The ancient practice of magic in China: venom-based poison.
Table of Contents
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The Magic of Gu or Jincan
In Chinese folklore, especially in the South, was developed a whole literature on the magic to harm, sicken or eliminate people somehow perceived as antagonistic. All these practices are counted under the umbrella name of Gu (poison 蛊) or Jincan (from golden silkworm; 金 蚕). Once we started producing Gu, no one can be exempt from doing so, under penalty of death by the witch doctor. The preparation of Gu potions involved the use of the poison of several creatures (snakes, centipedes, scorpions), sealing them inside a closed container where they kill and devoured one another. The only survivor would have accumulated all toxic substances of the losers. Gu magic was used to manipulate the will of others, partners, to make people ill and not least cause death. According to Chinese folklore, a Gu spirit was able to transform into different animals: snakes, worms, earthworms, frogs, dogs or pigs.
The name Gu has ancient origins dating back to the oracle inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty (fourteenth century BC). The word Jincan is instead used for the first time during the Tang Dynasty (seventh century A.D.). The use of Gu comes from the generic term Chong (虫) which means not only insect and worm, but also amphibian, reptile and dragon combined with min (jar, cup, plate; 皿). The reference to the practice of sealing poisonous animals in a single container is therefore expressed already by the original name. According to Marshall the Gu character refers to the evil power of the ancestors that can cause diseases in live.
The silk or gold bug earthworm is a synonym for Gu and it dates back to the Tang Dynasty. Li Xian’s commentary to the Hou Han Shu (The Book of Latter Han) of the seventh century, it associates the name Jincan to a golden funeral decoration and Su E (ninth century) describes it instead as a golden worm coming from Kashmir. According to Eberhard, Gu and Jincan would be associated with the Duanwu Festival (the festival of dragon boat) which takes place on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of the Chinese calendar that corresponds theoretically the height of the summer heat.
Among the Miao (an ethnic minority living in the south of China and South East Asia), the most poisonous animals were placed in a vessel so that you devour each other. They were called the golden silkworms. According to tradition, the animal Gu, was able to produce gold if they were made the necessary sacrifices. If for some reason the sacrifices were interrupted, the animal would have instead caused damage. For centuries the Miao women have been treated with suspicion and fear just because of their mastery in Gu. Groot quotes a description Song:
“A gold caterpillar is a caterpillar with a gold color, which is fed with silk from Shuh (Szĕ-ch‘wen). Its ordure, put in food or drink, poisons those who take it, causing certain death. It can draw towards a man the possessions of such victims, and thus make him enormously rich. It is extremely difficult to get rid of it, for even water, fire, weapons or swords can do it no harm. Usually the owner for this purpose puts some gold or silver into a basket, places the caterpillar also therein, and throws the basket away in a corner of the street, where someone may pick it up and take it with him. He is then said to have given his gold caterpillar in marriage.”
According to Bencao Gangmu, the golden bugs would originating in Sichuan and only then would spread in Hubei, Hunan, Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi. According to the pharmacologist of the Tang Dynasty Chen Cangqi the ashes of old flowered silk are a cure for poison of insect venom Gu or reptiles which each this silk.
The first type is abdominal Gu, or the golden worm inside the stomach. The second Gu is the breeded Gu.As we have already mentioned before, various poisonous animals were sealed in a container. The survivor would later be transformed into a demon or a spirit. According to the Zhouli ritual text, an officer (Shushi 庶氏) was assigned with the ingrate task of having to exterminate poisonous attacking them with Gu spells, exorcising them and attacking them with herbal herbs. The official would then enlisted all the people able to fight Gu. Dismembered sorcerer’s ghost GU was referring to the ghost and worms that grew in the heads of beheaded by magic.
Their head was impaled on a pike, an antique punishment for criminals who practiced Gu magic. According to the Zhouli commentary of Zheng Xuan “those who dare to poison people with ku (gu) or teach others to do it will be publicly executed”. The fourth type of Gu was referred to the evil heat and noxious qi that harms the living. According to ancient beliefs also the Gu could spread through a mist or exhalation. According to the Shiji in 675 BCE Duke De of Qin tried to suppress the Gu beginning of a hot summer by means of dogs that had been bred to be slaughtered and exposed to the four gates of the city. Showing Gu dogs at the four gates of the city recalled the practice of the third type of Gu.
According to the Soushenji (In search of the supernatural, 320, the Gu spirits were shape-shifters able to transform themselves in worms or insects but also in other animals. The Gu contained various spectral beings or demons that could change shape as dogs, snakes or pigs. Their victims would never be able to recognize their appearance. Once set to work those who would touch would die.
