American ginseng as an herbal emissary influencing Qing-American trade relations

Richard Zhang
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

 

Illustration of American ginseng

Panax quinquefolium, as featured in a book by physician-botanist Jacob Bigelow, late 1810s. Public domain courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On February 22, 1784, the Empress of China set sail from New York Harbor.1 Destined for the eponymous country, the American ship carried thirty tons of a wild root—ginseng. The vessel reached Guangzhou via the Cape of Good Hope and returned to New York one year later, laden with Chinese tea, cinnamon, porcelain, and silk that bestowed an impressive twenty-five percent profit upon its investors. The successful voyage demonstrated to many Americans how lucrative this humble plant could be. Large markets did not exist in China for most Western commodities, with notable exceptions being ginseng and furs, so such natural products presented a rare opportunity for huge profits.2,3

The herbal emissary carried by the Empress of China was not Panax ginseng, or renshen (人參) native to China and Korea. Rather, it was Panax quinquefolius, the American ginseng native to specific temperate regions of North America and known to Chinese as xiyangshen (西洋參: “west ocean ginseng”).4 How Qing consumers came to embrace an Appalachian root, and how this herb had different meanings for different peoples half a world apart is an intriguing and hitherto under-recognized story.

Long before the 1700s, Amerindian groups such as the Iroquois had consumed American ginseng (garent-oguen) for indications ranging from fatigue and headache to infertility.5 After French Jesuit Pierre Jartoux wrote in 1711 about environmental conditions under which ginseng flourished in temperate northeastern China, fellow Jesuit naturalist Joseph-Francois Lafitau, who was based in Canada, became inspired to search for ginseng in climatically similar New France.6 After several months’ search in 1716, Lafitau successfully identified ginseng in the wilderness of North America, aided by the expertise of Mohawk women. The findings he published inspired enterprising French merchants—and eventually their British counterparts in the Thirteen Colonies—to buy American ginseng from Amerindian harvesters and lucratively export it to Qing China, where East Asian ginseng was immensely popular for its therapeutic properties but was overharvested and dwindling in supply.7,8

Nonetheless, American and East Asian ginseng were understood as different by Chinese herbalists and consumers. Chinese cosmology framed medicinals from the vantage point of qi (氣): the vital force that comprised and linked all entities, had complementary yin and yang elements, and whose elements’ disruption in humans could manifest as illnesses.9 Aside from the two variants’ subtle visual differences, bencao (本草), or classical medicinal texts such as the Bencao Congxin (1757), attributed contrasting properties to renshen and xiyangshen.10 The former root was conceptualized as a “warm” (wen: 溫) herb that could boost qi, diminish vomiting and diarrhea, and alleviate poor blood flow, among many other indications. The latter was recognized as a “cool” (han: 寒) herb that could reduce inner heat, strengthen the lungs, and counteract agitation, to name but a few applications. These labels of “warm” and “cool” were applied based largely on the perceived geographies in which the ginseng variants grew; “warm” flora supposedly flourished in cooler, temperate environments, while the latter was believed to grow in hotter climates. Because xiyangshen was imported into China via the hot southern port of Guangzhou, it was assumed by Chinese to thrive in hot climates despite actually originating from temperate eastern North America.11

The intimate integration of American ginseng into Chinese pharmacopoeia as xiyangshen supports two major points. First, that a millennia-old Chinese medical tradition assimilated a North American herbal as late as the 1700s testifies to Chinese medicine being dynamic, flexible, and continuously evolving, as opposed to static and rigid. Just as contemporaneous European naturalists sought to epistemologically incorporate the world’s fauna and flora, Chinese medical practitioners were generally interested in building upon the knowledge contained within bencao. Second, the categorization of American ginseng as a “cool” herb based on its supposed hot climatic origins reflects the power with which political decisions can influence medical care. American ginseng entering China via Guangzhou from the mid-1700s onward was likely related to the fact that the Qing imperial administration restricted Western trade to Guangzhou, in order to formally regulate Western commercial activities in China.12 Hence, the practice of Chinese medicine as exemplified by xiyangshen’s “cool” attribute was inseparable from political and economic factors.

