Chapter 13. Ginseng In China.

Fig. 41. Root Resembling Human Body. Other tomes: AJP1885

With the exception of tea, says the Paint, Oil and Drug Review, Ginseng is the most celebrated plant in all the Orient. It may well be called the "cure-all" as the Chinese have a wonderful faith in its curative and strengthening properties, and it has been appropriately called the "cinchona of China." It is considered to be a sovereign cure for fevers and weaknesses of all kinds, and is, indeed, the chief and most costly medicine of the Chinese Empire.

Ginseng is found wild in the mountain forests of eastern Asia from Nepa to Manchuria. It once grew in Fukien, Kaighan and Shansi, but was supplanted by the Manchuria wild root. The root is carefully hunted for by the Manchus, who boast that the weeds of their country are the choice drugs of the Chinese, a boast which has much foundation in fact. Of the thirty-seven ports in China where the imperial maritime customs are established to import Ginseng, imports during 1905 were as follows: Shanghai, 103,802 pounds; Wuhu, 2,374; Kiuhiang, 2,800; Hankow, American clarified, 34,800; Wenchau 9,100; Chungking, American clarified, 6,200; Chefoo, 80,408; Canton, 75,800, and Foochow, 15,007.

The total importation at these ports for the last four years were: 1902, 407,021 pounds; 1903, 404,000 pounds; 1904, 313,598 pounds, and 1905, 331,381 pounds. These figures, however, by no means cover all the Ginseng entering China, as much of it comes thru the native custom houses, which keep no tabulated data of exports and imports, and great quantities of it are smuggled into the country, especially over the Korean boundary line. Niuchwang is the one Chinese port which exports native Ginseng. Its exports for the last four years were, respectively, 228,000, 215,000, 57,000 and 160,900 pounds.

To give an accurate price for Ginseng would be impossible, so greatly does it differ from the variety of the root offered to consumers. Some wild roots have been known to realize their weight in gold; while the cultivated variety can be purchased from 5 cents a pound up. Generally speaking, the present average prices are, for the best Ginseng, $12.00 a pound; for fair quality, $6.50, and for the ordinary, 50 cents to $1.00. Japan sends to China the cheapest Ginseng, a great deal of which is used to adulterate the highest quality from Korea.

In values and quality of the root the four principal producing countries rank as follows: Manchuria, Korea, America and Japan. Prices often vary in accordance with the method used in clarifying the root. Some Chinese provinces prefer it white, others reddish and still others require it of a yellowish tinge. The Korean root is reddish in color, due, some say, to the ferruginous soil on which it grows, and, according to others, to a peculiar process of clarifying. Most of the Korean product goes to southern China by way of Hongkong.

Wild Ginseng, from whatever country, always commands a better price than the cultivated article, chiefly because of Chinese superstition, which prefers root resembling man or some grotesque creature to that of the regular normal roots which cultivation naturally tends to produce. Chinese druggists, when questioned as to the real difference between the Manchuria wild and the American cultivated Ginseng root, admit that the difference in quality is mostly imaginary, altho there is a real difference in the appearance of the roots.

But the Manchuria Ginseng comes from the Emperor's mother country and from the same soil whence sprang the "god of heaven" and therefore the Chinese regard it as infinitely more efficacious as a curative agent than any other Ginseng could possibly be. Many assert that the future demand for Ginseng will be a decreasing one, from the fact that its imaginary properties of curing every disease on earth will be dissipated in proportion to the advance of medical science. There can be no doubt, however, that Ginseng does possess certain curative properties and it can be safely asserted that it will require many generations, perhaps centuries, to shake the Chinaman's faith in his mysterious time-honored cure-all.

American Ginseng, of which large quantities are annually exported to China, is classed, as a rule, with hsiyang, that is, west ocean, foreign or western country Ginseng. The imports of this article at Niuchwang for 1905 amounted in value to $4,612 gold. The exports of Manchurian Ginseng thru Niuchwang to Chinese ports for 1905 aggregated in value $180,199 gold and for 1904, $205,431 gold. Wild Manchuria Ginseng is rare, even in Manchuria, and its estimated valuation ranges at present from $450 to $600 gold a pound.

The total imports of Ginseng into China for 1904 aggregated 277 tons, valued at $932,173.44 and for 1905 to 1,905 tons, valued at $1,460,206.59. The increased valuation of the imports of last year emphasizes the increased price of Ginseng in the Chinese market.

