Why you should care
Because you may not need a Viagra prescription.
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The legendary Chinese emperor Shen Nung, who reputedly lived around 2700 B.C., is known by many names — the divine farmer, the father of Chinese agriculture, the father of Chinese medicine — and for many physical attributes. He was said to have a crystal belly that enabled him to observe the gastrointestinal effects of his experiments with ingested plants; small, sharp horns, to represent tilling the soil; and the head of a bull, to indicate virility.
But every now and then, even the divine farmer needed a bit of extra lift. For that, he turned to an herb that still has a reputation for performance enhancement: ginseng.
Confidently we can say that [the emperor] didn’t exist, but that doesn’t alleviate the power of this figure.
Yan Liu, history professor, State University of New York at Buffalo
When the emperor chewed a ginseng root, he liked the “warm and pleasurable feeling” he experienced, according to a 2012 article in the Indian Journal of Urology, and ginseng’s phallic shape further convinced him of the fleshy root’s “rejuvenative and aphrodisiac properties” — hence his recommendation to use it to boost libido and sexual performance. The more a ginseng root looked like a penis, Shen Nung theorized, the greater its potency.
Ginseng was just one of 70 herbs Shen Nung identified in his experiments, which reputedly involved eating hundreds of different plants. (Some sources say he died of a toxic overdose.) An author whose name is lost to history cataloged the emperor’s observations in the treatise The Divine Farmer’s Herb Root Classic, a foundational work of Chinese pharmaceuticals. The book, which discusses not just curing illness but also enhancing life, has remained central to traditional Chinese medicine, according to Yan Liu, a history professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “Confidently we can say that [the emperor] didn’t exist, but that doesn’t alleviate the power of this figure,” Liu says. “[Shen Nung] would probably be imagined by the people of the Hun period as a way to crystallize medical knowledge.”
The wisdom in the books attributed to Shen Nung, Liu notes, is probably knowledge accumulated over generations; invoking a figure from the distant past perhaps made the information seem more authoritative.
Ginseng is one of the most interesting substances in Chinese pharmacology, Liu says. As a “superior drug,” it was not considered to be as toxic or powerful as those in lower classifications commonly used to cure illness. But the top-tier, nontoxic drugs like ginseng worked to promote life, which helps explain people’s enduring interest in them.
Today, varieties of wild ginseng grow in eastern Asia and eastern North America, particularly in Appalachia and the Ozarks, although overharvesting has threatened or endangered the plant throughout much of its North America range. Ginseng trade between the two areas can be traced back to the mid-1700s, when it was discovered in modern-day Quebec. The trade quickly became the “second most important Canadian export after fur,” according to a Canadian government report. Even with stricter regulations surrounding ginseng cultivation and trade, the U.S. and Canada together still exported more than $200 million worth of ginseng to China and Hong Kong in 2016, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.
Research on ginseng’s ability to improve cognitive function and boost energy is inconclusive, but findings suggest it actually might help people with sexual dysfunction. Regardless, the potential for ginseng and other naturally occurring substances to improve everyday life could be valuable for the U.S. to adopt, Liu says. “Today we take drugs to combat issues already developed in our bodies,” he says, “but if we broaden our horizons [to embrace] a way of living that can maintain or enhance our health in general, it’s … a better way to be healthy and be happy.”