Mycology has been a study of mine since before I chose Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a profession. Medicinal mushrooms such as Reishi and Shiitake are commonly used in TCM and have some scientifically supported health benefits. But looking at Taoist tales of the Mushroom of Immortality and Spiritual Fungus (Ling Zhi), it is easy to suspect that they knew of a Shroom with more than immune-boosting effects.
Chinese herbal literature is actually pretty vague about mushrooms. The early herbal called The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica (Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing) told of 5 mushrooms, one for each color of the Five Elements (which of course benefit the symbolically associated organ). With so many thousands of fungi, from the deadly toxic to the very tasty, one would hope to see better descriptions in the classical Chinese Medical literature. I’ve gathered references over the years, and am starting my thread on Chinese medicinal and magic mushrooms with this post revealing the ancient formula to stop incessant laughing after eating mushrooms…
The cartoon above refers to a formula from the famous classical Chinese medical text “Prescriptions from the Golden Cabinet” (Jin Gui Yao Lue) by Dr. Zhang, Zhong-Jing, the same famous author as the Cold Induced Febrile Disorders classic, the Shang Han Lun. Zhang lived in the Han Dynasty, from 150-219 CE. While “Prescriptions from the Golden Cabinet” is attributed to Zhang, the earliest extant copy is from 1340 CE woodcuts; some parts were certainly added after the Han era. It’s regarded as one of the most important books in TCM, but there isn’t yet a great English translation. The one I have is by Hong-Yen Hsu and is apparently still the only complete English version:
I was fascinated to see references to poisonous and hallucinogenic fungi on page 187:
1 Sheng is about 2/3 cup. Make sure you get the measurements right or it might not work! For those who can’t read the image, here is what it says:
18. For treating poisoning from eating fungi that has caused a depressive and violent sensation so severe that the victim feels as if he were going to die, drink a mixture of 1 sheng of human feces juice, 1 to 2 sheng of soil water, and thick soya juice (prepared by boiling soya bean). Emetics or purgatives also may help.
19. The preceeding formula also helps incessant laughing from the eating of fungi growing on a maple tree.
Yes, you read it right. If your buddy is laughing nonstop while tripping on hallucinogenic “shrooms,” give him a cup o’ crap, mud, and soy sauce. He’ll stop laughing, guaranteed!
I could stop there with a good laugh, but let’s look at this a little more closely to see what we can get out of it from a historical and scientific perspective.
To start with, I did a retranslation of passage 19, as I wanted to see if there were any more clues for the identification of the mushroom.
Here is the Pin Yin (the numbers are the tones) and translation for the Chinese characters in passage 19:
Feng1 Shu4: Chinese sweet gum tree (Liquidambar formosana)
Er2: and/if/as well as/so that
Bu4 Zhi3: Incessant/without end
Yi3 Quan2: Before/Previously
Qian2 Fang1: Ahead
The main point of interest here is that the tree was translated as ‘maple’ but is more accurately Liquidamber formosana. Maple is the genus Acer; Chinese maple is Acer leipoense. My dictionary (Pleco) says Qi1 Shu4 is the word for maple tree. So not only do we have no good idea what the fungus is, the identity of the tree is most likely wrong in the translation. Both of these trees have leaves which turn red in the autumn, which is apparently why they are linguistically close. Species identification and plant part used are huge issues when approaching ancient medical texts.
The next botanical question is whether the fungus grows on the tree or under the tree. The
translation says “growing on a maple tree” which would likely be a saprophytic fungus. It is more likely that this mushroom grows under the tree and is a mycorrhizal fungus. Of the psychoactive fungi, there are the Psilocybes which grow on manure, wood chips, and other decaying matter, and then the Amanita muscaria, famous for its red color with white spots (veil remnants), which has a relationship with trees. Amanita can grow under both coniferous and deciduous trees, so the identification as Maple or Liquidambar isn’t so key. Frankly, it would be a better match if this referred to a mushroom which grew on cow dung, as the Psilocybin mushrooms produce a much safer state of intoxication than the muscarinic Amanita (or so I’m told).
The small characters to the right of passage 19 say:
Yuan2 Ben3: Original manuscript
Now we are more unsure about the tree’s identification, the age of the text, and the differences from the original manuscript. Higher on the page a red mushroom was warned about. If this is the same mushroom, that strengthens identification as Amanita muscaria. One important fact here is that the mushroom itself doesn’t have a name. It is only identified in relation to a tree. If it is the same mushroom mentioned in passage 17, then at least we know it is red and can have a curled up top (as Amanitas can have).
There is a theory out there that many of the esoteric religious groups of the world had secret inner teachings about psychedelic mushrooms. While this text doesn’t disprove it, it does show a lack of detail or mystical interest in such mushrooms.
Most modern proponents of classical Chinese medicine give the idea that these older texts contain highly developed medical knowledge which is superior to modern scientific medicine in many ways. However, they usually leave out passages like this (and ideas like looking at bunnies while pregnant gives babies harelip). While there may be some serendipitous gems of useful medical practice in these older texts, they must be approached with responsible filters of plausibility, toxicology, and hopefully good research.
There are some other stunning references to using human feces in classical Chinese medical texts I’ll share with you soon. One in particular will blow your mind more than these shrooms!