by JULIE RAUER
November 02, 2006
(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)
"Winter worm, summer grass", lyrical designation for the ancient Chinese ingredient dong chong xia cao, is the epitome of medicinal gastronomy, singular cultural invention of a civilization which pioneered the use of food as tonic, evolving a complex palliative cuisine lush with aesthetic manifestation, yet constructed on the pragmatic foundations of pharmacopoeic scholarship. Peeling away the euphemisms of seasonal poetry, the aforementioned item, figuring prominently in both an aromatic soup nestled amongst black chicken segments, onion, garlic, and chili pepper—and as a potent curative tea—is actually caterpillar fungus.
Relentless predator of the ghost moth larvae, Cordyceps sinensis, ingested by the Chinese nobility to much curative acclaim for over three thousand years, is still a highly prized delicacy, exorbitantly priced at 4,000 yuan, or $500 U.S. per pound. Tonic of lords and sovereigns, caterpillar fungus was reputedly utilized by King Zheng, the First Emperor (Shi huangdi), in his quest for longevity. This parasitic fungus literally acts as a body snatcher, invading the caterpillar from head to stern while growing deep into the creature’s flesh—in the fashion of a strangler fig, comparably ravenous botanical marauder—eventually creating a hard, umber fungal doppelganger of the original caterpillar by systematically replacing all of its bodily tissues. 
Brewed as a beverage, the consumption of fungus was committed to writing with particular eloquence during the year 200 B.C. in the Yangsheng Fang, or “Recipes for Nurturing Life”, a recipe manual—with eighty-seven exquisitely detailed preparations revolving around food as virility and longevity tonic—for macrobiotic hygiene in the Mawangdui medical manuscripts.  Unearthed in 1973 from tomb 3 at Mawangdui, located in the northeastern section of Changsha, Hunan, the complete manuscript corpus consists of thirty manuscripts (twenty-eight of which are transcribed on silk, noteworthy for its rarity, as most other manuscripts found were written on far less costly bamboo or wood) and forty-five texts. With only one exception, a manuscript dating to the Warring States period from another tomb, these texts, enclosed in a rectangular lacquer box, are the earliest Chinese writings on silk discovered.
Languishing in darkness 17.7 meters beneath daylight, deep in a wooden burial chamber dating to 168 B.C., encased in three internested coffins, lay the inscribed ‘master of the tomb’, most likely Li Xi, the thirty year old son of Li Cang, Marquis of Dai.  Surrounded in death by all of the elaborate trappings and pragmatic conveniences of life deemed essential by the ancient Chinese to ensure a comfortable afterlife, Li Xi was encircled by a vast quantity of grave goods provided for his future welfare; four storage areas yielded a staggering archaeological trove of three hundred and sixteen pieces of lacquer ware, including numerous pan dishes (fig. 2, below) suitable for food service, and a cornucopia of immaculately prepared and refined dishes, accompanied by vessels filled with exceedingly well preserved raw comestibles awaiting consumption by the p’o, the soul’s earthly component.
According to Han dynasty philosophy defining death—separation of both aspects of the soul from the body—the hun, or ethereal component leaves the corpse and ascends through heavenly realms to the kingdom of immortals, while the p’o, grounded grave-dwelling portion of the human soul, must be discouraged from abandoning the body via appeasement by tomb furnishings resplendent with all manner of material goods, earthly possessions emblematic of status (figs.3 and 4, above) and luxury, services and foods. Mingqi, “glorious vessels” or objects crafted for burial with the dead, filled Han tombs, which pulse eerily in highly detailed imitation of life: replicas of green glazed earthenware farmyards (fig. 9, below), pigsties, domesticated animals (fig. 10, below), servants, musicians, and, of course, grinning chefs ready to serve. Fish and fowl cavort in an enchanting square duck pond (fig. 11, below), a Han period earthenware treasure at Berwald Oriental Art, a New York City gallery with a superlative collection of mingqi.
Mortuary pottery also took the form of the inanimate, mimicking familiar structures and objects necessary in daily life: wellheads with functional pulley and bucket systems (fig. 12, below), pestling shops, multistoried edifices, and the particularly noteworthy pottery granaries (fig.13, below) and stoves, which were amongst the earliest mingqi to appear, achieving great popularity in the middle Western Han, and subsequently declining thereafter. Miniature chefs creating delicacies for the deceased on Lilliputian stoves (fig. 14 and 15, below) happily links epicureanism with death, inextricably bound together in spheres of Han thought, with satiety of vital importance before and beyond the grave. Uniquely weaving the subtleties of food preparation and consumption through the substance of both life and afterlife, the act of eating achieved mythic dimensions while raw provisions, elevated to the status of perpetual sustenance, fed an eternal cuisine.