Hsiyang, or American Ginseng, is marketed in China largely thru Hongkong and Shanghai foreign commission houses. Importations of the American product are increasing in bulk with each succeeding year, and the business gives every indication of becoming a very large one in a short time.


In most of the booklets and articles we have seen on Ginseng, the writers quote exorbitant figures as to what the root sells for in China. A good many of them quote from reports received from U. S. Consuls, who, when they give prices, reckon on Mexican dollars which are only about half the value of ours and some of them go so far as to quote retail prices for very small quantities of extra quality root.

Some of the growers and dealers in this country, therefore, imagine that they are not paid what they should be for their stock and that there is an enormous profit for the men who ship to China. Such is an entirely wrong idea and can be best proven by the fact that during the past couple of years three of the leading export houses have gone out of business, owing to their being no money in it. We do not know of any business conducted on as small a percentage profit as Ginseng. Frequently prices paid in this country are in excess of the market in China.

This not only means a direct loss to the exporter on his goods but also the cost of making clean (removing fibres, siftings and stems) shrinkage, insurance and freight. Business is also conducted on different lines from years ago. Then the buyers in China bought readily, prices were lower and more people could afford to use it.

Today, prices are tripled and while the supply is smaller, the demand is very much less and Chinese buyers make the exporters carry it until they really need it, in a good many cases buying root and not taking it for three or four months, and consequently keeping the exporters without their money. The expense of carrying Ginseng is also heavy owing to the high rate of interest, which is 8% and over.

The folly of depending upon U. S. Consul reports is shown in the great difference in the figures which they send. Many of these men have but very little knowledge of business, most of them knowing more about politics. It is not likely that this class of men will spend very much time in investigating a subject of this character.

The market here for wild root since June 1st has been the dullest we have ever known and the same condition prevails in China. We are glad to state that cultivated root is selling at much better prices than last year. It is hard to account for the disfavor with which it was regarded a year ago in China, and the prejudice against it has been overcome more rapidly than we expected. At this time last year it was almost unsaleable and we were buying as low as $3.00 to $4.00 per pound. Many houses declined to buy at all.

Now that the prejudice against it has sort of worn off, we look for a good market and consider the outlook very favorable and would advise people not to give up their gardens in too great a hurry. We make a specialty of cultivated root and will be pleased to give information as to handling, drying, etc., to any reader who desires it. We have been buying Ginseng for over thirty years.

BELT, BUTLER Co. New York.


Consul-General Amos P. Wilder of Hongkong, in response to numerous American inquiries as to the trade in Ginseng, with especial reference to the cultivated root, prices and importations, reports as follows:

The Ginseng business is largely in the hands of the Chinese, the firms at Hongkong and Canton having American connections. (The five leading Hongkong Chinese firms in the Ginseng importing business are named by Mr. Wilder, as also the leading "European" importing concern, and all the addresses are obtainable from the Bureau of Manufacturers).

I am authorized to say that American growers may correspond with the European concern direct relative to large direct shipments. They receive goods only on consignment and have some forty years' standing in this industry. This firm, as do the Chinese, buys in bulk and distributes thru jobbers to the medicine shops, which abound in all Chinese communities. The Cantonese have prestige in cleaning and preparing the root for market.

Last year the best quality of Ginseng brought from $2,000 to $2,300 Mexican per picul (equal to 133 ½ pounds), but selected roots have brought $2,400 to $2,550. It is estimated here that growers should net about $7.25 gold per pound. The buying price of Ginseng is uncertain. There being no standard, no price can be fixed. The American-Chinese shippers have the practice of withholding the Ginseng to accord with the demand in China. Owing to failures among Chinese merchants since the war and the confusion in San Francisco, trade in this industry has been slack and prices have fallen off. If the root is perfect and unbroken it is preferred. Much stress should be laid on shipping clean, perfect and attractive roots. Size, weight and appearance are factors in securing best prices, the larger and heavier the root the better.

When the shipment arrives the importer invites jobbers to inspect the same. The roots are imported in air-tight casks in weight of about 100 pounds. It is certain that there are many different qualities of Ginseng and the price is difficult to fix (except on inspection in China).

