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:
‘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.’
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.
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.
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.