Guidance and instruction—in keeping with the Han ideology of ensuring smooth continuation of natural cycles and definitive paths for human destiny—assured Li Xi of a stable, lucid afterlife anchored to the gastronomically familiar, the essential dietary regime embodied by the recipe cures that defined ancient Chinese cuisine with its conjoined role as both nutriment and medicine.
Nurturing the second Lord of Dai, Li Xi, in the next world are two viscerally fascinating recipes (both contained in MS III of the Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts, “Recipes For Nurturing Life”, which, while remarkably complete, have suffered some damage evidenced by breaks in the text - indicated below by ----) utilizing, with much certainty, the renowned Caterpillar fungus, Cordyceps sinensis, telescoping epicurean link between ancient and modern cuisines . The first recipe fosters health in the interior realms of the human body:
“Another. To cultivate the inside. Collect bulging fungi that have just started to bulge forth, and dry them in the dark [without] letting them see the daylight. Wait until they are dry. ---- take five bai (described as a grain-like plant) ----, two mendong (most probably refers, according to Donald J. Harper in Early Chinese Medical Literature, to mai mendong, a drug from plants in the genus Liriope), and one fuling (pine truffle). Then pestle them together. Soak in water, using just enough to cover. ---- and press to obtain the liquid. Use it to soak the bulging fungi, again using just enough to cover. Then remove and dry them. Let them become completely dry, then smith. Drink a three-fingered pinch in one half cup of ----.” 
Physical endurance is the primary objective of the other Mawangdui manuscript caterpillar fungus recipe, culled from the recipe section addressing pedestrian travel—aiming to not only quicken one’s pace, but also to heighten stamina on long journeys:
“Striding. Feilan (either refers to thistle, or, more curiously, to flying cockroach), fangkui, shiwei (pyrrosia), jiegeng (balloon flower), and ziwei (trumpet-flower), one small bunch each; wuhui (monkshood), three nodules; ---- large ---- bamboo skin, five cun; bai tengshe (possibly python bile) or zang gengshe that is three to four cun long, or ----. Smith separately, and combine with ---- or zao (jujube) fat to make balls the size of sheep feces. Eat once every fifty li. Dark fungus comes from Luo ----. Seven hundred (likely the number of li one can traverse in a single day after consuming these potent medicine balls).” 
Yet many of the remarkable recipe manuscripts, lacquers, and food vessels discovered in Li Xi’s tomb were badly damaged just after 168 B.C. by the construction and eternal installation of a formidable presence in Mawangdui’s largest vertical-shaft tomb 1—his mother, the Marchioness of Dai. Sequestered inside four nested coffins, beneath a stratum of charcoal and another of white clay, cocooned in twenty layers of garments bound with silk ribbons, Lady Dai (Xi Zhui, wife of the Marquis of Dai, Li Cang) was revealed in a flawless state of preservation, saved from bacterial degradation and decay, her skin still supple and internal organs, muscles, and viscera all intact, moist, and stunningly elastic.  Reputedly a beauty in her younger days, the fifty year old Marchioness ate a wide and resplendent path through decades of sedentary luxury, indulging every culinary whim to leave a diminutive frame buckling under obesity.  A double chin is easily discernable in photographs of the body. Black hair persists in a feral nest encircling her face, a portly visage forever halted in an open-mouthed pantomime of uninterrupted mastication. Type A blood still lingers in her veins.
Incorrectly referred to in many populist sources as a “mummy”,
Lady Dai was never mummified in the way of
Over 2,100 years old, Lady Dai still retains the startling immediacy of recent death, made all the more palpable by the presence of over one thousand immaculately preserved objects buried with her, grand trappings of an opulent existence tethered to penultimate gastronomy and a sumptuous life centered around the low Han dining table. Bamboo and pottery food containers encircled replicas of her servants, painted wooden figures perpetually standing in attendance, surrounded by the great lady’s clothing—single, padded, and double-layered robes, mittens, socks, shoes, and skirts—and suitcases packed with exquisite silk fabrics, their vivid hues undiminished by time. Furniture, lacquer dishes, toilet boxes, musical instruments (fig. 17, above), mingqi money, medicinal herbs, and personal accessories (fig. 18, above) bear witness to a magnificent lifestyle, particularly the copious lacquers of the Mawangdui tomb, all in pristine condition and many bearing the grandiose, painted inscription ‘house of the marquis of Dai’. Amongst the phoenixes, red lacquer whorls, persimmon-calyx designs, vermilion clouds, and black lacquer dragons (fig. 19, above), are the abundant remnants of food and wine dating back to 168 B.C.
