Alchemy flourished in China because it was used in religion, which was quite prevalent at the time. The specific religion was Taoism. In this religion, there are two forces: the Yin and the Yang (which are often sybolized by the Yin-Yang. See diagram). The Yang is considered the male, positive, hot, and light force, whereas the Yin is considered the female, negative, cool, and dark force. These two forces counteract each other to make a perfect balance. It is believed certain foods are Yin, and other are Yang, and one must eat equal quantities of both in order to stay healthy. It is the struggle between these two forces (in the chart to the right) that makes the objects or matter which is the basis of human life.
The way in which Chinese alchemy differs from other types of alchemy is the usage. The Chinese used alchemy to find elixirs that would lead to immortality by bringing the human body into a state of perfection that could not be broken.
The Chinese also wanted to turn other metals into gold. The following is an excerpt from The Norton History of Chemistry by William H. Brock, W.W.Norton & Co. N.Y. © 1992 quoting a man's plea to Emperess Wu Ti (the only female ruler in the history of China) to support his alchemy experiments:
Summon spirits and you will be able to change cinnabar powder into yellow gold. With this yellow gold you may make vessels to eat and drink out of. You will increase your span of life, you will be able see the hsien of the P'eng-lai [home of the Immortals] that is in the midst of the sea. Then you may perform the sacrifices of fang and shang and escape death.
There was also another type of Chinese alchemy called nai tan which is a type of physiological alchemy. It entailed the search for immortality, but not through the ingestion of certain elixirs. Instead, the search for immortality involved respiratory, gymnastic, and sexual exercises. Because many people had been poisoned by the wai tan alchemy, or the ingestion of elixirs (note: many of these elixirs contained lead, which almost immediately killed the person who drank of the liquid.),wai tan alchemy lost its popularity. Physiological alchemy then became more prevalent. The large amounts of experimentation with bodily fluids is what caused the Chinese to isolate sex hormones.
Many people believe the Chinese first came upon gunpowder by alchemical experimentation, while trying to make elixirs. While possibly true, it gives Chinese alchemists some credibility as scientists. It is also believed Chinese alchemists knew how to prepare a dilute form of nitric acid, which gives them even more credibility.
After the discovery of gunpowder, little alchemy was practiced other than the occasional scam artist. After this period, when western society came to China, there began to be more schools where students would learn science based on fact and experimentation. This was the end of Alchemy in China.
The Chinese belief that alchemy was intimately intertwined with medicine was quite similar to the Arabic, or Islamic alchemical beliefs.