Desperate to save his friend, the guard sent a wise and persuasive friend to plead his case before the furious king. The friend argued that the guard should not be blamed for the mishap. After all, the guard had asked the chamberlain if the elixir was edible, and the chamberlain had confidently replied yes. Therefore, the blame should fall on the chamberlain’s shoulders.

Furthermore, the friend cleverly pointed out that executing the guard would turn the elixir of life into an elixir of death, proving the guest who presented it to be a liar. To avoid this embarrassment, the friend suggested that it would be wiser to release the guard instead of executing him.

The king, impressed by the friend’s cunning argument, reconsidered his decision. In the end, he chose not to execute the guard, realizing that it was the chamberlain’s fault for the unfortunate incident. The guard was set free, much to his relief.

The tale, filled with clever arguments and schemes, does not reveal whether the guard achieved immortality.

Story 2: Qin Shi Huang (China’s First Emperor) & Mercury Potion

One other famous story about someone dying from a special potion is about Qin Shi Huang, who was China’s first emperor a long time ago. He really wanted to live forever, and there are many stories about how much he wanted to be immortal. In 2017, people found some old pieces of wood with writing on them in a place called Hunan in China. These writings talked about how Qin Shi Huang ordered people to look everywhere in the country for a potion that could make him live forever. The writings also included responses from local leaders.

To try to live forever, Qin Shi Huang thought he could do it by taking a special potion, which was supposed to be an elixir of immortality. But in reality, this potion was made of mercury, a poisonous metal. He got this potion from his alchemist, called a fangshi, who was like a master of special methods. Qin Shi Huang ended up dying because of the mercury poisoning.

Even though Qin Shi Huang died this way, later emperors still tried to find immortality with similar potions. Throughout China’s long history, there are stories of emperors causing their own deaths because they wanted to live forever.

Story 3: Emperor Ai of Jin (360s AD), & Elixir of Immortality

Emperor Ai of Jin, who ruled in the 360s AD, is one example. He also wanted to live forever, so he tried a Taoist fasting method, which meant not eating certain grains. At the same time, he took the elixir of immortality from his fangshi. Sadly, he got poisoned, lost awareness of what was happening around him, and passed away when he was only 24 or 25 years old.

Story 4: Emperor Gaozu of Tang (618 to 907 AD), Taoist Alchemy Growth

Although Taoism was recognized as a religious system as early as the 4th & 3rd centuries BC, it only achieved official status under the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907 AD. The founder of the dynasty, Emperor Gaozu of Tang (born Li Yuan), claimed to descend from Laozi, a semi-legendary figure regarded to be one of Taoism’s founders. As a result, Taoism, including Taoist alchemy, flourished during this period.

Because of this, Taoism became even more popular, and things like Taoist alchemy, a way of making special potions, became widespread.

However, with this popularity came a problem. Some people became too obsessed with something called the “elixir of life.” They believed that by drinking a special potion, they could live forever. Unfortunately, at least six emperors from the Tang Dynasty and many other important people died because of this elixir.

Emperor Taizong, the successor of Emperor Gaozu, was one of those emperors who lost his life due to the elixir of life. Other emperors like Xianzong, Muzong, Jingzong, Wuzong, and Xuanzong also faced the same fate.

Story 5: Li Shizhen (Tang Dynasty 907 AD) & revolution against Elixir

As the Tang Dynasty came to an end in 907 AD, the use of the elixir of life declined because so many people had died from it. Instead, people started to follow a different tradition called Neidan, which focused on inner practices to achieve immortality.

Some people, like a famous physician named Li Shizhen, spoke out against the use of poisonous elixirs. Li Shizhen wrote a book called ‘Compendium of Materia Medica’ in the 16th century, condemning alchemists for using harmful substances. He suggested that these substances had medical uses but should not be used for immortality.

During the Ming Dynasty, an emperor named Jiajing died due to elixir poisoning. He was so obsessed with finding the elixir of immortality that he neglected his duties as a ruler. His pursuit of immortality became an unhealthy obsession.

Story 6: Emperor Yongzheng (Qing Dynasty 18th Century) & Elixir Poisoning

Moving forward to the Qing Dynasty, there was another emperor named Yongzheng who is believed to have died from elixir poisoning during the 18th century. Some say he consumed the elixir himself, while others believe he was assassinated because of his involvement with the elixir.

As time went on, the use of the elixir of life declined, and people realized that seeking immortality through these potions was dangerous. The focus shifted to inner practices and the condemnation of harmful elixirs, as warned by wise figures like Li Shizhen.

Story 7: Immortal Stories Outside China, Diane de Poitiers and Gold Drink (France 1500s)

Chinese were not alone in believing in the idea of the elixir of eternal life. Another lady, Diane de Poitiers, who was considered the most beautiful woman in France in the 1500s, thought that drinking gold would keep her beautiful forever.

The idea of using gold for immortality came from a practice called alchemy. Alchemy was like the old-time science of the Middle Ages, and people searched for something called the Philosophers’ Stone. They believed it could turn regular metals into gold and give eternal life.

There was a guy named Nicolas Flamel who, in the 1300s, was said to find this special stone and is supposedly still alive today. This story inspired the first “Harry Potter” book.

Story 8: Pope Innocent VIII and Children’s Blood Injections (1492)

In history, some believed that blood could make them younger. In 1492, Pope Innocent VIII tried injecting himself with children’s blood, thinking it would make him younger. But sadly, it didn’t work, and he died along with the kids who donated their blood.

Story 9: Elizabeth Bathory and blood of virgins (1600s)

Another strange idea was bathing in the blood of virgins to keep the skin from wrinkling. Elizabeth Bathory, a countess in the 1600s, thought this would help her stay young.

Skipping ahead a couple of hundred years, a smart doctor believed that injections from guinea pig and dog testicles could make him feel much younger. Another doctor even tried putting monkey testicles on old men’s private parts to make them look younger.

Even during World War II, the leader of the Nazis, Heinrich Himmler, went on a hunt for the Holy Grail. He believed it could give him superpowers and make him live forever. The Holy Grail was said to have powers that could stop death. Unfortunately, Himmler never found it and died in 1945 when he took a poison pill after being captured by the British.

Story 10: Immortal research in the 21st century

People want to live forever, and scientists are working on it for real, not just in movies or ancient tales. Google started a company called Calico in 2013 to find a way to stop death. The co-founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, is also trying to fight against death. Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, invested in a company called Altos Labs, which aims to make cells young again and reverse diseases. There’s even a company trying to make drugs for dogs to live longer, and if it works, they plan to do the same for people. The whole industry trying to make people live longer is expected to be worth a lot of money, around $610 billion by 2025.

Scientists in different places like Silicon Valley and Cambridge are working hard on this. Bryan Johnson, a tech entrepreneur, spent a lot of money to put his son’s young blood into his own body every month. He also did the same for his 70-year-old father to make him healthier. He is paying $2 million every year for a team of researchers to find ways for people to live longer. Many rich people in Silicon Valley are doing similar things because they really want to live forever.

Next: Chinese alchemist found a destroyer in pursuit of Elixir of Eternal Life

Reference:

  • Coulter-Harris, Deborah M. Chasing immortality in world religions. McFarland, 2016. [Book]
  • Gollner, Adam. The book of immortality: the science, belief, and magic behind living forever. Simon and Schuster, 2013. [Book]

By The Research Mind

We, researchers from the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge, are dedicated to sharing the latest updates, breakthroughs, and even the occasional blunders in Science & Technology. Stay tuned for some truly mind-blowing science experiments!

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