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Herbal Pearls: Traditional Chinese Folk Wisdom – An Excerpt of Herbal Lore

Editor’s note: The 3 stories contained in this article were excerpted from Herbal Pearls—Traditional Chinese Folk Wisdom, a collection of stories compiled by Miao Wen-wei. The Chinese edition was published by the China Society for Folk Literature and Art (Beijing, China; 1981). The English edition was translated by Yue Chong-xi, edited and annotated by Steven Foster, and published by Ozark Beneficial Plant Project in association with Boian Books, LLC (Eureka Springs, Arkansas; 2008).

Hidden within the great treasure house of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the medicine of rural China are pearls of folk wisdom. One form is oral folk tales about origins of plant names or how a plant came to be used as a drug—perhaps by chance discovery, intervention by immortal beings, or simply observing a diseased animal eating a plant and then returning to a healthy state. For hundreds, if not thousands of years, peasant storytellers have passed down the tales from one generation to another. This rich oral tradition conveys much about Chinese culture, folk customs, social habits, history, medical knowledge, mythology, and wisdom. Many of the stories reflect how the repressed poor labor class of feudal China valued, even revered, those who could cure their illnesses. The stories include profiles of sages, who through kind acts earned the heart-felt respect of the peasants oppressed by tyrant overlords.

From 1934 to 1980, folklorist Miao Wen-wei collected these stories from farmers, peasants, and traditional doctors in the central coastal region of China’s Jiangsu, Anhui, and Zhejiang provinces. In 1981, the China Society for Folk Literature and Art published this collection of 53 folk tales collected over the 46 year period.

The book includes 48 short stories on name origins and discovery of use of traditional herbs. The other 5 stories discuss animal or mineral drugs, such as cinnabar, snake venom, dried scorpions, and other medicinal items, many official in the modern Pharmacopeia of the People’s Republic of China. Here we excerpt 3 stories, garlic (Allium sativum, Liliaceae), kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata, Fabaceae) and perilla (Perilla frutescens, Lamiaceae).

Garlic Allium sativum, Liliaceae - Da Suan

Garlic is one herb famous for both its culinary and medicinal value. In Western traditions, garlic is valued for health benefits such as antibacterial and antifungal activity along with its value for the possible prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. In modern China, the drug derived from the bulbs, known as da suan, is used for treating diarrhea, tuberculosis, and especially amebic and bacterial forms of dysentery. Its use in treating dysentery is first recorded in Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (Herbal Classic of the Divine Plowman), attributed to the “divine plowman,” Shen Nong, a mythical ruler of China some 4,000 years ago.

The following story relates how garlic was discovered to be an effective drug against dysentery. For decades, this folk tale circulated among the peasants of Tian Chang, Gao You, and Bao Ying counties in Anhui Province, and was collected in 1942 from a farmer named Miao Shu Dong.

Many centuries ago, before written history, people knew that garlic could change and enhance the flavor of food. Years later it was found to have medicinal qualities. How was its medicinal use discovered? Here is the story:

In ancient times, there was a doctor who could read pulses with great skill. The doctor employed a small boy to process herbs and roots to give his patients. The boy did housework, some business work, and other tasks. When the doctor was free, he would teach the boy how to use drugs to cure disease.

One of the doctor’s neighbors was a farmer who very much wanted to learn to become a doctor of traditional medicine.

He asked the doctor, “Sir, please let me be your student, your apprentice.”

At that time, the father always taught his trade to his son. The knowledge was passed from generation to generation. This was the way of ancient China. Very few doctors would teach an apprentice who was not his own blood. The doctor said no to the farmer’s request.

However, the farmer didn’t give up the idea of learning medicine. One day, a villager told the farmer that in the evenings, the doctor always taught medicine to the young boy who worked for him. So one evening the farmer quietly hid in front of the window of the doctor’s house, perking up his ears to hear what the doctor taught his student.

In fact, this evening the doctor and the boy discussed the doctor’s accounts - not medicine at all.

A patient bought some medicine from the doctor, but had not paid for it. When the boy settled his accounts, he asked the doctor, “That patient owes a debt for drugs. Should we charge him interest on the amount owed?”

“No, don’t charge interest. If he can pay the money for the drug, I think this is fine,” the doctor replied.

Chinese is a complex language and eavesdropping can produce unexpected results. Each word has “four tongues.” Depending upon the inflection of a word’s pronunciation, the same word can have several, very different meanings. A phrase must be heard in the context of the entire conversation to be understood. As it happens, the Chinese phrase meaning “not to pay interest,” in another context, means “garlic stops dysentery.” Before he heard the phrase “not to pay interest,” the farmer hidden beneath the doctor’s window had not heard the rest of the conversation, and really didn’t know exactly what the doctor and his helper were discussing. Without knowing the context of the phrase he had overheard, the farmer thought that the doctor had taught the young boy a prescription for curing dysentery with garlic. The farmer thought he had learned a practical medical secret.

