The growing interest in the role of mycology and health has been spearheaded by the likes of Paul Stamets and Tero Isokauppila, leading to the development of food supplements, research and claims of new horizons in pharma.
I happen to feel that we have been here before though, with the role of Tea Medicine, culture and the development of fermented tea, AKA Hei Cha.
It is interesting to note that versions of the Taoist text Yisuan Jing, printed in the Ming period Taoist Canon (1368 to 1644) makes reference to fungi in the following:
“May all the immortals grant me,
The sacred scriptures sustain me, ,
The sun and the moon illuminate,
The light of jade make me shine,
The Yin and Yang make me grow,
The four seasons nourish me, ,
The five fungi give me shade,
The five clouds shelter me, ,
The five Perfected protect me and the six jia vivify me”
As part of the Yisuan Jing this text expounds and invokes the talismans that bestow immortality or at least augment ones life to the ideal age of 120 years.
There is a comparative appraisal to be made in the Shennong Bencao Jing 神農本草經;, the classic of herbal medicine written between about 200 and 250 CE thats identifies several species of “conk” fungi with medical and health giving properties.
We are not precisely sure when the process of fermented tea took place and the role of mycology in developing the enjoyable and health enhancing Hei Cha that we relish today. One legend holds that dark tea was first produced accidentally, on the Silk Road and Tea Road by tea caravans in the rainy season. When the tea was soaked in rain, the tea transporters abandoned it for fear of contamination. The next year, nearby villages suffered from dysentery, and decided to drink the abandoned mildewed tea in desperation. The legend concludes that the tea cured those suffering, and quickly became popular.
More accurate historical opinions suggest that the development emerged during the middle of the Ming period in the in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Can we account for this corelation between tea, developments in the Taoist canon and immortality prescriptions around the Ming period?
Certainly we have the date of 1633 as time when tensions around health and immortality perhaps reached a head when the Great Plague hit China. The epidemic started in Shanxi Province in 1633, and reached Beijing in 1641, where the plague caused the deaths of more than 200,000 people in 1643, directly contributing to the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in 1644. However this is significantly late in this period and we have to look towards earlier times.
In the period prior to the Ming, Taoism prevailed and greatly influenced all areas of society (Xian-Kui 2011). Taoism culture was more popular than Confucianism in Yuan Dynasty (Cao & Zhang 2009) its ideas infiltrated performance arts and politics. Taoist sentiments displayed in literary works often reflected ideas of immortality and perhaps led to the further developments of theories and practices established during the Ming period that followed.
Confluences with medical herbalism, health and immortality during the Ming might have met with some of the initial ideas and prescriptions of Tea Medicine. According to the classical work of Li Shizhen (李時珍) of the Ming Dynasty, “tea is cold and lowers the fire.” Since fire (inflammation) and theories around heat damage was expounded as the causes of many diseases, could Tea Medicine not only have developed as practice and a prescription for health but also entwined itself within established Taoist ideas around immortality?
Tea Culture developed very well in Ming Dynasty, and many texts of this period suggest this. The most important is considered to be the Chapu (茶譜) by Zhu Quan, written around 1440 CE, which calls for a new way to drink tea. The Chashu (茶疏) by Xu Cisu is another important book as it almost covers all of the Tea Culture at the time.
Fungus picking and consumption was quite common among the Taoists throughout Chinese history and romantic ideas of “picking magical mountain herbs” that bestow immortality already existed within literature and art during the Ming period. For Taoists like Ge Hong (葛洪) fungus picking meant the following:
“Taoist sages ventured into the mountain landscape to gather alchemical herbs and ling-chih fungus, to prepare their life-prolonging elixirs, and to encounter mountain-spirits and immortals“
According to the unofficial records of the Wanli Period (萬歷野獲編) Ming Emperor Shizong (明世宗) prompted his officials and the common people to collect fungi in the Five Holy Mountains (五岳) in the year bingchen (丙辰) of the Jiajing-era (嘉靖) ( 1556 CE) (Ning). The proposition here is that ideas around the role of fungus and mycology at the time of the Ming, alongside developments of tea processing and tea culture, Tea Medicine and Taoism perhaps inferred the emerging status of Hei Cha with both health benefits as well as Taoist cultural notions upon immortality.
CAO M, ZHANG CD. Taoist Thoughts and Cultural Foundation of the Apotheosized and Taoist Drama in Yuan Dynasty (Ⅰ). Journal of Hengshui University. 2009:03.
Ning YA. The Painting Fungus Growing at the Cenwei Residence 岑蔚居產芝圖 (1659) of Wu Li 吳歷 (1632-1718) and the Religious Belief of his Early Years.
Xian-kui JI. Illusory Consciousness of Taoism and Sanqu in the Yuan Dynasty. Journal of Eastern Liaoning University (Social Sciences). 2011:03.