Of particular fascination are specific inventories of Xin Zhui’s afterlife banquet, discoveries categorized by food group; the sheer variety and dietary breadth of ancient China’s privileged nobility is staggering, encompassing everything vaguely edible in the plant and animal kingdoms, all manner of life that trots, flies, swims, crawls, burrows, scampers, nests, and grows—both above and below ground.
Meat, including wild and domesticated animals on hoof and wing, represented a veritable bestiary: sika deer, wild rabbits, suckling pigs (fig. 23, below), horses, cattle, sheep, dogs, boar, cranes, chickens, ringed pheasants, ducks, wild geese, owls, bamboo partridge magpies, turtledoves, quails, pigeons, Mandarin ducks, sparrows (and their delectable eggs), and Bamboo pheasants.
Consuming roots, legumes and tubers with equal relish and admirable culinary creativity, the Han dynasty’s wealthiest palates delighted in such flora as: taro, lentils, soybeans, water chestnuts, rape, bamboo shoots, ginger, lotus roots, gourds, sow-thistle, chives, mustard-seed, garlic, red beans, mallow, mustard greens, shallots, knot-grass, and malva.
Fruit preferences, as indicated by grave finds, were less esoteric, but still noteworthy: persimmons, Chinese strawberries, melons, pears, plums, arbutus berries, peaches, oranges, and jujubes (Chinese dates).
Unsurprisingly, the vast range of seafood integral to many regional Chinese cuisines today is not in evidence in this inland Changsha tomb, which contained no evidence of crustaceans (crabs, shrimp, lobsters) or mollusks—such as bivalves, snails, octopuses, or squids. Only fin fish were discovered, limited to: perch, bream, crucian and other types of carp.
Still the foundation of daily meals in modern China, starch—commonly referred to, archaically, as cereal—was the cornerstone of Lady Dai’s last feast, yielding large quantities of: wheat, rice, foxtail millet, barley, panic millet, and glutinous millet (Job’s tears). Curiously, the lower status millets are well represented in this lavish burial chamber, along with the more highly valued cereal staples, wheat and rice. 
Condiments produced by fermentation and pickling—key Chinese techniques in food preservation dating all the way back to the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. —are in great abundance, attesting to the keen above ground need for victual conservation, to appease the p’o of Lady Dai, lest it abandon her corpse and return to terrorize the living as an enraged demon, or kuei (fig. 24, left), when confronted by a decaying afterlife repast. Mirroring the broad range of mass produced sauces today such as fermented broad bean paste (doubanjiang), soy sauce (jiangyou), sweet-salty sauce (tianmianjiang), and salted black beans (douchi), tomb 1 yielded a veritable pantry of seasonings: Vinegar, cinnamon, honey, salt, soy sauce, sugar, leaven, ginger, [lesser] galingale (a strongly aromatic member of the ginger family), sauce prepared from salt beans (shi), fish sauces, and brine. Sun dried, smoked, marinated, salted, and pickled foods fill copious Mawangdui vessels , speaking eloquently of humoral medicine tenets, which espouse the manipulation of the “nature” (cold, hot, cool, temperate) and flavor (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, acrid) of foods with effective treatment of various illnesses—as evidenced by the highly complex and undeniably colorful recipes in the Mawangdui medical texts.
Tracing the evolution of a particular Han dynasty dish—telescoping shifting palates, dining customs, class structure, and cultural imperatives of a population forwards and backwards in time—via archaeological evidence is a scintillating prospect, deftly enabled by the extraordinary preservation and contemporaneous documentation of Lady Dai’s subterranean banquet. Apart from the explicit, highly personalized creations buried to appease the distinctive palates of the Marchioness and her son, an oft described dish, geng, one of the basic foods consumed by wealthy Han families, makes for a compelling study of culinary metamorphosis in relation to social class and the democratizing progression of time.
Numerous variations of geng, a type of aqueous stew or gruel incorporating morsels of meat, fish, and vegetables into a base of cereals and water, were listed on the Mawangdui tomb slips, which chronicled various types of geng contained in ding, tripod cooking and serving vessels (fig. 27, right). Tailored to seasonal ingredient availability and social events, daily geng for this affluent family of Changsha included: salt fish and lotus root geng, beef and rice geng, fresh sturgeon geng, and the robust venison and taro geng—intriguingly earthy combination of hoof and root. 
