History of Ginseng


© History Oasis

As I gazed upon the thin, wizened man cradling the knotty golden root, its withered twin prongs bespoke antiquity itself harkening back to an epoch yet entombed in those misty mountains now rising east of us.

Wordlessly my Manchurian guide Jiang pointed to the figure, then tapped his heart with vigor.

“Ree-shun,” he enunciated. “Ginseng. Life...strong.”

Nodding as though explaining all the mysteries from Galilee to Gath, the old man brought his treasure near with a toothless grin.

As its grooved flesh neared, details emerged like lines blessing a cartographer’s blank page with rivers, ridges, routes through ages yet untold. Two tapering limbs bent earthward, their fork a corporeal metaphor giving pause.

What mythos, rituals and legends entwined this humble talisman over how many thousand seasons past?

What hands equally wizened tilled, tended these curious crowns from wild forest to field, what wisdom gleaned with  each plant’s journey from seedling shoot to venerable elder rendered root then relief?

As our horses pressed westward toward home, I stole a glance back east where jagged purple rankles raked Tibet's rooftop gingerly.

Somewhere along their aretes perhaps laid secreted the winding, cryptic history of ginseng itself.


A woman from China using Ginseng as medicine
© History Oasis

As a revered component of China's rich medicinal history, ginseng has long been regarded as a panacea in traditional healing practices.

Dating back millennia, manuscripts first allude to ren shen, or "man root," as early as the Han Dynasty, where its forked, humanoid appearance represented yin and yang's harmonious duality.

Over successive dynasties spanning centuries more, imperial decrees deemed ginseng's harvest and distribution the exclusive privilege of the emperor, given solely as tributes or gifts to dignitaries.

Though more commonly accessed today, the aura of its near mythic status persists.

Tales abound of ginseng's wondrous restorative virtues - from extending life to boosting vitality.

While modern science has worked to corroborate these claims through empirical study, results remain inconclusive and often contradictory regarding ginseng's efficacy as treatment.

Randomized controlled trials in recent decades have shown no significant difference between ginseng and placebos across various metrics—from athletic performance enhancement to anti-diabetic effects.

However, enthusiasts point to smaller sample sizes and flawed methodologies underlying these lukewarm conclusions. Both sides concur more rigor is needed to fully unveil whatever promise ginseng may yet hold—if any at all - as a medical panacea.

For now, it seems science must content itself with but a glimpse into the mysteries of ancient Chinese plant wisdom that once graced the gardens of emperors long gone.


© History Oasis

While today simply known as ginseng in global commerce, the storied medicinal plant was originally christened rénshēn by the Chinese—meaning quite literally “man root.”

This descriptive moniker stems from the plant’s most distinctive feature - its gnarled, bifurcated taproot, which takes the unmistakable shape of a little human body with two leg-like prongs standing beneath.

Chinese texts as early as the Han Dynasty note this striking resemblance, referring to the root of “earthly ginseng” as míngrén—or “life root man.”

In the age-old doctrine of signatures, wherein plants’ physical forms indicated their therapeutic use, surely no sign could portend greater vitalizing virtues than that of a tiny figure evoking both man and root—humanavitality now drawn from and concentrated within the soil.

In fact, the character rén within ren shen signifies more than just “man” - it represents a coming together of multiple meanings—man, head, kernel—that connote embodiment of essence.

As such, rénshēn denotes not merely the silhouette of an ordinary man, but rather the quintessential root encapsulating the very marrow of human potency.

Over two millennia later, the name has endured as modern science continues working to unlock whatever secrets may yet lie within this tiny subterranean effigy.  


A ginseng root
© History Oasis

While most simply know of “ginseng” today as a general tonic root, historically not all ginseng was created equal.

In fact, the name has been applied to a variety of distinct species indigenous to separate regions of the globe.

The original ginseng native to Asia became renowned over millennia as “true ginseng” for its unmatched restorative virtues.

This stood in contrast to the later-discovered American ginseng—a close cousin botanically yet with more cooling, calming properties suiting the new world’s milder climes versus Asia’s heat.

And taking the name furthest from its oriental origins is the so-called “Siberian ginseng,” which while boosting vitality is no true ginseng, lacking the telltale gnarled root evoking the human form.