Fig. 42. Wild Ginseng Roots. As to wild and cultivated roots, two or three years ago when cultivated Ginseng was new, buyers made no distinction and the price ruled the same; but having learned of the new industry, experts here assure me the roots can readily be distinguished. They say that the wild root is darker in color and rougher. The wild is preferred. Experts now allege a prejudice against the cultivated root, affirming that the wild root has a sweeter taste. The cultivated roots being larger and heavier, they first earned large prices, but are now at a disadvantage, altho marketable.

The cultivated is as yet but a small percentage of the entire importations, but is increasing. Seventy-five per cent of all importations are in the hands of the Chinese. Small growers in America will do best to sell to the collecting buyers in New York, Cincinnati and other cities. Hongkong annual importations are now about 100,000 pounds.

Too many misleading and conflicting articles have been published on the subject of Ginseng culture in Korea, a true statement of the facts may be of interest. We all know the Korean Ginseng always commands a high price in China and I believe there must be a very good reason for it. Either the Korean method of cultivation, curing or marketing was superior to the American method or centuries of experience in its cultivation had taught him a lesson and a secret we had yet to learn. After considerable correspondence with parties in Korea which gave me very little information and to set my mind at rest on these questions, I went to Korea in 1903 for the sole purpose of obtaining all the information possible on Ginseng culture according to Korean methods and also if possible to secure enough nursery stock to plant a Ginseng garden in America with the best Korean stock.

Strange to say, even after I reached the city of Seoul, the capital of Korea, I could not obtain any more reliable information on Ginseng than I already knew before I left America. They told me where the great Ginseng district was located, that 40,000 cattys were packed each year for export, etc., but as to the soil, planting, cultivation, irrigation, shading, curing, packing, etc., they knew nothing that was reliable.

All the American people use sugar in one form or another, but how many could tell a person seeking for reliable information concerning the planting of the cane or sugar beet, of the character of the soil necessary, of its cultivation and irrigation, the process of refining, packing and marketing, etc. Comparatively few, indeed, and so it is with the Koreans on the cultivation of Ginseng. They all use it, but, like the Chinese, not one in several thousand ever saw a Ginseng plant growing. After considerable delay I secured a competent interpreter, a cook, and food supplies, and started from Seoul for the great Ginseng district, traveling part of the way by rail, then by sampan, and finally reached my destination on Korean ponies. Arriving at the Ginseng center, I lived among the Ginseng growers from the time the seed crop ripened until nearly all the five-year-old roots, or older ones, were dug up and delivered to the government at their drying grounds, which is about four acres in extent. This compound is enclosed on three sides by buildings from 100 to 150 feet in length and a uniform width of twelve feet and the rest of the compound with a high stone wall with a gate, which is closely guarded by soldiers armed with guns. Near the center of this compound is a well where the roots are washed as soon as they are received. There is no entrance from the outside to any of these buildings. Every one must pass the guards at the gate, for the buildings, together with the wall, make a complete enclosure.

The Ginseng gardens are scattered over considerable territory, most of which is surrounded by a high stone wall about twenty or twenty-five miles in circumference, similar to the great wall of China, and which many years ago was the site of one of the ancient capitals of Korea.

Part of the growers make a specialty of raising one-year-old plants, to supply those who have sufficient means to wait four years more for the roots to mature. Generally speaking, the grower that produces the commercial root raises but little if any one-year roots.

All Ginseng gardens are registered as required by law, stating how many kan (a kan of Ginseng is the width of the bed, about 30 inches and 51 feet long) are under cultivation, so the High Government Official, specially appointed for the Ginseng district, always knows how many roots should be available at harvest time and every grower must sell his entire crop that is five years old or over to the government and his responsibility does not cease until he has delivered his crop at the government drying grounds.

His roots are then carefully selected and all that do not come up to a required size are rejected and delivered back to the grower and these he can either dry for his own use or he can transplant them and perhaps next year they will come up to the required standard. The Koreans pay great attention to the selection of their Ginseng seed. No plant is allowed to bear seed that is less than four years old and very little seed is used from four-year plants. Nearly all the seed comes from five-year-old plants and a little from six-year-old. Only the best and strongest appearing plants are allowed to bear seed, and even these very sparingly, as part of the seed head is picked off while in the blossom and from which they make a highly prized tea. The seed stem of all other plants are pinched off, forcing all the strength, as well as medicinal properties, into the root.

