An engraving of the ginseng plant by Joseph-Francois Lafitau (1681–1746).

Ginseng (Panax ginseng) is a small woodland plant indigenous to mountain forests in Asia, especially Manchuria, and is now cultivated primarily in Korea. Its root is valued for medicinal purposes, especially for its effects on the nervous system.

Ginseng (Panax ginseng; or renshen in Chinese), was discovered in Manchuria over 5,000 years ago and is indigenous to mountain forests from Nepal to Manchuria. It is a member of the Araliaceae family, and is one of a number of related plants valued primarily for their calming effects on the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Ginseng is said to restore physical and mental vitality, defend the body from the effects of physical strain, and stimulate the endocrine glands.

Discovering Ginseng

Joseph-François Lafitau was a French Jesuit missionary who spent time in Canada. There, discovery of ginseng led to his comparison of Iroquois and Chinese languages, and his theory that contact between races had occurred prehistorically.

Three years later Lafitau noticed a description of Chinese ginseng in an accound by Pere Pierre Jartoux of his voyage to Tartary in 1709 in Volume X of the Jesuits’ Lettres curieuses et edifiantes. Lafitau then undertook a successful search for an American counterpart. In 1717 he returned to France, and in January of that year the Jesuit scientific periodical Journal de Trevoux published a preliminary account of American ginseng from his pen. Here he affirmed that the Iroquois name for the plant is garentogen which means, like the Chinese ginseng, “representation of man” or “resemblance to man.” This linguistic similarity, Lafitau believed, could be accounted for only on the supposition of a communication of ideas between the two races and, therefore, of individuals as well. “D’ou l’on pourroit conclure que ces artars orientaux, dont les moeurs ressemblent assez a celles des sauvages, ne sont pat si eloignez de Canada qu’on le pense, peut-etre que quand le pais quiest audela de la Louisiane sera habite, on ne sera pas long tems sans decouvrir ces Tartares.” (From this one might conclude that these oriental Tartars, whose manners resemble those of the savages, are not so distant from Canada as one might think, and perhaps when the country beyond Louisiana shall be inhabited it will not be lng before these Tartars are discovered.) Nearly two centuries later, linguists, anthropologists, and comparatists are still using the similarity in languages as evidence of pre-histories physical contact between American Indians and the Chinese.

Source: Aldridge, O. A.. (1993). The dragon and the eagle: The presence of China in the American enlightenment. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 49.

Ginseng is the best-known medicinal product in China, where it is most prized for its perceived benefits to the urogenital system of aging men, whose sexual problems are a major concern in traditional Chinese medicine. After the swollen root of the plant has been carefully cleaned and dried, medicinal extracts can be made, primarily with alcohol, and to satisfy Western tastes for medicinal teas the root can be ground into powder. The suggestively anthropomorphic shape of this small woodland plant’s root has long been for some a powerful symbol of divine harmony on Earth.

The growing range of ginseng is rather limited, and it’s popularity throughout history as a revered panacea has often resulted in short supplies. In the third century CE demand for wild ginseng in China had grown so large that a trade route was established allowing Korea access to Chinese silk and other medicine in exchange for the root. By the 1900s demand in China dwindled the wild supply that grew mainly in the lush forests of Manchuria, and commercial cultivation of ginseng began in Korea to replace and expand root sources in areas where wild ginseng has disappeared. Interest in ginseng as a cure-all had also grown in the West by the nineteenth century, and the remotest parts of Manchuria were soon harvested from end to end by ginseng hunters. They advanced far into Siberia as Manchurian resources were depleted. By the late nineteenth century China was even importing wild ginseng from Canada and the United States (Panax quincefolium), a trade that continues to some extent, although both countries are now net importers of ginseng, mostly from South Korea.

Further Reading

Perry, L. M., & Metzger, J. (1980). Medicinal plants of East and Southeast Asia, attributed properties and uses. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Source: Buell, Paul D. (2009). Ginseng. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 899–900. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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