Religions | Free Full-Text | The Imagination of Alchemy: A Chinese Response to Catholicism in Late Ming and Early Qing
2. Chinese Alchemy as an Ancient Art
The roles of the missionaries who came to China during the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as the knowledge they imparted, were very complex and varied, and so were the images they presented to the Chinese. Interestingly, the alchemist was also one of their images. However, this image of the alchemist is not an unfounded speculation, it is based on some unsubstantiated observations of reality, and it is also influenced by a long historical tradition in China, that of Taoist alchemy.
The origin of external alchemy is due to the legend of immortals and the belief in immortality in the Warring States Period (戰國, 475/403 B.C–221 B.C). In particular, Qin Shihuang (秦始皇) and Emperor Wu (武帝) of the Western Han Dynasty (西漢) had diligently pursued the immortal alchemy and elixir, and spent a lot of money and manpower. It can be said that the reason why external alchemy became extremely popular in the Han Dynasty was the pursuit of immortality. The process of refining the outer elixir was originally the process of exploring the way of immortality, and gold and silver were just the additional products in the process.
3. Chinese People’s Alchemical Imagination about Missionaries
He [Ricci] always sat in a sedan chair when he went in and out, followed by servants, and his appearance was very elegant. He has been away from his homeland for several years, and his wallet should have gradually become empty, but he behaves humbly and there is no one else around him. People suspected that he mastered alchemy, but after I peeked into his room, I didn’t find the furnace. I asked him, and he said that several people of their community woud travel to Fo lang ji (佛郎機)6, and people from Fo lang ji might come to Guangdong (廣東) occasionally, and they can be asked to bring money. The people in their country take promises seriously, and they make an agreement before coming here, so they will definitely not embarrass people from other places. Those who acted as messengers might return to Fo lang ji again and bring the reply back. He also said that opals were produced in his country, and he didn’t know that Chinese cherished it so that the price was so expensive; it was a pity that he didn’t bring some in exchange for some money. Obviously, the rumor that he has mastered alchemy is a misunderstanding.
Many people in China fanatically believe that mercury can be smelted into real silver with a kind of grass, but it is said that this kind of grass does not exist in China. It grows in a foreign country and is still brought into China by priests. They are convinced that the priests have the grass and use it to make real silver. The reason is very simple. They saw that the Portuguese bought mercury in large quantities from Guangzhou every year and shipped it to Japan and India, which did not produce mercury, and then returned with a full load of real silver. It is impossible to imagine any other way to obtain so much silver except by refining real silver with mercury. In addition, they saw that the priests in China never took alms, did not have other occupations, and did not engage in business, but they still can maintain a decent life.
4. Funding Sources of Missionaries in China and Their Troubles
Q: “Old gentleman, you have been here for twenty years11, and the expenses are also high. Where did the money come from?”
A: “It is from our country. Once every two or three years, a friend of our group sends it.”
Q: “After so several years, does anyone still send silver?”
A: “There is no time when it is not sent, and there is no time when it is not delivered.”
Q: “Who does your friend entrust to send this silver?”
A: “Ships from Xiao xi yang (小西洋, India) go to Guangdong every year, and a merchant is entrusted to bring the silver, and we send people to get it.”
Q: “What if the merchant’s ship was wrecked?”
(A): “Even if our silver and his silver are gone, he will borrow money and send it here when he goes to Guangdong.”
Q: “People in your country have this rare friendship, which is very different from ours. It is very rare for us here to trust people with money.”
Q: “How much silver do they send at a time?”
A: “They send enough.”
Q: “I heard that you have a secret magic method. Others don’t know where your living expenses come from, so there are rumors.”
A: “I have never believed in this method, and I am afraid that no one in the world can do it. Even if such a method existed, my friends and I might not take such a thing seriously.”
Q: “Where did all this silver come from?”
A: “It all comes from mines, not from refining.”
Q: “Why did the merchants who came to Guangdong buy so much mercury?”
A: “The gold and silver that have just been mined from the mine are together with the soil, and cannot be separated without mercury, so mercury is needed.”
Q: “You and the sages of your country came to teach from afar, and you neither accepted the official position of the court, nor accepted the gifts from your disciples. In most cases, you received less and gave more in interpersonal communication. There is no profit from industry and trade, but for decades you have never lacked money to pay expenses. Where did the money come from? There are rumors that you must have a magic method, so the money will not run out. Is it true?”
A: “Has alchemy ever worked? Profit-making people have been trying to do this for several reasons, but the result often leads to poverty. The rumors that we have this method are all speculations of strangers, but this is not the case. All our daily necessities are sent from our own country.”
Q: “Your country is 90,000 miles away from China, which is not considered close. The journey of three years cannot be said to be short. How is it possible to keep it like this every year?”
A: “Every year, there are ships from our place trading in India, and every year, there are western merchants from India trading in the eastern part of Guangdong, so they will send the money here when it is convenient to them. Our friends live in different places so the money is passed to the various provincial capitals. If a ship does not arrive, they will have to borrow money from their acquaintances, and will be compensated when the ship arrives, which is common knowledge among comrades.”
What is clear at this point is that the Chinese of the Ming and Qing dynasties were quite interested in the sources of funding for the missionaries, and the alchemical imagination was quite popular, and was consistently explained and responded to by the ecclesiastical community. As the missionaries have clarified, the source of funding itself is not mysterious, but comes mainly from an annual supplement from overseas, sometimes from the offerings and donations of Chinese parishioners, and sometimes from borrowing. But Chinese observations also revealed a global historical context in which Westerners once purchased large quantities of mercury off the southeastern coast of China, shipped it to the Americas, Japan, and India to be mined, and then shipped the silver back to their home countries or to Southeast Asia in exchange for the best-selling goods they needed.
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