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The Lords of Ginseng

9 September 2007

According to Shennong Herbal Medicine (《神农本草经》), the first comprehensive reference on Chinese medicinal remedies written about two thousand years ago, in 365 remedies it lists, there are three types of remedy sources: herbs, animal parts and minerals; and three levels of remedy qualities: top quality which promotes physical and mental well beings, medium quality which regulates yin-yang balance, and low quality which addresses specified illnesses.

And ginseng is one of those listed in the very front of the top category.

A vegetational relic of the tertiary period, it appeared on the earth long before human, and is believed to be more than just plantation, but blessed by the breath of soul (灵气), and presented in yin-yang dual forms, known as genders (雌雄). With its resemblance to human shape, it gains the name in Chinese as 人参 (Man Root), and helps strengthening yang energy, increasing blood supply, improving qi circulation, stimulating physical vitalities and invigorating mental powers.

Ginseng family, again, can be further divided into three main groups: wild ginseng, garden ginseng and Korean ginseng. And among the three, the wild ginseng is reputed as having the highest nourishing and therapeutical efficacy.

Chinese legends say that wild ginseng can live hundreds even thousands of years, with a new offshoots growing out of the main root every 100 years.

The best time for collecting wild ginseng is between the late July to September, since by then the fleshy roots turned mature red and thus are easy to be posted by naked eyes.

But the wild ginseng is rare to be found, as for to stumble upon a ginseng with more than a half dozen roots, that would be extremely unusual.

And then on a Sunday afternoon in early August 2007, an extremely unusual event occurred. That day, retired Chinese doctor Lin Xiamen (林秀民) from Yantai (烟台) in Shandong Province (山东) went to catch cicadas in the North Mountain (北山) with her husband and friends. When she entered the secluded Immortal Valley (仙人谷), she spotted a plant blossoming in the late afternoon winter sun with tiny purple flowers. She went over to take a close look and there she saw two dozen fleshy roots in mature red colour branched out of a main stem, sprawling around. As soon as she recognized it must be wild ginseng, she also realised it could well be over 2000 years old. And it is a yin or say female ginseng.

Her extensive knowledge on herbs told her, that wild ginseng normally does not grow alone, instead they exist in yin-yang pairs, so there must be a male ginseng in a similar age group somewhere nearby. She was right, soon she found another ginseng under a torch tree just two metres away, though without branch heads but weighted a massive 3.8 kilograms.

After the details of her ginseng luck leaked out, it caused a quite splash in China. Some congratulated her, some interviewed her, some allegedly offered 20 million yuans to buy off the ginseng couple from her, and some, after she revealed that she tied the ginsengs with red strings to prevent them from running away as soon as she spotted them, accused her of being ridiculous and superstitious, and some simply condemned her for rooting out the guardian and protector of the mountain.

A village head in the area where the ginseng was found told the journalist that even though they had never seen a wild ginseng in their field, a folklore does speak of a man in robe appeared from time to time being the manifestation of that soulful root. Thus some people forwarded warnings to the doctor that the senior ginsengs could be the physical expressions of highly advanced cultivators and it is dangerous to move them away from where they belong.

And some villagers even considered to take legal action to get their treasure back.

Doctor Lin probably never expected one Sunday afternoon excursion could bring so much dramas to her previously quiet life in retirement. But she refuses to budge, neither accepting the multi-million-yuan offer to sell the ginsengs for profit, nor preparing to send them back to the village.  

But one thing she has already done: she tasted a tiny piece of ginseng skin and experienced four consecutive energetic day and night without nap. And one thing she is also planning to do: to enter Guinness World Record for her collections as the biggest wild ginseng ever found.

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