What Is Alchemy? [6]

Arthur Edward Waite

Preceding papers have taken the course of inquiry through the Greek, Arabian, and Syrian literatures, and the subject has been brought down to the verge of the period when Latin alchemy began to flourish. Now before touching briefly upon this which is the domain of the spiritual interpretation, it is desirable to look round and to ascertain, if possible, whether there is any country outside Greece and Egypt, to which alchemy can be traced. It must be remembered that the appeal of Latin alchemy is to Arabia, while that of Arabia is to Greece, and that of Greece to Egypt. But upon the subject of the Magnum Opus the Sphinx utters nothing, and in the absence of all evidence beyond that of tradition it is open to us to look elsewhere. Now, it should be borne in mind that the first centre of Greek alchemy was Alexandria, and that the first period was in and about the third century of the Christian era. Writing long ago in La Revue Theasophique, concerning Alchemy in the Nineteenth Century, the late Madame Blavatsky observes that "ancient China, no less than ancient Egypt, claims to be the land of the alkahest and of physical and transcendental alchemy; and China may very probably be right. A missionary, an old resident of Pelun, William A. P. Martin, calls it the 'cradle of alchemy.' Cradle is hardly the right word perhaps, but it is certain that the celestial empire has the right to class herself amongst the very oldest schools of occult science. In any case alchemy has penetrated into Europe from China as we shall prove." Madame Blavatsky proceeded at some length to "compare the Chinese system with that which is called Hermetic Science," her authority being Mr. Martin, and her one reference being to a work entitled Studies of Alchemy in China by that gentleman.

When the present writer came across these statements and this reference, he regarded them as an unexpected source of possible light, and at once made inquiry after the book cited by Madame Blavatsky, but no person, no bibliography, and no museum catalogue could give any information concerning a treatise entitled Studies of Alchemy in China, so that these papers had perforce to be held over pending the result of still further researches after the missing volume. Mr. Carrington Bolton's monumental Bibliography of Chemistry was again and again consulted, but while it was clear on the one hand that Mr. Martin was not himself a myth, it seemed probable, as time went on, that a mythical treatise had been attributed to him. Finally, when all resources had failed, and again in an unexpected manner, the mystery was resolved, and Mr. W. Emmett Coleman will no doubt be pleased to learn — if he be not aware of it already — that here as in so many instances which he has been at the pains to trace, Madame Blavatsky seems to have derived her authority second-hand. The work which she quoted was not, as she evidently thought, a book separately published, but is an article in The China Review, published at Hong Kong. From this article Madame Blavatsky has borrowed her information almost verbatim, and indeed where she has varied from the original, it has been to introduce statements which are not in accordance with Mr. Martin's, and would have been obviously rejected by him.

Mr. Martin states (1) that the study of alchemy "did not make its appearance in Europe until it had been in full vigour in China for at least six centuries, or circa B.C. 300. (2) That it entered Europe by way of Byzantium and Alexandria, the chief points of intercourse between East and West. Concerning the first point Madame Blavatsky, on an authority which she vaguely terms history, converts the six centuries before A.D. 300, with which Mr. Martin is contented, into sixteen centuries before the Christian era, and with regard to the second she reproduces his point literally. Indeed, it is very curious to see how her article, which does not treat in the smallest possible degree of alchemy in the nineteenth century, is almost entirely made up by the expansion of hints and references in the little treatise of the missionary, even in those parts where China is not concerned. Mr. Martin, himself more honourable, acknowledges a predecessor in opinion, and observes that the Rev. Dr. Edkins, some twenty years previously, was the first, as he believes to "suggest a Chinese origin for the alchemy of Europe." Mr. Martin, and still less Dr. Edluns, knew nothing of the Byzantine collection, and could not profit by the subsequent labours of M. Berthelot, and yet it is exceedingly curious to note that the researches of the French savant do in no sense explode the hypothesis of the Chinese origin of alchemy, or rather, for once in a season to be in agreement with Madame Blavatsky, perhaps not the origin so much as a strong, directing, and possibly changing influence. The Greek alchemists appeal, it is true, to Egypt, but, as already seen, there is no answer from the ancient Nile, and China at precisely the right moment comes to fill up the vacant place.

The mere fact that alchemy was studied in China has not much force in itself, but Mr. Martin exhibits a most extraordinary similarity between the theorems and the literature of the subject in the far East and in the West, and in the course of his citations there are many points which he himself has passed over, which will, however, appeal strongly to the Hermetic student. There is first of all, the fundamental doctrine that the genesis of metals is to be accounted for upon a seminal principle. Secondly, there is the not less important doctrine that there abides in every object an active principle whereby it may attain to "a condition of higher development and greater efficiency." Thirdly, there is the fact that alchemy in China as in the West was an occult science, that it was perpetuated "mainly by means of oral tradition," and that in order to preserve its secrets a figurative phraseology was adopted. In the fourth place, it was closely bound up with astrology and magic. Fifthly, the transmutation of metals was indissolubly allied to an elixir of life. Sixthly, the secret of gold-making was inferior to the other arcanum. Seventhly, success in operation and research depended to a large extent on the self-culture and self-discipline of the alchemist. Eighthly, the metals were regarded as composite. Ninthly, the materials were indicated under precisely the same names: lead, mercury, cinnabar, sulphur, these were the chief substances, and here there is no need to direct the attention of the student to the role which the same things played in Western alchemy. Tenthly, there are strong and unmistakable points of resemblance in the barbarous terminology common to both literatures, for example, "the radical principle," "the green dragon," the "true lead," the "true mercury," etc.

In such an inquiry as the present everything depends upon the antiquity of the literature. Mr. Carrington Bolton includes in his bibliography certain Chinese works dealing with Alchemy, and referred to the third century. Mr. Martin, on the other had, derives his citations from various dates, and from some authors to whom a date cannot be certainly assigned. Now, he tells us, without noticing the pregnant character of the remark, that "one of the most renowned seats of Alchemic industry was Bagdad, while it was the seat of the Caliphate" — that an extensive commerce was "carried on between Arabia and China" — that "in the eighth century embassies were interchanged between the Caliphs and the Emperors" — and, finally, that "colonies of Arabs were established in the seaports of the Empire." As we know indisputably that Arabia received Alchemy from Greece, it is quite possible that she communicated her knowledge to China, and therefore, while freely granting that China possessed an independent and ancient school, we must look with suspicion upon its literature subsequent to the eighth century because an Arabian influence was possible. But, independently of questions of date, comparative antiquity, and primal source, the chief question for the present purpose is whether Chinese Alchemy was spiritual, physical, or both. Mr. Martin tells us that there were two processes, the one inward and spiritual, the other outward and material. There were two elixirs, the greater and the less. The alchemist of China was, moreover, usually a religious ascetic. The operator of the spiritual process was apparently translated to the heaven of the greater genii. As to this spiritual process Mr. Martin is not very clear, and leaves us uncertain whether it produced a spiritual result or the perpetuation of physical life.

The Unknown World, No. 3, Vol. 2; April 15, 1895.