Another type of Gu was the wug pest that eats grain and it was used mainly by women
“desirous of exciting the lusts of men and attracting them into debauchery. And, evidently, ku was also used to destroy crops or food-stores, or, as the learned physician expressed it, to make the corn fly away, perhaps in the form of winged insects born therein; indeed, the character for ku is regularly used in literature to denote devastating grubs and insects, including internal parasites of the human body, which exercise a destructive influence like poison.”
Gu also means witchcraft affecting men or cast harmful spells. The Gu magic generally harms the physical conditions and causes hallucinations. The Zuozhuan reports that in 601 BC Xu Ke of Jin was sacked from his office because of Gu who had hit him, “an illness which unsettled his mind“. The Hanshu provides some reports of scandals because of Gu magic to the court of Emperor Wu (141-87 BC). These episodes are numbered with the name of “notorious dramas of love and death“.
One story tells of the daughter of Empress Chen Jiao (unable to have children) who had been accused of practicing Wugu and maigu through the use of a fetish positioned close to the unconscious victim. This tradition reminds the voodoo practices. The empress was removed and more than 300 people involved in the case were sentenced to death. Their heads were cut off and their heads were all exposed on stakes. Another famous episode is the one regarding the plot against the prince Li Ju by Jiang Chong and Su Wen in 91 BCE. At the end, the plot was stifled in blood. According to the Hanshu the dead were tens of thousands.
This particular type of Gu was used to confuse, fascinate, charm and seduce. The Gu stimulated a kind of demonic sexual appetite, an idea dating back to the time of the Chou, according to Schafer. “This notion derives from the stories of ambiguous love potions prepared by the Aboriginal women of the south.”
The Zuozhuan reports a story in which the gu was used by Ziyuan, a Chu minister, to seduce his brother’s widow. The Mozi uses the term Gu to criticize Confucius who dressed elegantly to confuse people. Later references to the seductive charms Gu made by women abound in reports. The Gu could also be used for business.
We have seen that Gu was extracted from surviving poisonous animals in a sealed container. The venom then was extracted from the survived animal. Coincidentally, a similar method is used to fight the tuberculosis bacillus. In recent times generally Gu was developed to search for the well-being but also for revenge. The Soushenji reports that a family called Liao in the Yung-yang province had become rich because for countless generations had specialized in the manufacture of Gu.
One day one of the family members got married but kept the well-kept secret to his wife. On one occasion all the family members were away from home, but the wife found a pot with a large snake. Frightened, the woman killed the snake with boiling water. “When the rest of the family returned she told them what she had done, to their great alarm. Not long after, the entire family died of the plague.”
Even in the twentieth century, women in the Guangxi Zhuang produced Gu at the Duanwu Festival:
“Ku poison is not found generally among the people (i.e., the Chinese), but is used by the T’ung women. It is said that on the fifth day of the fifth month, they go to a mountain stream and spread new clothes and headgear on the ground, with a bowl of water beside them. The women dance and sing naked, inviting a visit from the King of Medicine (a tutelary spirit). They wait until snakes, lizards, and poisonous insects come to bathe in the bowl. They pour the water out in a shadowy, dark place. Then they gather the fungus which grows there, which they make into a paste. They put this into goose-feather tubes and hide them in their hair.
The heat of their bodies causes worms to generate, which resemble newly-hatched silk-worms. Thus ku is produced. It is often concealed in a warm, dark place in the kitchen. The newly made ku is not yet poisonous. It is used as a love potion, administered in food and drink and called “love-medicine.” Gradually the ku becomes poisonous. As the poison develops, the woman’s body itches until she has poisoned someone. If there is no other opportunity, she will poison even her husband or her sons. But she possesses antidotes. It is believed that those who produce ku themselves become ku after death. The ghosts of those who have died from the poison become their servants.” [Feng and Shryock]
Treatment and antidotes
- The root of ginger myoga;
- The flesh of a mythical creature on Mount Greenmound, a kind of fox with nine tails, who cries like a baby and feeds on humans;
- Prayers and conjurations (recommended by Buddhists)
- Traditional Chinese medicine used instead some herbal extracts, animal or mineral for overthrowing the poisonous effects of Gu.
Even in recent times, Miao women were accused of fabricating the gu. In 1988 a report on Miao legends reported that Gu was thrown against visitors. Norma Diamond of the University of Michigan, returning from a trip in Yunnan met a Chinese anthropologist. When the man learned that the professor was among the Hua Miao (Miao The Flower) remained very concerned. He asked her if she had eaten with them because they know how to prepare the Miao Gu and often poison the travelers. The anthropologist then proposed to administer an antidote.
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