Sunday Levity: The Swami and the Emperor of China

Elixir of Long Life and the recipe for sugar

In The Real Tripitaka: and other pieces Arthur Waley narrates an interesting episode, a side-story in the aftermath of the first armed conflict between Chinese and Indian forces (see these two posts for the background).

In the summer of 648 the Chinese envoy Wang Xuance returned from India bringing with him a king and an alchemist. The adventures of this mission well illustrate the buccaneering spirit of early Tang diplomats. On arriving in Central India in 647 Wang Xuance discovered that King Harsha had died some months before. After his death great disorder broke out in Central India and eventually the throne was seized by a vassal raja named King Arjuna, who refused to see the Chinese Mission.

Wang Xuance with thirty mounted followers tried to battle his way to the capital. The Chinese fought till they had shot their last arrow and were then captured, along with the presents that various rajas had asked them to take back to the Chinese Emperor. Wang Xuance and his assistant Chiang Shih-jen managed to escape from captivity, reached Tibet, and there recruited a force of twelve hundred picked men, no donut through the good offices of the Chinese princess who was one of the king of Tibet’s wives.

With these and some seven thousand Nepalese cavalry he returned to India, routed the armies of King Arjuna, captured the king, together with a vast booty, and returned to China bringing with him not only King Arjuna, but…a magician named Narayanaswami, who claimed to be two hundred years old himself and to be able to produce (for the benefit of others) an Elixir of Long Life.

The Emperor (Taizong) was much interested, and allotted him a special apartment in the Palace, where he was to pursue his alchemical experiments. No less a person than Tsui Tun-li, the Minister for War, was made responsible for seeing that he was supplied with the necessary ingredients and helpers. The emperor took his first dose of Elixir in the autumn of 648, and the tenth day of the eighth month he wrote to the alchemist: ‘Since I tool the drug I have gradually begun to lose the feeling of heaviness in my hands and feet and I hope that if I go on looking after myself carefully I shall get rid of it altogether … but my fate depends on the result of further doses. I hope I may count on attaining a great age and look forward with certainty to far outliving my generation, without any change in my appearance; also my white hair is turning black again and my worn-out body losing its infirmities and becoming stronger than ever. Do you think these hopes are justified? Please tell me quite frankly. I have the highest regard for your noble art.’

There seems to be no doubt that the Emperor’s health did improve considerably, and one might have expected that Narayanaswami would have got full credit for the improvement. However, in an edict in the ninth month, ordering the enrollment of 18,500 fresh monks and nuns, the Emperor says: ‘In the recent campaign I was exposed to wind and frost, and often spent the night on horseback. I was given some drugs, but did not, while I was taking them, recover completely. Recently, however, I have entirely regained my health, and am convinced that this is due to the pious works I have been undertaking.’

The magician was told that he might go back to India, but did not avail himself of the permission and soon afterwards discredited his art by dying in Chang-an. [Arthur Waley/The Real Tripitaka: and other stories, pp 95-96. ]

Elsewhere in the book, Waley writes that while Harsha had sent an envoy to Taizong after being impressed with the itinerant monk Xuanzhang, the reciprocal embassy “was commercial as well as diplomatic.” Wang Xuance had been “instructed to obtain the Indian recipe for making sugar. The great Chinese centre of sugarcane growing was at Yangchow, and the sugar made there according to the recipe soon (we are told) excelled that of India.” (pp 78-79)