Everyday fare for the wealthy translated into rarified special occasion dishes for northern China’s poor, who only partook of geng—their own pedestrian meat (most likely humble mutton) and millet (considered a lower status grain than either rice or wheat) variation, shorn of vegetal or piscatorial flourishes—on feast days. Still luxury items outside of southern China, rice, fish, and the most varied and desirable vegetables were conspicuously absent from the lower class northern Han diet, which would have been heavy in Foxtail millet (Setaria italica), a highly forgiving crop domesticated in the dry north by 6,000 B.C., and Panic millet (Panicum miliaceum), cultivated successfully by 4,000 B.C .
Attesting to the preeminence of Li Cang’s family, foodstuffs gathered from all over China were buried in the Mawangdui tombs, belying an epicurean unity that does not represent either “the ancient contrast between North and South China (wheat was to the north what rice was to the south)”, or between the prosperous and the destitute. Culinary amalgams crafted by great wealth blur the historical distinction and social status of certain foods; as manifested perfectly by geng, “the production of different cereals as basic staples has made North China and South China two distinct entities with identifiable political, cultural, and economic roots.”  Food, highly emblematic of the socio-economic schisms in modern day China was just as potent a class marker in ancient times, harkening back to the Shang dynasty (c.1500-1000 B.C.E.), where severe gastronomic inequality reinforced “a long-standing trend: the rich got richer, the poor, poorer. The elite had great quantities of pork, grain, and wine, as well as other foods, while the ordinary people lived humbly on millet and coarse greens such as mallows (Malva spp.)”. 
Ironically, geng, indispensable mainstay for the prosperous and infrequent delicacy for the impoverished, has evolved across the centuries to jook, a modern incarnation commonly known as rice congee—penultimate southern Chinese and Hong Kong comfort food. Served in humble rice shops across New York City’s Chinatown for less than five dollars a bowl, congee tends to be rather visceral for the average western palate, its mysterious porridge-like suspension harboring crumbled, piquant black yolks of preserved (“thousand year old”) eggs, fish maw, and all manner of chopped animal innards and pungent organ meats. Congee, once the staple of Han nobility in its former life as geng, is also used by the home cook as a frugal breakfast repository of leftovers—bits of dinner fish, meat, and vegetables set adrift in the improbable ratio of one meager cup of rice to fifteen cups of liquid.
From the vast stores of provisions unearthed in Lady Dai’s tomb, numerous raw provisions can be diligently followed through 2,100 years of culinary invention, much of it in service of preserving health and curing ailments. Mawangdui’s medical manuscripts illuminate multiple applications of esoteric floral and faunal ingredients, their usage actively persisting in twentieth century medicinal gastronomy. Jujubes (zao), Chinese dates cultivated in the north for over 4,000 years, jujube fat, and sour jujubes (suanzao), feature prominently in twelve Han recipes, addressing problems as diverse as “Striding”, or speeding travel by foot, to use as a sexual stimulant applied to a napkin and rubbed on the genitals. 
A contemporary Chinese recipe, cultural product of voracious entomological consumption in both specialty restaurant and home cooking, incorporates the ancient jujube with other popular medicinal foods in a treacherous modern brew that conjures images of wizardry, Merlin, and flying broomsticks:
Li Shuiqi’s Simple Scorpion Soup
30-40 live scorpions
¼ lb. fresh pork, cut into small pieces
1 large Chinese garlic bulb, peeled and sliced
½ cup vegetable oil
Fresh ginger root, sliced
Salt and pepper
1 quart water
Handful dried Chinese dates (jujubes)
Handful dried red box berries
1 large carrot, chopped into small pieces
Wash scorpions in fresh water and set aside. Mix pork with garlic and set aside. Heat oil in large wok. Stir-fry scorpions for 20 seconds. Add pork and garlic mixture, ginger, salt, and pepper. Stir-fry briefly. Slowly add water. Add dates (jujubes), box berries, and carrots, and simmer for 40 minutes over low heat. Serve hot. 
Testament to the legacy of longevity induced by the Han dynasty’s
highly refined medicinal gastronomy, the corpse of Lady Dai at once
reveals a luxurious existence of sedentary pleasures, exceedingly rich
diet, and rampant lifestyle intemperance—mitigated by the remarkable
effectiveness of Chinese medical ideas, calculations, techniques, and
practices. In the second century B.C., death at age fifty was fortunate
rather than tragic, and for five decades, the Marchioness outlived nearly
everyone around her, including her husband, Li Cang, whom she survived
by eighteen years, and a son, who expired prematurely at age thirty.