American ginseng not only influenced medicinal practice in East Asia, but also had lasting impacts on its native side of the world. Shortly after winning its independence, the United States made inroads into the global ginseng trade. The Empress of China’s 1784 voyage initiated the Old China Trade that would prosper into the mid-1800s.13 This trade largely depended on US shipments of American ginseng, furs, and silver to Qing China, which after the mid-nineteenth-century Opium Wars would be forced to open up port cities other than Guangzhou to Western trade and settlement. Given that Qing China was more prone to accepting silver and gold payments from Western nations for its tea and porcelain than it was to buying Western goods with specie, American ginseng contributed to more balanced trade relations between the US and China. Furthermore, at the same time that Qing consumers sliced and brewed xiyangshen root as part of concoctions, Appalachian diggers like Daniel Boone and East Coast magnates such as John Jacob Astor also profited significantly from the transnational trade.14 An October 1820 excerpt from Rural Magazine & Literary Evening Fireside observed that “the trade with Ginseng roots in the Chinese markets continues to become more and more profitable to America. The exportation already amounts to at least 500 [hundredweights] annually.”15 In October 1847, a Scientific American article commenting on trade with Qing China exclaimed that American ginseng “can without doubt be made a very profitable article to American Commerce in our increasing intercourse with that mighty empire.”16 Evidently, wild Appalachian ginseng represented a powerful money-maker to many enterprising Americans.

The herb was not quite as valued in America for its effects on the human body as it was in Qing China. Prominent physician Jacob Bigelow merely suggested in 1818 that P. quinquefolium could be a demulcent and noted that it was “principally sold by [American] druggists as a masticatory.” He declared that “its virtues do not appear, by any means, to justify the high estimate of it by the Chinese.”17 In February 1826, an article in Worcester Magazine & Historical Journal remarked that American ginseng was “the object of so much extravagant fondness, superstitious regard, and strange esteem” among Chinese.18 Almost all orthodox American medical writers of the nineteenth century agreed that the root was at best a mild demulcent or mild stimulant.19 As explained by historian Shigehisa Kuriyama, this discrepancy between East Asian and US medicinal uses of American ginseng stemmed from at least two reasons.20 First, the tonifying properties of American ginseng paved the way for its assimilation into a Chinese medical tradition that most highly regarded drugs that could counteract vital depletion. Western humoralism into the mid-1800s, on the other hand, most valued medicines that could expel perceived, built-up poisons in the body; unlike plants such as poria and rhubarb that gained widespread acceptance in Western pharmacy, Panax quinquefolius was neither an emetic, nor a diuretic, nor a diaphoretic. Furthermore, the vast financial allure of selling American ginseng to China precluded much inquiry into its therapeutic properties in the West at that time.

What did American ginseng mean to those handling it throughout the 1700s and 1800s? To Amerindians, garent-oguen represented a drug, albeit not an extraordinary one, as well as a reliable income source when sold to Euro-American merchants.21 To naturalists, P. quinquefolius was a botanical curiosity for its resemblance and taxonomic relation to P. ginseng, native to Asian lands thousands of miles away. To Chinese consumers, xiyangshen possessed powerful properties as both a tonic and cooling medicine. And to Appalachian harvesters and coastal American merchants alike, ginseng lacked remarkable health benefits but promised material fortune and greater trade parity with China. These diverse and contrasting interpretations of the same root support a powerful point: natural objects may not intrinsically possess meaning, but instead acquire different, socially constructed meanings depending on the kinds of human actors with whom they interact. As explained vividly by historian Londa Schiebinger in Plants and Empire, one group’s meaning for a plant can be lost, even deliberately, as the plant is transported to another group in new geographic and cultural settings.22 In the case of American ginseng, therapeutic meaning was lost as the plant passed from Amerindian to Euro-American and Chinese hands, but profound, new economic and medicinal meanings also emerged.

Globalization has accelerated the development and dissemination of medicines. The Empress of China’s journey occurred squarely between the late 1700s and early 1800s, when international trade facilitated much knowledge production worldwide.23 The 1784 voyage contributed not only to greater Sino-American trade relations, but also to future transnational inquiry into American ginseng’s pharmacological potential centuries later. Recent basic science research has uncovered dozens of bioactive ginsenoside compounds unique to P. quinquefolius; clinical inquiry has preliminarily elucidated these molecules’ potential benefits against neurocognitive aging and diabetes mellitus.24,25,26,27 These developments have been made possible by an intersection of globalization and technoscientific collaboration—the same intersection that enabled metformin’s discovery from a folk herb, and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors’ preparation from viper venom.28,29 Indeed, many natural products have become biomedically reinterpreted in recent years. We can only imagine what future biomedical and therapeutic voyages might look like for the Empress of China’s herbal emissary.

 

References

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RICHARD ZHANG is a fourth-year MD student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. Between his third and fourth years of medical school, Richard completed an MA in History of Science and Medicine at Yale University.

 

 

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