Ginseng the Star Root

The ancient bronzeware script characters for ginseng, ren shen 人參

Ginseng 人參 ranks at the top of a group of longevity herbs that have anti-aging and anti-cancer properties. Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing 神農本草經, The Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica, honors it as a superior herb with profound spiritual qualities:

味甘,微寒。主補五臟,安精神,定魂魄,止驚悸,除邪氣,明目、開心、益智。久服,輕身、延年。

‘Sweet in taste and slightly cool in temperature,* it strengthens the vital organs, secures the spirit, anchors the soul, stops fear and fright, eliminates diseases, brightens the eyes, sharpens the senses, and benefits intelligence. When taken long-term, it promotes strength, health, and longevity.’

Image from www.buyginseng.org

Ren Shen 人參 is usually translated as ‘man root.’ Ren 人 is a pictograph representing a human bipod. Ginseng has a bifurcated root that resembles a homunculus. Like the mandrake, its likeness to the human form has inspired myths and intuition about its magical healing properties. The Chinese value ginseng roots for their form; the ones that look like they have heads with defined facial features, and bodies with arms, hands, legs, and feet are most treasured.

Some English herbal texts say shen 參 means ‘root,’ but no Chinese dictionary, classical or modern, lists such a definition. If shen 參 does not mean ‘root,’ what does it mean? The character 參, in common usage, means ‘to join,’ ‘to insert,’ or ‘to examine,’ but is pronounced cān. In ancient scripts, 參 means ‘three.’ Looking at the pictograph, the idea of ‘three’ is expressed by the 厽 at the top and reiterated by 彡 at the bottom. In the middle is human 人. However, the idea of ‘three’ expressed by 參 has a deeper and more specific meaning.

When pronounced shēn, as in ren shen, 參 only has two definitions: 1) it is the name of an herb, and 2) it is the name of one of the twenty-eight constellations in ancient Chinese astronomy. Belonging in the celestial region of the White Tiger of the West 西方白虎, shen 參 is the three bright stars of the Belt of Orion. The three stars line up in a straight line stretching from east to west, as though they are balancing each other.

《前漢·天文志》參爲白虎三星,直者是爲衡石。《註》參三星者,白虎宿中,東西直似稱衡也。

They are vividly depicted by the three circles at the top in the ancient bronzeware script of the character:

Orion (Image from Wikipedia)

But then why name an herb after the stars? Orion, also called The Hunter, is one of the most easily recognized constellations. Orion has seven stars that trace the outline of a hunter in the mythical imagination. The three stars in the middle are lined up evenly to make the hunter’s belt. When they shine high and bright in the night sky, admiring their glory stirs new hope and optimism in the human heart. The three stars came to represent happiness, prosperity, and longevity 福禄寿三星, their rays bestowing those virtues upon humanity. The expression ‘May the Three Stars shine high and bright!’ 三星高照 is a well wish not only for the Chinese New Year, but for all seasons and occasions.

The Three Stars of 參 (Image from Wikipedia)

Ginseng grows slowly, taking time to absorb and distill the essence of heaven and earth. Embedded in its name, ren shen 人參 is the idea that the ginseng root is heaven’s gift to mankind, the manifestation of the Three Stars in the realm of human life, that brings happiness, prosperity, and longevity.

The grand reward of classical Chinese medicine is the intimation of a perfectly integrated universe in which humanity is an expression of Nature. The stars in heaven, the cells in the body: cosmic and human events are seamlessly woven together. Understanding this intellectually is not difficult. Feeling and living it, however, is magic. In every meridian, every acupoint, every herb, there are deeper meanings and connections to be explored and discovered.

* Medical texts subsequent to Shen Nong describe the taste as sweet and slightly bitter, and the temperature as slightly warm.

About Lok-Kwan

Lok-Kwan is a Licensed Acupuncturist in the state of Illinois. He is a board-certified acupuncturist and herbalist. He sees patients and teaches qigong in Chicago and Wilmette. Visit his website http://www.energymedicinechicago.com.
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3 Responses to Ginseng the Star Root

  1. Mavi says:

    Hello,
    Thanks for your posts, I like them, I’m studying Dr. Tung’s points and I’m looking for a forum to talk, ask questions etc. Do you know any?
    Happy new year! 🙂

  2. Lok-Kwan says:

    You can address questions to Dr. Young’s forum:
    http://www.drweichiehyoung.com/en/academicforum/tungspoints/fc/tp13.html
    For discussion, the Lotus Institute may be a better place:
    http://www.elotus.org/forum

  3. Russell Behlmer says:

    Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is in the same family, but not genus, as true ginseng. Like ginseng, it is considered to be an adaptogenic herb. The active compounds in Siberian ginseng are eleutherosides, not ginsenosides.

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