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The Elixir of Life In Ancient China

The Elixir of Life In Ancient China

It seems that throughout history, and in fiction, people have been searching for a way to live forever. For forever today, we’re gonna do a little bit of the same. And for us, that starts, as always, with gemstones. Could they play a part in creating a so-called elixir of life? And can they really help you cheat death?


Our search begins with ancient Chinese texts where the gemstone langan is mentioned. Scholars have described it as one of the most elusive terms in ancient Chinese mineralogy, and for good reason. It has several different spellings and meanings depending on which text you find it in.

There are thought to be three varieties of langan: blue, green, red, and coral.

There are also mentions of a whitish langan, which is likely caused by the blue-green langan. The blue-green langan was first recorded in the 4th century BCE, coral langan from the 8th century, and red langan is from… well, we don’t really know.

Green-blue Langan

The green-blue langan, sometimes described as greenish-black, is detailed in numerous classical texts and is described as a gemstone of lustrous appearance. Many scholars sought to identify the treasured stone, and some concluded that its most likely identity is malachite, a deep green mineral used as a copper ore.

Archaeological texts conclude that malachite was an important gemstone of pre-Han China. Inlays of malachite and turquoise decorated many early Chinese bronze weapons and ritual vessels.

Coral Langan|Cinnabar

For my money, I’d say the coral langan is most likely cinnabar. It’s red, but it can also have a brownish tint to it.

Cinnabar is composed of mercury sulfide and is the common ore of mercury. Generally, cinnabar occurs as a vein-filling mineral associated with very recent volcanic activity.

Plus, it’s mentioned by name in many ancient Chinese texts as a medical prescription. Cinnabar was also known to the ancient Romans as both a pigment to create vermilion and a source of mercury.

Cinnabar is notably soft, with a hardness of only two to two and a half on the Mohs scale, which explains how it could easily be ground up and mixed with other chemicals.

However, it is incredibly dense. Cinnabar has a specific gravity of 8.1, meaning that a gallon of cinnabar, if you could have such a thing, would weigh over 67 pounds.

Red Langan|Realgar

Lastly, we have red langan. I think this is probably realgar. Many ancient Chinese texts mentioned that mercury and arsenic were used and had what they believed to be miraculous qualities.

Cinnabar, we know, is mercury sulfide. Well, realgar is an arsenic sulfide and is sometimes referred to as ruby sulfur or ruby of arsenic. Mind you, it has no corundum in it whatsoever. What it does have is a very bright vitreous red color, and I can see the attraction as far as aesthetics go.

Like cinnabar, it is very soft, at a one and a half to two on the Mohs scale of hardness, making it great for grinding down into a potion.

Realgar is mixed with huanju, a Chinese rice wine, to make realgar wine, which is, to this day, consumed during the Dragon Boat Festival in order to ward off evil.

Of course, this practice is less prolific nowadays, with the awareness that realgar is a toxic arsenic compound.

An Elixir With Gemstones In Ancient China

Fun fact! The search by ancient Chinese alchemists to create an elixir of immortality resulted in the accidental invention of the first gunpowder around 800 AD.

An alchemist mixed sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate, which is a food preservative, hoping to find the secret to eternal life. But instead, there was an explosion, here our story comes full circle.

In 2019, a mysterious liquid was discovered in a 2,000-year-old Chinese tomb. It was identified by archaeologists as an ancient medical concoction known as, yep, elixir of immortality.

The three and a half liters of yellow liquid were contained in a bronze pot and had the rich scent of alcohol. Initially, it was believed to be wine, but researchers were in for a shock when lab results showed the liquid was comprised of potassium nitrate and alunite, ingredients associated in Taoist texts with an immortality elixir.

Alunite is also called the alum stone, and it’s a mineral that forms in pockets or seams of volcanic rocks. It’s fairly benign, and it’s actually used for pickling.

On the other hand, high doses of potassium nitrate are associated with health risks that range from eye and skin irritation to kidney failure, anemia, and full-on dying.

It’s unknown as to whether the tomb’s inhabitant died as a result of drinking the “kool-aid,” but sources have noted that within the vast 2,260 square foot tomb, he was remarkably well-preserved. I guess that’s what you get when you drink a poison/pickle brine cocktail.

What say you? Would you drink 2,000-year-old jungle juice for a chance to watch the sun burn out?

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