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Immortality potions killed so many Chinese emperors



Since you don’t see many 2,000-year-old Methusalahs pushing a shopping cart down Walmart’s sock aisle, their mile-long beards slowly tangling in their wheels, you can assume that immortality is beyond our human reach. But that didn’t stop the richest kings of the old days from engaging scientists, alchemists, and everyday wizards to find a cure for this pesky disease we call Deadzo.

No one was more obsessed with finding the “elixir of life” than the Chinese emperors – so much so that they often failed to notice that their predecessors died with severe potion pain. The search for immortality in a bottle started at the very beginning. Qin Shi Huang, the first Chinese emperor and the first to spend money way too much money for his wargaming hobbyissued many quests to find secret magical herbs to permanently ward off death; an elixir-chugging obsession so likely led to his death at the immortal age of 49.

From then on, emperors from every dynasty financed entire alchemical colleges and large expeditions to search for the secrets of the elixir of immortality. Not much progress has been made. Recently, researchers discovered an ancient sample of supposedly life-giving medicine placed next to a corpse in a Western Han Dynasty tomb. The elixir itself smelled “like wine” and was an unhealthy pinkish yellow color.

Institute for Cultural Relics and Archeology
Another case for carefully reading the recipe label for recommended doses.

But don’t be fooled by its delicious wine smell and delicious pee look: elixirs of life were usually full of toxic chemicals. The emperors knew they had the chance to swallow what turned out to be the “elixir of death”. The Emperor’s Taoist alchemists assured them that the trick was to find them Perfect balance between an alchemical yin like mercury and an alchemical yang like lead. This would eventually reveal the secret of not living forever, but at least dying from a perfect balance between mercury poisoning and lead poisoning.

As a result, several emperors slowly died of poison with these poisonous cocktails while toasting their eternal health. (The wiser emperors wait until their deathbed to try the elixir in a YOLO way.) No one suffered more from literal irony than that Tang Dynasty. Known for their joie de vivre, the Tang lost six emperors to potion poisoning in less than three centuries. That includes two father-son pairs, the latter of whom would barely be ready to execute his father’s charlatan alchemist before turning to his own and saying, “What are the chances of this happening twice in a row, right?”

Despite the many serum suicides, Chinese kings, alchemists, and scholars remained insane over shotgun mercury. It didn’t help that the occasional claim that the healing was working. Like the famous alchemist Wei Boyang who made his elixir of immortality through the rigorous scientific process of Feeding to a “white dog”. If successful, the dog would begin to fly. If not, it would die. Spoiler Alert: The dog did not fly. Somehow undeterred by the perished puppy, Wei and an apprentice still drank their elixir and apparently died. But according to contemporary texts, they came back to life and then flew up a mountain as immortals never to be seen again. It’s just that the same lyrics don’t mention that they flapped their white wings and played a golden harp.




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