Immortality Potions Killed So Many Chinese Emperors

In a row...
Immortality Potions Killed So Many Chinese Emperors

Since you don't see many 2000-year-old Methuselahs pushing a shopping cart through Walmart's sock aisle, their mile-long beards slowly tangling in the wheels, it's safe to assume that immortality isn't within our human grasp. But that didn't prevent the richest royals of ye olde days from tasking scientists, alchemists, and workaday wizards to find them a cure for this pesky illness we call being deadzo. 

None were more obsessed with finding the "elixir of life" than the Chinese emperors -- so much so, they often didn't notice that their predecessors died with a serious potion stache. The search for immortality in a bottle started at the very beginning. Qin Shi Huang, the first Chinese emperor and the first guy to spend way too much money on his wargaming hobby, gave out many quests to find secret magic herbs to permanently stave off death; an elixir-chugging obsession that likely led to his demise at the immortally old age of 49.

From then on, emperors from every dynasty funded entire alchemical colleges and grand expeditions searching for the secrets to the immortality elixir. Not a lot of progress was made. But recently, researchers did uncover an ancient sample of the supposedly life-giving medicine placed next to a corpse in a Western Han dynasty tomb, the elixir itself smelling "like wine" and sporting an unhealthy pee-yellow color. 

Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology
 Another case for carefully reading the prescription label for recommended doses.

But don't let its delicious wine smell and delicious pee-look fool you: elixirs of life tended to be chock-full of poisonous chemicals. Emperors knew they had the chance of gulping what turned out to be an "elixir of death." The emperors' Taoist alchemists assured the trick was to find the perfect balance between an alchemical Yin, like mercury, and an alchemical Yang, like lead. This would eventually unlock the secret to, well, not living forever, but at least dying of a perfect balance between mercury poisoning and lead poisoning.

As a result, these toxic cocktails slowly caused several emperors to die of poison while toasting their eternal health. (The smarter emperors waiting until their death bed to try the elixir in a YOLO sort of way). None suffered more at the hands of the literal irony than the Tang dynasty. Known for their zest for life, the Tang lost six emperors to potion poisoning in under three centuries. That includes two father-son pairs, the latter of whom would be barely done executing his dad's charlatan alchemist before turning to his own one and saying: "What're the odds of that happening twice in a row, right?"

Despite the many suicides by serum, Chinese royals, alchemists and scholars remained gung-ho about shotgunning mercury. It didn't help that, occasionally, someone claimed the cure had worked. Like the famed alchemist Wei Boyang, who tested his immortality elixir through the rigorous scientific process of feeding it to a "white dog." If successful, the dog would start flying. If not, it would die. Spoiler Alert: the dog didn't fly. Somehow undeterred by the perished pooch, Wei and one apprentice still drank their elixir and obviously died. But according to contemporary texts, they did come back to life and then flew up a mountain as immortals never to be seen again. It's just that those same texts fail to mention they did so flapping white wings and playing a golden harp.

Eventually, by the 16th century, the practice of life elixirs started dying out (as accidental death cults are wont to do). But the search for immortality didn't stop. Instead, the focus was placed on the safer "internal" kind of alchemy, gaining ultimate control of the body. This way, immortality could be reached by mastering six Taoist techniques: breathing, diet, light therapy, and internal alchemy, but also a mastery of gymnastic and sexual techniques. And while that didn't put any immortals on the imperial throne, at least it created some legends in the imperial bed.

As long as Cedric goes on weird tangents, he cannot die. During that time, you can follow him on Twitter.

Top Image: Tang Dynasty

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