WOMEN

ALCHEMISTS

EXPANDED     by Robin L. Gordon, Ph.D.

Alchemical Sisters  from China

T“Purity, beauty, brightness in the snow,

Purity, fragrance, in the morning breeze,

But pitiful too, the girl who wanders alone,

Lost in the mazes of the mountain mists.” [17]


Mao Nü
Mao Nü was said to live during the Ch’in Dynasty (246-207 BCE) in  the palace of the Emperor Ch’in Shih Huang. For some unexplained reason regarding the context, her name translates to “Hairy Woman.” [1] When the Ch’in Dynasty was falling, Mao Nü took to the mountains where she met a Taoist hermit, Ku Ch’un, (another Immortal), who became her mentor. She learned to live on a diet that included pine needles (probably the pine resin?) which led to her becoming a hsien. The cave where she was to have lived was said to emit the sound of a lute being played for 170 years. [more to come]

Kou-I Fu-Jên
A woman of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-24 CE) was known by the name Kou-I Fu-Jên meaning “Lady Hook-wing.”[2]  Her real name was said to be Chao (which may mean that the former is her Taoist name). Legend states that Kou-I Fu-Jên practiced Taoism as a young girl, specifically the “doctrine of purity”[3] in which refers to the calming of the mind. History records that she experienced some illness that confined her to  bed for six years and as well, her right hand was described as being “contracted and clenched.”[4]

Wu Ti (the Emperor) was advised by his soothsayers to seek a noble lady who lived in the north-east and had a special aura about her. Thus, in some way, Kou-I Fu-Jên was found and summoned to court where she is described as having great beauty. Wu Ti was able to open Kou-I Fu-Jên’s hand where he found a hook made of jade. Upon removing the hook, her hand was healed, no longer clenched and she became a consort of the Emperor. Kou-I Fu-Jên bore him a son, Chao Ti.

It is not explained but something happened causing Wu Ti to execute Kou-I Fu-Jên. Her coffin was said to exude a pleasantly perfumed odor and her body did not seem to become cold. However, when her coffin was opened by Chao Ti so that she could be reburied, nothing remained except a silk slipper. This is a hallmark of the hsien who were said to emerge from a coffin as a hsien spirit, leaving the burial clothing behind. Giles adds that historical accounts of Kou-I Fu-Jên describe her as being harsh and unforgiving which he wonders about as the two descriptions seem like different people.

Eight Immortals

Eight hsien were identified as the Eight Immortals. Ho Hsien Ku appears to be the only female of the Eight. When she was around 14-15 years of age, she had a dream in which a spirit told her to begin eating the mineral mica in powdered form, which would preserve her body indefinitely. At some time another man who was unknown to her presented her with a peach and told her nothing more. She arrived back home and discovered that instead of having been away for one day, she had been away for one month. Her time away seemed like a day; she was not hungry having not eaten for one month.

Ho Hsien Ku swore to stay chaste and traveled to the mountains and it is said she could fly like a bird. She finally moved into the celestial realm circa the early 700s CE. The emblem of a bamboo ladle is said to symbolize Ho Hsien Ku due to the story that in her early life, her stepmother had been cruel, making her labor all day doing awful tasks. Ho Hsien Ku (a Cinderella archetypal motif) remained sweet causing one of the Eight Immortals,  Lü Tung-pin (aka Lü Yen) to take her away to the heavens while she still held the ladle.

Fang

Our first alchemist was a woman identified solely as Fang who lived sometime in the 1st century BCE. [5] Her story was written a few hundred years later by the famous alchemist, Ko Hung who wrote a detailed treatise on alchemy titled, Pao P'u Tzu. He related that Fang’s husband, Chhêng Wei, was part of Imperial Court of Huang-Mên Lang (Han) who “had a liking for the Art of the Yellow and the White”[6] which refers to making gold and silver. Fang came from a family that was well versed in alchemy and she studied with the consort of the Emperor Han Wu Ti, Kou-I Fu-Jên, one of the Immortals mentioned above. Fang seemed to be adept at distilling silver from ore using mercury, a common alchemical practice that appeared to create silver from mercury. It was also said that when her husband needed silk for clothes to wear in a special procession, that she conjured the silk out of air.

