Tracing The History of Hallucinogens in China

Professor Fan Pen Li Chen, Associate Professor of Chinese Studies & Department Chair of East Asian Studies in the State University of New York (SUNY-Albany) kindly summarised her fantastic exploration of the history of hallucinogen use in China from her article: “Hallucinogen Use in China”, published in the Sino-Platonic Papers in 2021. This article unveils existing evidence of Chinese shamanic activity, translating it into English for wider audiences.

Professor Chen had the following to say about the origins of this investigation: 

This is something of a side project for me. I was surprised when I was approached by the founder of an early stage neuropharmacology drug discovery company which is working on extracting psychoactive compounds from plants not well characterized in the West. The founder had spent hours reading through my referenced citations and was interested in my theories about the reason for China’s historical exclusion from the ethnopharmacology of psychoactive compounds. I could only imagine that the dearth of research on the topic in English may have been a factor. The thought that my paper could contribute to humanity in a totally different way from my other projects (Chinese shadow theatre; string-puppet theatre; popular religion; women warriors….) is most gratifying.

TalkingDrugs has done the best possible to reference the original texts with open-access versions for readers to delve deeper into the original sources.

 


 

On a world map that illustrates native use of eighteen categories of major hallucinogens in Richard Evans Schultes et al.’s Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers, China is a conspicuous blank. Although a few Chinese hallucinogens (such as fangkui, shangla and yunshi) are included in Schultes’s elaborate tables on hallucinogens, their presence there is based solely on Hui-Lin Li’s “Hallucinogenic Plants in Chinese Herbals”. This study attempts to fill that blank by presenting literature relevant to this topic in early Chinese literary and Daoist texts, pharmacopoeias, encyclopaedias, and studies of hallucinogens used by some Chinese ethnic minorities.

Shamans, the wu, were once exalted spiritual experts and healers in ancient China. By the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (during 771-221 B.C.E.) however, their status began to decline until they were officially banned by the imperial government in 1024 C.E. during the Song dynasty. Wu-shamanism survives in vernacular religious sects through assuming other names and by incorporating Daoist and Buddhist deities. Although shamans were active during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E – 220 C.E.), as evidenced by silk texts and bamboo slips uncovered from tombs, officials and literati did not record any hallucinogens they had used. But we can uncover the use of hallucinogens by shamans and shamankas through ancient literary sources.

The three Pre-Han literary works studied in this article are Guideways Through Mountains and Seas (aka The Classic of Mountains and Seas), “Rhapsody on Gaotang,” and Songs of Chu (aka Songs of the South). Guideways is an encyclopaedic geography and cosmography compiled from the fourth to the first centuries B.C.E. Possibly penned by shamans, the world of Guideways is populated not only by legendary prehistorical characters but also by a host of half-human creatures. Seventeen shaman-related names are also mentioned in Guideways. There is even a state named after a shaman (perhaps headed by the shaman?), and a shaman mountain (aka Witch Mountain) where all manner of drug-yielding plants grow, from which shamans “ascend and descend from heaven.” Both Guideways and the preface to “Rhapsody on Gaotang” seem to refer to the same shaman priestess, the daughter of a Thearch (a legendary deity-king), who supposedly transformed into either a psychedelic mushroom or a dodder (a hallucinogenic plant) after death. A king who may have ingested the hallucinogen had an erotic dream encounter with a “goddess” when he visited Shaman Mountain.

Songs of Chu attributed to Qu Yuan (ca.343-ca.277 B.C.E.) consists of lyrics that reflect shamanistic elements from the State of Chu in southern China. Shamanistic rituals, spirit journeys and eroticised encounters with deities are plentiful. Aside from feathered people and chariots of flying dragons, the songs mention numerous plants including dodder, spirit mushrooms and cannabis.

 

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Image of xian riding dragons. Source

 

The employment of practices by Daoist adepts to attain immortality/transcendence (to become xian) in particular, began during the Han dynasty. They most likely inherited knowledge of the use of hallucinogens from earlier shamanic traditions. Pictures of Daoist transcendents (the feathered xian flying through space or riding mythical beasts through clouds) adorn mirrors, tomb walls, gate towers, recovered manuscripts, and other burial goods of the Han. The Biographies of Transcendents attributed to Liu Xiang (77 B.C.E.-6 C.E.) includes twenty-nine herbs consumed by transcendents, many of which (acorus; malva; divine mushroom; rubia cordifolia; aconitum fischeri; peucedanum decursivum; sophora augustifolia; aristolochia recurvilabra) have hallucinogenic properties.

 

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Two pages from Li Sao from a 1645 illustrated copy of Chu Ci. Source

 

The renowned occult Daoist Ge Hong’s (284-364) masterpiece, Master Who Embraces Simplicity includes descriptions of several psilocybin/spirit mushrooms (with some of the information on mushrooms being preserved in two encyclopaedias (Encyclopedia of Literary Collections compiled 624 C.E.; Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era compiled 977-983 C.E.) rather than in the surviving version of this work). Of those mentioned, ten enable one to ride on clouds, communicate with heaven, and meet with deities and spirits. Take, for example, the Black Cloud Spirit Mushroom:

     It grows among black boulders on the shaded side of famous mountains. Its caps are black, stacked in three layers, and covered by cloud-mist. Its taste is acrid and sweet. Consumed after they are dried in the shade, they will enable the body to live for a thousand years without aging, ride on clouds, communicate with heaven, and see ghosts and spirits.

Ge Hong’s recipe for attaining transcendence includes toad, another known hallucinogen. For treating falling frenzy, having seizures, and madness, he prescribes henbane (of the nightshade family) and calcined toad in his Prescriptions Within Arm’s Reach for Use in Emergencies. Another Daoist treatise, Taishang lingbao wufu xu (probably completed around 410 C.E.), prescribes the use of poke root for attaining transcendence. According to the author, this hallucinogenic plant was always grown by Daoist adepts as it allowed one to “communicate with the gods.”

My article also includes the ten hallucinogenic plants culled by Hui-Lin Li from Li Shizhen’s magnum opus, Compendium of Materia Medica (first published in 1596). In his “Drug Taking and Immortality”, Akira Akahori lists thirty-nine common drugs used for immortality, six of which were likely hallucinogenic.              

A study on hallucinogens used by shamans among northern ethnic groups in traditional China based on historical sources also examined the use of ten psychoactive herbs including cannabis flower, wolf’s-bane, goat/sheep hovering, wickstracemia chamaedaphne, aconitum fischeri, aconitum camichaeli.

Although the shaman-like ritual masters of the mainstream Han people no longer use hallucinogens for entering into trance, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs is not  common among shamans of present-day northern China, Guo Shuyun was able to record the “professional secrets” of some old shamans of the Mongolian Oroqen people and the Tungusic Evenk people. They include use of the Mountain Climbing Juniper (sabina davurica), rhododendron, aconitum lycoctonum, and toad. Contemporary shamans in Tibet and southwestern China also still use smoked pine tips and nuts, cannabis, datura, the fruit of a maxun tree and a stimulant called guzibu’an to help them connect to the spirit world.