Gallstones further taxed Xin Zhui’s badly overburdened physiology; one of these abnormal masses of biliary calculus, according to expert medical consensus, lodged in her bile duct, aggravating an already precarious circulatory condition, and likely induced a colossal heart attack. Sudden death found the Marchioness at the dinner table, the low, footed rectangular An tray (fig. 28, left) that would have groaned under the weight of countless banquets. Muskmelon seeds still lingered in her stomach 2,100 years later, vestiges of the last feast of Lady Dai, a final corporeal meal projected far beyond her tomb and into the afterlife.
© August 1, 2006 by Julie Rauer
1. P. Menzel, F. D’Aluisio, Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects, (Ten Speed Press, California, 1998), p. 89. This strange half vegetable half insect is largely gathered in the Himalayan regions,and is known as Yartsa Gumbu (also "winter worm, summer grass") in Tibetan. It is an important source of income for many Tibetans and Nepalese living in the high altitude regions where the herb is found.
2. D. Harper, Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts, (Kegan Paul International, London and New York, 1998), p.26.
3. M. Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, The Han Dynasty, (Rizzoli,
New York, 1982), p. 41.
4. Although Harper notates “bulging fungi that have just started to bulge forth” as simply “mushrooms”, this interpretation is unlikely, as the marked growth activity of the “bulging fungi” perfectly describes the entomologically accurate process of a caterpillar infected with Cordyceps Sinensis, which not only grows into the larval tissue, but also bulges rapidly and noticeably outward, forming a startlingly obvious seaweed-like, horned extrusion which can reach half a foot in length. Ordinary mushroom growth does not match the specific description of this unusual and easily observable entomological phenomenon laid down in this recipe text. Entomologist Louis N. Sorkin, B.C. E., of the American Museum of Natural History, concurs with this author’s assessment of Cordyceps Sinensis as the more likely identity of the true nature of the “bulging fungi”. Additionally, caterpillar fungus tea was used extensively by the nobility as a palliative tonic before and during the Han period.
5. D. Harper, Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts, (Kegan Paul International, London and New York, 1998), p.340.
6. D. Harper, Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts, (Kegan Paul International, London and New York, 1998), pp. 352-353.
7. M. Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, The Han Dynasty, (Rizzoli, New York, 1982), p. 42.
8. F. Juyou, The Cultural Relics Unearthed from the Han Tombs at Mawangdui, (Hunan Publishing House, Changsha, China, 1991), p.41.
9. F. Juyou, The Cultural Relics Unearthed from the Han Tombs at Mawangdui, (Hunan Publishing House, Changsha, China, 1991), p.41.
10. J. Waley-Cohen, The Lacquers of the Mawangdui Tomb, (Millenia Limited, Hong Kong, 1984), pp. 18-35.
11. M. Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, The Han Dynasty, (Rizzoli, New York, 1982), p. 50.
12. M. Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, The Han Dynasty, (Rizzoli,
New York, 1982), p. 50.
13. K. Kiple and K. Ornelas, The Cambridge World History of Food, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2000), p. 1170.
14. M. Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, The Han Dynasty, (Rizzoli, New York, 1982), p. 50.
15. Z. Wang, Han Civilization, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1982), p. 206.
16. M. Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, The Han Dynasty, (Rizzoli, New York, 1982), pp. 50-52.
17. S. H. Katz, Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, vol. 1, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 2003), p. 379.
18. K. Kiple and K. Ornelas, The Cambridge World History of Food, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2000), p. 1166.
19. S. H. Katz, Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, vol. 1, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 2003), p. 381.
20. D. Harper, Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts, (Kegan Paul International, London and New York, 1998), p.341.
21. P. Menzel, F. D’Aluisio, Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects, (Ten Speed Press, California, 1998), p. 96.
22. F. Juyou, The Cultural Relics Unearthed from the Han Tombs
at Mawangdui, (Hunan Publishing House, Changsha, China, 1991),
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: The China Institute in New York City is planning to present an important exhibition, NOBLE TOMBS AT MAWANGDUI: Art and Life in the Changsha Kingdom, Third Century BCE to First Century CE from February 12 through June 7, 2009. Traveling from Hunan Provincial Museum, this exhibition will be the first show of its kind in America.