Cultural Mythology of Harvesting Wild Ginseng

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Power and medicine were never very far apart in ancient China. In the Warring States period (475-221 BC), people who traveled the country's forests and wastelands were urged to carry herbs to protect themselves against deadly diseases like schistosomiasis. Often the medicine served mainly to calm the travelers' fears of forces beyond their control, such as wild beasts and flash floods. As time passed and experience sorted out promising plants from the ordinary, ginseng accumulated powerful names throughout China: yellow root, the root that turns its back on the sun, divine herb, the "returned cinnabar with the wrinkled face," and "abounds in spirits." The popular imagination gave ginseng legendary abilities. In one story, a man was repeatedly woken up in the middle of the night by someone calling his name. He would rouse himself and look around, but he never found anyone. One night, at wit's end, he scoured the entire area within a half-mile of his house, and finally stopped before a magnificent ginseng plant that stood as high as his waist. When he dug it out, the root was nearly six feet long and shaped like a man. The cries in the night stopped.

Ginseng could escape from diggers by morphing into a tiger, a man, or a bird. In one Chinese legend, a man happens onto a huge patch of mature ginseng plants. Thrilled, he starts greedily digging them up. Suddenly a little girl appears and starts throwing sand in his eyes. He staggers blindly away, and she chases him so far that he can never find that place again. The girl, of course, was a morphed ginseng plant. The root also was thought to have the power to make itself resemble many other plants, which my ramble with Beyfuss seemed to confirm.

The gist of these stories is that ginseng hunting was never simply a walk in the woods. To people searching for it, the root acquired the power and cunning of everything in the forest, and finding the plant required courage, discipline, and endurance. Some collectors tried to make themselves worthy of it with strict preparations before the hunt: they abstained from alcohol, meat, and even sex. Running through Chinese manuscripts on the history of ginseng digging is a strong fear that any ginseng plant could suddenly vanish or cause mayhem. As soon as a digger spotted the plant, tradition dictated that he throw himself on the ground and shout, "Don't flee!" He then had to explain quickly that he was a good person and that his motives were pure. If he were with a group expedition, he had to keep shouting until his cries brought others running to help. Then one of them would carefully dig up the root while the first digger kept watch to make sure the plant didn't escape. This notion of a root capable of flight still echoes in stories told by diggers in America.

Image retrieved from New York Times Ginseng poaching on the rise at Ky. national park; Herb can be sold for a hefty profit on October 7, 2014.

pp. 60-61 Ginseng, the Divine Root: The Curious History of the Plant that Captivated the World by David A. Taylor (2005)

Ginseng, harvesting, foraging