A Pyongyang Home
Companion No.
10.1: Ginseng!

That miracle root

A PHC Dialogue on Ginseng with Chris Marker's Coréennes

PHC: Chris Marker’s Coréennes (1959) describes the properties of the ‘human root’ (人參), or 'the king of herbs', mirabile dictu.

Marker: Another wonder: ginseng (insam in Korean). Father du Halde surprises me with this one: ‘The Gin Seng of Tsoe toen [PHC: ‘Choson’] resembles a man: it is purple and rather flat.’ It’s the most precious vegetable in the world. (In the Chinese apothecaries, Levites with lunar skulls bustle like so many Cornailles around delicate hanging scales tracing figures in the air, to deliver you ten grams of the salutary mandrake for the price of a hundred grams of gold.) It was the Chinese aphrodisiac: rich mandarins outfitted caravans to seek this root of deathlessness. They died of it. Raised to the rank of divinities by their exploits, they were called back by the jealous (or curious) gods. The eighteenth century, which took an interest in such things, gave a great reputation to ginseng. Looking for flying men, I found it mentioned in Richard Owen Cambridge’s Scribleriad: ‘that restorative the tartar boasts…’

PHC: There is an old Korean saying: ‘If man take ginseng, it is painful for the woman. If woman take ginseng, it is painful for the man. If man and woman take ginseng, it is painful for the bed. And if humans take too much ginseng, it is painful for the earth.’

Marker: Jesuit chastity and Marxist austerity agree to underscore other medical properties of ginseng. It heals. This must be understood in the absolute: it is not one of those vulgar medicines that only treat a single illness, or a hundred – as ridiculously specialized as the prostitutes of Pompeii. With ginseng, the verb to heal must be used like the verb to rain.

PHC: Ginseng is good for many things. Let us make a list: man’s function (and dysfunction), women’s function, inflammation, relaxation, ‘[i]t does wonders for exciting the central nervous system, becoming energetic and fatigue’, ‘[i]t functions anti-radioactivity and ant-cancer,’ ‘it is mainly used as a tonic’. Is there anything it can’t do? ‘…[I]t protects the five vital organs, has a beneficial effect on the brain, afterbrain, heart, and blood vessels, stimulates the internal secretory glands and promotes the metabolism. (Source: Various guide books from the 1980s to today). What is an afterbrain?

Marker: Father du Halde consents nonetheless to get into detail, but the detail soon covers the whole and overflows it: ‘It maintains the girth; it fixes the animal spirits in place; it stops the palpitations caused by sudden fright.’ It even cures that sickness the Portuguese call pesadelo (‘those afflicted by this illness imagine in their sleep that someone is lying next to them’). It is good for sleep (when one is ‘troubled by dreams and phantoms’), good for dog bite (‘and troubles of the spleene’) and finally, last, not least, it can help ‘when the entrails come out the sides.’

PHC: On a recent trip to Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region, I came across at a local bookstore, a Korean translation of The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅; Kr. 금병매), also known as The Golden Lotus, China’s classic erotic novel that makes E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey look tame.

Travel writer Paul Theroux in his Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China describes the novel: ‘The proof that it was pornography was its feeble pretense of being a morality tale. After almost 2000 pages of sexual acrobatics – and detailed descriptions of aphrodisiacs, potions, pills, silver clasps, love rings and harnesses – the story ends with the main character, His-men Ch’ing, literally screwing himself to death with the passionate Golden Lotus.’

Theroux continues, quoting the moral of the story: ‘Readers, there is a limit to our energy, but non to our desires. A man who sets no bounds to his passion cannot live more than a short time…’

Indeed, ginseng is linked to human desire – both physical and financial.

Marker: But the seventh wonder of Korea, more wonderful still than the art of the ginseng gardeners, is the work of the builders.

It takes fifty years to complete a ginseng plant (five thousand, says the Hsi yu chi) but only five days to complete a street – five weeks to build a house – five months to transform a neighborhood. Korea grows like a plant in a movie. It’s a phenomenon that surpasses architecture and politics to enter biology.

PHC: Ginseng gardeners are an exercise in patience and care, for it is a fickle plant which enjoys shade, particular types of soil physical and chemical properties, and love from the farmer. But it can also bring out the opposite in people. In the Appalachians of the US, men have killed over ginseng.

Perhaps ginseng is the root of passion, love, and ire.

A Pyongyang Home Companion is a guide to daily life in Korea: how-to, food, sports, modern culture, and romance.

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