Chheng Wei attempted alchemy using a book titled, Chen Chung Hung Pao, but was unsuccessful. Fang saw him struggling and thusly produced a substance from a pouch, threw it into the alchemical vessel and the ingredients turned to silver. When Wei asked her how she could have this knowledge and fail to tell him she responded, “It cannot be gained unless one has the right destiny.”[7] Chheng Wei, became obsessed with learning his wife’s alchemical secrets and according to the Pao P'u Tzu, tried to bribe her with clothes and special food. When that did not work Wei tried to obtain the secrets by whipping Fang.  Ko Hung writes:
Declaring that the Tao was to be revealed only to the appropriate persons. If they were the proper persons, the Tao would be revealed to them by the accomplished even if they were absolute strangers. If they were not of the right kind, they would not obtain the secrets of the Tao from the accomplished even by inflicting the penalty of piecemeal dissection of his body.[8]

Still Chheng Wei obstinately kept on pressing Fang until she went mad, rushed out naked, smeared herself with mud and died.”[9] Her death is recorded as between 95-45 BCE.

Ch’un Yü-yen

Ch’un Yü-yen is identified as one of the first women doctors who practiced during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). Some records identify her as an obstetrician. The records also state that she used aconite in pill

Mistress Kêng  aka Kêng hsien-sêng
Circa 975 CE, an alchemical adept, Wu Shu wrote and published Chiang Huai I Jen Lu which translates to Records of (Twenty-five) Strange Magician-Technicians between the Yangtze and Huai River,[10] during the Thang, Wu and Southern Thang Dynasties. Here is where we find Teacher Kêng  (Kêng  hsien-sêng), daughter of a famous scholar,  Kêng Chhien.   Needham quotes the text which stated: “She mastered the ‘art of the yellow and the white’ (alchemy), with many other strange transformations, mysterious and incomprehensible. No one knew how she acquired all this knowledge.”[11]

 Wu Shu wrote that Mistress Kêng came to the attention of the Emperor (circa 847-859 CE) who wanted to meet her. She was not taken as a concubine but given the title Teacher and given her own living quarters apart from the wives. Wu Shu wrote that Teacher Kêng was a brilliant and confident woman who wrote poetry and could do divination which was found to be accurate. She was an intellectual and beautiful as well. She had knowledge of the Tao and was said to be able to” control spirits.”[12] She was  skilled at carrying out alchemical operations but Wu Shu states no one knew how she learned the art. Wu Shu wrote:

When having an audience, she always wore green robes and held a tablet;  when she spoke it was with brilliant eloquence and confident bearing. Her hands were so small that she relied upon others at meals, and she walked in the palace grounds very little, being rather carried about by attendants.[13] Teacher Kêng appears to have been adept at creating silver from mercury as well as from snow. Another record states that she was able to take camphor given to her by the Emperor, sealed it in a glass container where it liquefied and then re-distilled the camphor.

Teacher Kêng was also described as a normal woman.  “The Teacher was fond of wine, and just like other people in love affairs and sexual relations.”[14] Possibly connected, another tale related that Teacher Kêng became pregnant with a child who she believed would become an important sage. [15]  A terrible storm raged the night she was to give birth. Strangely, the next morning there was no baby and Teacher Kêng showed no signs of having been with child. She stated that the gods had taken the baby. She died after an illness but it was not attributed to anything other than a natural cause.  

Li Shao Yun
Hsu Yen-Chou  wrote about Li Shao Yun circa 1100 CE. Li Shao-Yun came from a family of scholars. She was a widow but the marriage had been a happy one. Upon her husband’s death she dressed in Taoist robes and went from one temple to the next which is where Hsü Yen-Chou says they met. [16] She concentrated her studies on working with cinnabar (mercury sulfide/quicksilver) a typical alchemical process. Hsu-Yen-Chou wrote that Li Shao Yun kept comprehensive notes on her work. When he saw her a few years later, Li Shao-Yun was ill and emaciated. Li Shao Yun also wrote that she believed she would not live to create the Elixir, a premonition perhaps of her death two years later. Upon her death, Hsü Yen-Chou read through her books that recorded her alchemical work and in them he found this poem that he quoted.