Many of the best growers never allow their plants to bear seed, and only the required amount of seed is raised each year to supply the demand. After the seed is gathered, it is graded by passing it thru a screen of a certain size. This grader is made like an old-fashioned flour sieve, only the bottom is made of a heavy oil paper with round holes cut in it, and all seed that will pass thru these holes are destroyed, so only the largest and best seed are kept for planting. The soil which they use for their Ginseng garden is a very poor disintegrate granite, to which has been added leaf mould mostly from the chestnut oak, in the proportion of three-eighths leaf mould to five-eighths granite. The leaves are gathered in the spring and summer, dried in the sun, pulverized and sprinkled with water to help decomposition. This is the only fertilizer used. The beds are raised about eight inches above the level of the ground and are carefully edged with slabs of slate. What is called a holing board is used to mark the places for the seed. It is made of a board as long as the beds are wide (about thirty inches) and has three rows of pegs ½- inch long and 11 inches apart each way.

A seed is planted in each hole and covered by pressing the soil down with the hands. About ¼-inch of prepared soil is added to the bed and smoothed over. No other mulch is used. The roots are transplanted each year, setting them a little farther apart each time, until at the third transplanting, or at four years old, they are 6x6 inches apart, and at each transplanting the amount of leaf mould used in the prepared soil is reduced. (Note the difference between this and the American method of heavy fertilizing). Only germinated seed is planted and the time for planting is regulated by the Korean Calendar and not by the weather and if at that time it is at all cold, the beds are immediately covered with one or two thickness of rice straw thatch and as soon as the weather is suitable this thatch is removed and the shade erected. Each bed is shaded separately by setting a row of small posts in the ground 4 feet high and 5 ½ feet or 1 kan apart, on the north side of each bed and on the south side a similar row, only about 1 foot high. Bamboo poles are securely lashed to these posts and they in turn support the cross pieces on which rests the roof covering, made of reeds woven together with a very small straw rope. At the time of the summer solstice, the rainy season comes on, so a thick covering of thatch is spread over the reed covering, which sheds the rain into the walks, while the back and front are enclosed with rush blinds, that on the north side being raised or lowered according to the temperature. If it is a very hot day the blinds are lowered from about 10 A.M. to 4 P.M., leaving the beds in almost darkness.

The beds are all protected from the rain and are irrigated by sprinkling them when needed. At the close of the growing season, after the roots have gone dormant, all that are not dug up are covered with a layer of soil 7 or 8 inches thick. All the shade is pulled down except the posts and spread over the soil and the garden is left thus for the winter, and the grower selects another site to which he can move his plants in the spring, and each year new soil is prepared. From the time the roots are two years old there is another added care. They are now worth stealing—consequently the garden has to be watched day and night. A watch tower about 16 feet high is erected and the hands take turn about, occupying it as a sentry. Another man constantly patrols the garden during the night.

The Koreans are the largest consumers of Ginseng in the world, in proportion to their population, and they have carefully cultivated it for centuries with the one particular object in view, "its medicinal properties." For quality always, rather than quantity. They sacrifice everything else for a powerful medicinal root, and they surely grow it. I have seen some remarkable results from its use during my stay in Korea. Say what we may about it, but it plays a very important part in the life of both the Korean and the Chinese people. Do you wonder now that the Korean Ginseng always commands a high price? If the American growers had followed closer along the lines of the Korean growers and aimed for a high grade of medicinal root, the market for American Ginseng would not be where it is today. That is, the cultivated Ginseng. The American growers have it in their own hands to either make a success or failure of Ginseng culture, but one thing is certain, heavy seed bearing, excessive fertilizing and rapid drying will never produce a high standard of Ginseng. The principal market of the world is ours if we only reach out for it with that high standard and maintain it and especially so it we will unite together and market our product thru one central agency controlled by the producers. Mr. Chinaman may sometimes be mistaken as to whether Ginseng is wild or cultivated. He may also be mistaken as to whether it comes from Korea or China (I have seen him make this mistake), but let him once sample a liberal dose of it, and he won't make any mistake as to whether it is good, medium or bad.


The Ginseng Trade.

