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From ginseng to dog poo


A man of a miserly character was suddenly stricken with consumption. The physician said after examination, “Your pulse has an air of weakness. It is advisable to strengthen [yourself] with ginseng.” Gazing at him in astonishment, the sick man said, “A man of meagre means [like myself] can but leave [my] life at the mercy of heaven!”


The physician said, “If ginseng is out of the question, processed Rehmannia root [1] makes a fair substitute at an affordable price.” “Which is prohibitive enough”, said the sick man, shaking his head, “Death is [my] only wish.”


Realising his parsimony, the physician tricked [him], saying, “Here is an alternative prescription. Take some dry dog’s faeces mixed with a little brown sugar. That can also be a supplement to [your] vital energy.” The sick man sprang up, asking, “Will it suffice to take dog’s faeces alone, if I may ask?” [2]

* From Youxi zhuren 遊戲主人 (fl. 19th century) ed., Xiaolin guangji 笑林廣記 9.4b:

[1] Rehmanniae Radix Praeparata, a common ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine; for more comprehensive overviews, see the entry "shu di huang 熟地黃" in Dan Bensky, Steven Clavey, Erich Stöger, and Andrew Gamble (eds.). Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica. 3rd ed. (Seattle WA: Eastland Press, 2004), 742-44; and the entry "dihuang 地黃" in Erich A. Stöger, Arzneibuch der chinesischen Medizin: Monographien des Arzneibuches der Volksrepublik China 1985 und 1990 (Stuttgart: Deutscher Apotheker Verlag, 1995-).

[2] For the record, faecal matter, fresh and dry, of humans and animals young and adult, are considered to hold various medicinal properties in the traditional Chinese medical system. The physician's joke is therefore not as apparent as it may seem, and the sick man has good reasons to take it seriously. Note that the Chinese were not alone in this. The Greek philosopher Celsus (fl. 175–177), for example, also recorded with diligence various medicinal effects of animal dung on the human body and would have appreciated the multiplicity of Chinese excremental remedies; see Celsus, De Medicina, with an English translation by W. G. Spencer, Vol. 2. (The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., London: Harvard University Press; Heinemann, 1935), Books V-VI; or more conveniently at the Perseus Digital Library:

Pages on the medicinal properties and uses of dog poo in the Bencao gangmu 本草綱目 (Compendium of Materia Medica, 1596);


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