Pao Ku Ko (3rd century CE)

        There is little written about Pao Ku Ko was the daughter of Pao Ching and the wife of Ko Hung. She must have had access to his alchemical apparatus and books being described as an alchemical adept.[18] Say more and look at Ko Hung info

Shen Yü-Hsia aka aka Shen Yu Hsiu (15th century CE)

        Shen Yu Hsiu (aka Shen Yü-Hsia) lived during the Ming dynasty – alchemist 15th century CE[19] (p. 209) Her father was Shen Wan-Sun who worked with lead and mercury in his own alchemical work. He is said to have been able to transmute copper and iron into gold and silver using mercury. It is most likely that Shen Wan-Sun is the one who taught his daughter the art as she was known as an alchemist.

Sun Pu-Erh (c. 1119-1183)

        Sun Pu-Erh was an alchemist and said to be the “seventh and last of the Seven Masters of the Northern School of Taoism”[20] Her husband was Ma Yü, the eldest Master of The Seven Masters referring to followers of Wang Chung-Fu or?  Wang Chē (1112 CE- 1168 CE). This was a Taoist school in the north whose followers  believed in physiological alchemy that focused more on using breathing exercises to cause healing change. They also were ascetics and often celibate. In an interesting sidenote,?

Thai Shuan Nu

That picture I have is believed to be her. It shows her working with an apparatus that is very similar to the one used by Maria Hebraea’s kerotokis (?).  Date unknown

•     Needham, Joseph. (1974). Science and civilisation in China / by Joseph Needham ; with the research assistance of Wang Ling.  Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press. Volume 5: Part 2

The picture of the female alchemist on p. 42. Her name is Thai Hsüan Nü (aka Thai Yang Nü and Thai Yin Nü.  The picture is from Lieh Hsien Chhüan Chuan, ch. 2, p. 7a [Complete Collection of the Biographies of the Immortals, author Ge Hong AD 317-420?]

 

        Consistent with later women who studied alchemy, the Chinese women described in the chapter tended to focus on healing rather than becoming wealthy. Their work was not published as far as we know.


[1] Giles, 35.

[2] Giles, 45.

[3] Giles, 45.

[4] Giles, 46.

[5] in Meschel, S. V. (September 1992). Teacher Keng’s (sip?)  Heritage: A survey of Chinese women scientists.. Journal of Chemical Education, 69(9), 723-730. DOI: 10.1021/ed069p723 Pubication Date 1992. Downloaded July 16, 2012.

[6] Davis, Tenney L. (date) and Hung, Ko. (Pao p'u tzu), Chinese alchemist of the fourth century. Journal of Chemical Education, vol 11  . pp. 517-520. J. Chem. Educ., 1934, 11 (9), p 517

DOI: 10.1021/ed011p517 Publication Date: September 1934 AND quoted by (delete?

Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilisation in China / by Joseph Needham ; with the research assistance of Wang Ling Imprint Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1954-North Wing Basement         Q127 .C6 N443 1954  v.1   / vol. 5 part 3

[7] Needham, 38.

[8] Davis and Hung, p. 259.

[9] Meschel, 725.

[10] Needham, Joseph. (1974). Science and civilisation in China / by Joseph Needham ; with the research assistance of Wang Ling.  Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press. P 169? Do I putt the volumes in the footnotes?

[11] Needham, 169.

[12] Needham, 169.

[13] Needham, 169.

[14] Needham, 170.

[15] Reference the story of Anna Marie Ziglerin and was it Nummedal?

[16] Needham, 192.

[17] Needham 192.

[18] in Meschel, S. V. (September 1992). Teacher Keng’s (sip?)  Heritage: A survey of Chinese women scientists.. Journal of Chemical Education, 69(9), 723-730. DOI: 10.1021/ed069p723 Publication Date 1992. Downloaded July 16, 2012.

 And     Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilisation in China / by Joseph Needham ; with the research assistance of Wang Ling Imprint Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1954 .  v.1   / vol. 5 part 3

[19] •  Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilisation in China / by Joseph Needham ; with the research assistance of Wang Ling Imprint Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1954-North Wing Basement           Q127 .C6 N443 1954  v.1   / vol. 5 part 3

[20] Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilisation in China / by Joseph Needham ; with the research assistance of Wang Ling Imprint Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1954
-1954  v.1   / vol. 5 part 3, 467.

Note: This is a partial list of a work in progress. The references are a rich resource for further reading.