The following article by Mr. Burnett appeared in the Minneapolis journal last February and shows what dealers think of the Ginseng industry:

I wish you would give room for what I have to say in regard to an article in your journal last fall by our ex-Consul, John Goodnow. Some things he says are correct: That the demand is based entirely on superstition; that the root has life-giving qualities; and that those having the nearest resemblance to human beings are most valuable. That is quite true. I have seen the Chinese exporters' eyes dance when they saw such roots in a lot.

Now for the errors in what he said. He says the trade is in the hands of a syndicate and they only handle Korean Ginseng. Possibly this syndicate tells the Chinese retail merchants that to keep them from boycotting our American Ginseng. If so, why is it that the wild root this fall has been at ready sale at $6.75 to $7.10 per pound? We, who buy it, do not hold it and if we did not find a ready sale for it we would soon cease to buy it.

There has been marketed in Minneapolis probably $50,000 worth this year and in the United States a million dollars' worth. So you see his error: for, either directly or indirectly, it gets to China at good prices.

Chinese Superstitions.

Now in regard to the cultivated root, to show your readers how the value is based on superstition, we will cite one instance in our experience. We sent our clerk to a laundry where there were a half dozen "Celestials" to sell some nice cultivated root. Some roots were manlike in shape. They tasted it, were delighted with it and bought it readily and told him to bring them all he could get, as what they did not need for their own use they would ship to their exporter in San Francisco.

Our man told them he would be around in one week. We sent him again in just a week. He said on his return they "looked daggers" at him and said, "We no wantee your cultivated root." This convinced us they had shipped it to the agents of the syndicate at 'Frisco and received their returns. Now, does this not show that the demand is all based on superstition? It was very good until they were informed that it was cultivated.

Now your readers may say, how can they distinguish between the cultivated and the wild? I will tell you; the cultivated is usually much firmer and twice as heavy as the wild and generally much cleaner. Then most of the cultivated has been raised from small, wild roots dug from the forests and in transplanting they have not taken pains to place the tap root straight in the earth. This causes it to be clumpy—that is, not straight like most wild roots. This, with its solidity and cleanliness makes it easy to tell from the wild roots.

The Cultivated Plant.

Now we have had a number of lots of cultivated that we got full prices for. They were roots grown from seeds, symmetrical in shape, not too large, not too clean and dug before they became very solid. My idea is, if not allowed to grow more than as large as one's fingers, when dry and dug immediately after the seeds are ripe, or even before, if seeds are not needed, and not washed too clean, we can find sale for such. At present the ordinary cultivated does not bring quite half the price of the wild. There are some who buy that for American use, several firms putting up Ginseng cures. Some people, like the Chinese, believe it has merits, but as the demand is limited the price is low. That the Chinese think that the root grown by nature has life-giving qualities and that cultivated has no virtues, is certain. The only way to do is to grow in natural woods soil (manure of any kind must be avoided, as it causes a rank growth) dig and wash it so they can't tell the difference. One thing is certain, it's a hardy plant, altho slow to get started, and good money can be made at $2.00 to $3.00 a pound. Instead of being hard to grow, as many persons think, it is very hard to kill.

A belief among the Chinese people is that Ginseng roots, especially if of peculiar shape, will cure practically all diseases of mind and body. The Chinese are not given to sentiment; their emotional nature is not highly developed; they are said to be a people who neither "kiss nor cuss," and their physical sensibilities are so dull that a Chinaman can lie down on his back across his wheelbarrow with feet and head hanging to the ground, his mouth wide open and full of flies and sleep blissfully for hours under the hottest July sun. There is nothing about them, therefore, to suggest that they possess the lively imagination to make them have faith in a remedy with purely imaginary virtues. Nevertheless, among these people, a plant not found by any medical scientist to possess any curative powers is used almost universally, to cure every kind of ailment and has been so used for generations.

Intelligent Chinese resent the imputation of superstition to their people. But the fact remains that the Ginseng roots are valued according to the peculiarity of their shapes. The word Ginseng is composed of two Chinese words which mean man and plant, and the more nearly shaped like a man the roots are, the more they are valued. A root which is bifurcated and otherwise shaped like a man, may be sold as high as $10.00 an ounce; a recent secretary of the Chinese Legation explains this on the ground of being valued as a curio; but the curio is finally made into a decoction and swallowed, and the swallower evidently hopes that the fantastic shape of the root will make the medicine more potent.

Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants, 1936, was written by A. R. Harding.