The next day the farmer told other villagers that he could cure dysentery. Of course, nobody believed him and no one asked him to cure the disease.

A few days later, the farmer learned that a relative living ten miles away had contracted a bad case of dysentery. When the farmer heard this, he walked to the home of the relative and administered garlic to him. After several days of treatment, the relative returned to good health, much to the surprise of everyone.

After this, the farmer abandoned his crops, stayed in his relative’s house, and specialized in curing dysentery. He treated patient after patient with great success, and soon became famous for his ability to cure the disease.

When the doctor heard the news, he went to the farmer and asked, “Who teaches you how to affect this cure?”

“I learn from you,” the farmer replied.

“You don’t learn this from me,” the doctor retorted scornfully, “I didn’t teach you anything!”

The farmer told his story to the doctor.

The doctor laughed. “That evening,” he said, “the boy and I talked about settling my accounts.”

Bewildered, the farmer stared blankly wondering how his folly had turned to the good fortune of a cure for dysentery.

Finally, the doctor broke the silence and said, “You have the desire to learn medicine, so now I ask you to be my apprentice. You have hit the mark by a fluke, and in this way discovered that garlic has the ability to cure dysentery.”

Since that time, garlic has served as a traditional drug used to cure dysentery.


Kudzu Pueraria montana var. lobata, Fabaceae - Ge Gen

Few plants are as much maligned in the southeastern United States as kudzu, which, especially in the deep south, swarms like a green tidal wave over once productive farmland, abandoned homes, and wooded thickets. Kudzu was introduced into the United States in 1876 as an ornamental. In China, the root is used for a condition termed “superficial syndrome” when a disease is manifest under the surface of the skin (such as measles without skin eruptions), but is not yet severe, and is accompanied by fever, thirst, a lack of sweating, and headache. It is also used to treat diarrhea and dysentery. Since ancient times, before written history, the drug has been known as ge gen in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Ge gen is first mentioned in the middle class of herbs in Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (Herbal Classic of the Divine Plowman). In 1938, Miao Wen-wei discovered the story of how its name came to be. An 86-year-old traditional doctor, Feng Xing Kui, told him the tale.

Once upon a time, an old man spent his days digging root drugs on a great mountain covered in a dense forest. One day, he heard men shouting and horses neighing from the mountainside below. He did not know what was wrong, so he peered out from behind some trees to see what he could. A few minutes later a young man about fourteen or fifteen years old was frantically running across the sharp mountain stones and scurrying around trees. The boy caught sight of the old man and ran to him. Then, in a most respectful way, the boy threw himself to his knees before the feet of the old man.

“Why do you bow on the ground before me in such a respectful way, like a chicken eating rice?” the bewildered root-digger asked.

“Grandfather, grandfather, help me! Help me! They want to kill me!”

“Who are you?” the old man asked.

“I am the son of the gentleman Mr. Ge,” the boy replied.

“Who wants to kills you?” asked the old man.

“In the dynasty, there is a treacherous court official,” the boy explained, gasping to catch a breath. “He falsely accuses my father of having a private army and says he stations troops and conspires to rebel against the Emperor. The fatuous self-indulgent ruler believes this is true, so he ordered his officials to lead an army to surround my home and kill everyone in the family. My father said to me, ‘you are the only seedling of the Ge family. If you are killed, our family will be without a new generation.’ He told me to run away and to avenge this wrong when I grow up. If not, at least the Ge family can have a new generation. Therefore, I had to leave my home and escape quickly, but the officials found me, and they have followed me here! Grandfather, please save me! If you save me, you save the Ge family.”

The old man firmly stroked the ends of his long silver mustache as if to invoke a plan, then thought aloud, “I know the gentleman Ge, and he is very loyal, in fact, the family has been loyal to the Emperors for several generations.”

The soldiers following the boy were now close behind. The ponderous old root digger and frightened boy could hear the horses breaking through the forest. The old man looked toward the backside of the mountain and had an idea.

“Follow me quickly,” he commanded, moving into a thicket of trees.

The boy followed him deep into the mountain forest where they took refuge in a well-hidden sacred stone cave. There, they stayed for several days. The army followed the boy’s tracks into the mountain forest, searching in vain for three days, not finding as much as the boy’s shadow. The officer called the search off.

About this time, the old man led the boy out of the cave and asked, “Where do you want to go?”

The boy cried and said, “All of my family were caught and the entire family was exterminated along with my eight relative families.”

In ancient China, the extended family consisted not only of the immediate family of the father, but included the patriarchal mother’s family, the wife’s family, and her immediate relatives. In all, the extended family consisted of nine natural groups, including the father’s parents and siblings. So not only were the boy’s immediate family killed, but his entire extended family as well.