While each variety shares certain invigorating qualities, their dissimilarities also evoke philosophical perspectives on the very nature of identity itself.

For if substances as similar as Asian and American ginseng remain unmistakably distinct across cultural or geographical shifts, how then do we define identity—by intrinsic essence or extraneous identification?

Though known by a common name today due to perceived functional similarities, parsing the distinctions between such “ginsengs” illustrates how identity comprises far more than a name alone.


a crate full of ginseng
© History Oasis

Hailed for centuries by Chinese medicine as the king of herbs, revered as imperial ambassador to the court and tribute to emperors, ginseng today faces a bitter irony—prized to peril by the forces of the global free market.

As the rising Asian middle class and holistic health boom drive unprecedented demand, the slow-growing wild Asian ginseng now verges dangerously on extinction across China and Appalachia alike.

With maturity taking up to a decade, wild ginseng struggles regenerating quickly enough to meet ravenous commercial appetite.

As poaching threatens remaining wilderness pockets, China’s own national reserves now feature more American ginseng than its depleted Asian counterpart.

While the West fulfilled its Manifest Destiny to tame a wilderness continent, the East now pursues a latter-day quest for vitality amidst breakneck development.

And in the process, the ancient keeper of Taoist secrets whispering eternally under shaded mountain ferns seems destined to fall silent, its life wisdom lost for good.

Though cultivated ginseng fills much commercial need today, connoisseurs maintain it lacks the wild root’s unique restorative energy—a virtue accrued only over decades undisturbed beneath woodland canopies older than cities like Shanghai itself.


© History Oasis

By 2012, as health consciousness rose globally alongside economic growth still centered East, Coca-Cola seized opportunity tapping unrealized synergy at the nexus.

Seeking to crack China’s expanding beverage market, Coke developed “Coca-Cola Plus” - an energy drink play leveraging revered Chinese tonic ginseng’s time-tested vitality mystique, fused with its signature sweet fizz now spiked for the Red Bull age.

This gambit aimed squarely at Asia’s increasingly high-octane urban professionals equally immersed in hallowed holistic tradition and modern performance pressure.

For millennia, Chinese medicine has touted ginseng’s near-mythical restorative powers—from extending life and potency to boosting mental acuity.

Reimagined for the global commercial age by melding this ancient Chinese panacea with an archetypal modern brand from the West, Coke’s Plus seemed poised to bridge east and west, tradition and modernity alike for blockbuster success.

However, by 2013 Coca-Cola Plus met with an unclear discontinuation, despite seemingly ripe prospects at launch.

While initial marketing played heavily to ginseng’s indigenous mysticism, perhaps this failed fully resonating once stripped from native roots into a mass-market vessel.

Or with ginseng demand booming independently, did Coke misjudge its saturated sweetness to court modern Chinese tastes already savvy to ginseng’s manifold charms?

Though the ever-adaptable brands will surely recross paths as economic gravity shifts East, for now ginseng’s full commercial crossover potential beyond homeland confines remains an elusive alchemy.


© History Oasis

Once guarded by imperial decree for Chinese royalty alone, the ginseng plant’s restorative mystique now spans culinary and clinical across the globe following recent preliminary research suggesting tangible health boons.

As worldwide supplement sales surged to over $130 billion annually amidst growing wellness focus, ginseng emerged from folk remedy obscurity to feature prominently across tablets and tonics marketed for everything from memory to menopause.

Ginseng’s recent approval into the European Union’s traditional herbal medicine compendium further fueled this momentum.

From Germany to Brazil, surveys show up to a quarter use supplements containing the root extract hoping studies translate to real-life benefits.

In cuisine too, ginseng migrated from the Emperor’s court crossing China’s Middle Kingdom to grace hotpot casseroles, broths and teas from Seoul to San Francisco as trendy fusion epicureans seek cultural authenticity alongside putative advantage.

While ginseng's ultimate efficacious impact remains uncertain pending further research, one verdict seems clear across contexts nutritional and nostalgic—this once elite root now furthers wellbeing for everyday people throughout the lands the sun touches, one dish or capsule at a time.  

So whether as heirloom home remedy rediscovered or exotic delicacy, ginseng in some form increases in globetrotting popularity by the day—fleeting fad or nascent new niche to watch.