“Grandfather, you saved me,” the boy cried with deep gratitude, “I would like to serve you for my whole life. After your hundred years, I would like to wear hemp, and be in mourning for you. But, I don’t know if you would like to have me with you.”

In ancient China, a person is afforded a life of one hundred years. Once a son’s parents die he was forbidden from wearing silk or cotton. Only hemp clothes could be worn. His remorse was a ritual expression of guilt for not having served his parents as well as he might have. At first, the clothes are to be of white, then after several weeks, one wears gray clothes, and sometime later, black clothing. The boy offered himself as a servant son to the old man. In essence, he would adopt the old root gatherer as his father and treat him with the respect due to parents.

The old man deeply considered the boy’s offer and replied, “You may live here with me, but my home is the forest. I am a person who spends his time collecting herbs and drug plants. Every day I climb mountains, one mountain after another. The lifestyle is not as comfortable and easy as the ways of your gentlemen family.”

“I am happy to be alive. You have saved me, and thus have saved the Ge family,” the boy replied. “If you would adopt me, I can do the hard work.”

From that time forward the boy followed the old herb gatherer, collecting herbs and roots every day. The old person always dug one particular herb with a very large tuberous root. The root was much in demand to cure fever, thirst, and diarrhea.

Several years later, the old man died, but he had passed his knowledge of herbs on to the boy as if he were his own son. Like the old herb gatherer, the boy made a specialty of digging the herb with the large tuberous root. He used the herb to treat many sick people with excellent results. However, the herb did not have a name.

One day someone asked, “What is the name of the herb?”

The son of the gentlemen Ge considered the question, thinking of his life’s experience.

“I am the only one left in the Ge family, I am something like a root for my family, so I will call this herb ge gen.”

In China when a person dies, he leaves behind a root. That root is the new generation. This is called gen. The traditional drug derived from the root of the kudzu is still called ge gen.


Perilla Perilla frutescens Lamiaceae - Zi Su

Perilla is a plant of many disguises borne of its wide distribution and diverse use in each culture that adopts it. In America, when food enthusiasts hear the word shiso, they think of an exotic, distinctly flavored leaf garnish used in virtually every Japanese restaurant. Go into any Korean grocery in the United States, even in small cities, and kkaennip—the pickled leaves of perilla—are commonly sold packaged in sardine-sized cans. In American herb gardens, perilla is widely grown, primarily as an ornamental for the attractive purple-leaved and crisped-leaved varieties.

Perilla is a common weed in the southern United States. In some places in the Ozarks it blankets the ground in moist woods. The dried seed stalks rattle as one walks along a perilla-covered logging road in autumn, earning it the name “rattle-snake weed.”

In China, perilla is known as zi su. The great physician Tao Hong Jing (452–536 CE) wrote about its many uses in the classic herbal Ming Yi Bie Lu. All parts of the plant are used. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the seeds (zi su zi) make qi move in a downward direction, stop asthma, expel phlegm, relieve coughs, strengthen the diaphragm, and widen the intestines. The leaves (zi su ye) expel cold, regulate vital energy (qi), and expand the chest. The stems (zi su geng) regulate vital energy, expand the chest, disperse depressed vital energy, and soothe a restless fetus. The leaves are also used to counteract the discomfort from eating too much seafood.

How did this curious use come to be discovered? The legendary herbalist, Hua Tou, reveals the secret. Hua Tuo from Qiao in the Pei State (now Bozhou City, Anhui Province) is thought to have lived about 110–207 CE, toward the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty. He is honored in Chinese medical history for development of a narcotic anesthetic, ma fei san, allowing him to perform surgery with anesthesia 1600 years before Europeans did the same. The prescription is lost, but was thought to contain Jimsonweed (Datura spp.) and Cannabis. He also devised exercises to enhance health, now incorporated into modern Qi Gong. His wisdom was legendary. He worked for neither fame nor money, but devoted his life to help the suffering. Numerous stories recount his life, achievements, and near miraculous cures. This story was collected in 1963 from an elderly patient, Wei Kai Xiang, in North Jiangsu Hospital No. 5, Yang Zhou in Jiangsu Province.

In the ninth day of the ninth month is the double ninth festival. A group of young men from a rich family were in a bar at an inn to see who could eat the most crabs. The big crabs had much flesh with yellow, delicious oil. All of the young men found that the more they ate, the more delicious the food became. The empty shells on the table were like a small tower.

Hua Tuo brought his apprentices to the inn to have a drink. He saw the group of young men. He thought they were crazy for trying to outdo each other in devouring crabs. Hua Tuo kindly advised them that the crabs were cold in character and that they shouldn’t eat too much.

“Young men you have your match to see who can eat the most crabs. It is not a good thing.”

The young men felt quite unhappy with the words of the old doctor, “We have the food that we buy with our own money. Who cares what you have to say!”

Hua Tuo advised, “If you have too much of the crabs you will get diarrhea. Then maybe risk your lives.”

One young man hastened, “Go, go, go. Don’t come here to frighten other people. We are just eating crabs. It is none of your concern.”

The young man who said these words was drunk. He did not heed the advice of Hua Tuo. The young men continued to eat and drink to their hearts’ content.

One cried out loudly, “Crab is a delicious food. Has anyone heard anything as ridiculous as they can kill people? We are at the limits of our stomach. We just make the old man envious.”

Hua Tuo found that the young men were making much noise, were unreasonable, and would not follow his advice. So he decided to say something to the master of the inn.

“Don’t sell anymore crab to them. The food can endanger human life.”

The innkeeper was more interested in the money of the customers than the words of Hua Tuo.

With an angry tone he snapped, “This matter is none of your business! Don’t meddle in my matters.”

Hua Tuo sighed heavily and sat down to have his own drink. Until midnight, the group of young men kept eating. Suddenly, one fell to the floor and doubled over in abdominal pain. Soon, the others followed. Their pain was so intense that they began to sweat profusely. They were on the floor writhing with pain.

The master of the inn became terribly frightened and dumbfounded.

“What is the matter with you boys?” he asked nervously.

“We have much pain, please ask a doctor to help us.”

“In the depth of night, where can I find a doctor!” the innkeeper cried.

“We entreat you to charitably achieve this good act, if no doctor comes to see us, we may lose our lives!”

By that time Hua Tuo came over and said, “I am a doctor.”

The young people were surprised and their faces turned red with embarrassment. They thought that the old person asked them not to have too many crabs because he was jealous. Now they lose face as they had turned away the words of the old man. Doubled over in pain, they clutched their abdomens with both hands.

They begged Hua Tuo, “Please cure our disease.”

Hua Tuo laughed, “Just now you said you don’t need me to manage your business.”

“Your Excellency, please forget our villainous words,” one young man pleaded.

Another added, “Please good doctor, show your mercy upon us. How much money would you like, it is no problem. We only ask you to save our lives.”

“I don’t need money.”

“If you want anything else, just name it!” the boys replied.

“I only ask you to agree to one thing.”

“One thing, one thousand, ten thousand things, we will do! Please offer your demand quickly!”

“From now on,” Hua Tuo said, “you should accept the advice of older persons. Don’t run wild again.”

“Certainly, certainly, whatever you ask, please save our lives quickly, please!”

Hua Tuo left them to await his return. He went to get his apprentices and sent them to a wild area to collect a purple-colored herb. They harvested the stems and the leaves of the herb and decocted them for the young men. After drinking the decoction, their abdominal pain stopped.

Hua Tuo asked, “How do you feel after drinking the medicine?”

“Much more comfortable,” they replied.

Hua Tuo thought to himself, hmmm, the herb hasn’t a name.

He then said aloud, “After consuming this herb people have a comfortable feeling, so from now one we will call it purple comfortable herb.”

The young people gave thousands and thousands of thanks, said good-bye and left.

Hua Tuo scolded the innkeeper, “How dangerous. From now on, you must pay attention to more than just earning money. You must pay attention to the lives of others!”

The innkeeper solemnly nodded his head again and again.

When Hua Tuo left the inn, the apprentices asked him, “The leaves of the purple herb can expel the poison of crabs? Which book recorded this knowledge?”

Hua Tuo told his apprentices. “None of the ben cao [Chinese herbals] mentions this. I learned it from an animal.”

The story is this: One day Hua Tuo was in the mountains in the south part of the Yangtze River to collect some drugs. I saw a common otter. The otter caught a very big fish, spent a long time eating it, and finally swallowed it. His abdomen was swollen, as full as a drum. Then the otter spent time in the water, and time on the bank, time lying without moving, and time turning from side to side, as if writhing in pain. We can guess that the common otter was very uncomfortable. At last, the otter crept to the bank to a clump of purple plants. The otter ate some leaves of the herb and then laid down for a rest. Unexpectedly, nothing happened. Hua Tuo thought that the fish character belonged to cold and that the purple herb character belonged to warm.

“I thought that the purple herb could expel the fish poison. Since this time Hua Tuo remembered this in his mind,” he told his apprentices with a glint in his eye.

Afterwards, Hua Tuo used the purple herb and its leaves and stems to make pills and powders. He then developed the use of the herb to promote sweating to expel the exogenous evils from the body surface and to expel cold. Meanwhile the herb benefits the spleen and lungs. It also regulates vital energy, widens the middle warmer, stops cough, dissipates phlegm, and can cure many diseases.

Since the medicine is purple in color, and when taken for abdominal pain it makes people comfortable, Hua Tuo called it zi shu (purple comfortable). Then for some reason, people started calling it zi su, probably because of a change of pronunciation in a local dialect.