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Pick your (ancient) poison

Updated: 2014-09-12 07:28
By Zhu Weijing (China Daily Africa)

Toxins have been used in China for millennia, some with such chilling names as intestine-rupturing herb (断肠草) and three-laugh death powder (三笑逍遥散)

If you want someone dead but don't want to get caught, poison is the way to go. Or, maybe you just want someone to die painfully and slowly - again, poison is the way to go.

The world recently watched King Joffrey Baratheon's death from a poison known as The Strangler on HBO's Game of Thrones. China has long had its own legendary poisons to dish out. A chapter on poisoning in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) book Instructions to Coroners (《洗冤录》) by Song Ci (宋慈), the founding father of forensic science in China, begins: "For those who die of poisoning, their orifices open, their face turns greenish black or green, their lips go purplish green, their nails appear dark green, and blood spews out of their mouth, eyes, ears, and nose." A grim fate indeed.

Pick your (ancient) poison

The ancient Chinese excelled in the discovery, use and cure of poisons, some familiar to us today and some with names that chill the blood, including lethal poisons such as arsenic (砒霜), intestine-rupturing herb (断肠草), crane's red-crown (鹤顶红), and three-laugh death powder (三笑逍遥散).

Arsenic, the king of poisons, is perhaps one of the few toxins that transcends time, national borders and social class. A favorite of the Romans and Europeans in the Middle Ages, arsenic was a classic in ancient China as well. It was the poison of choice when the famously wanton Pan Jinlian (潘金莲) and her lover decided to murder her husband in the classic 14th century Chinese novel Outlaws of the Marsh.

It also brought death to China's penultimate emperor Guangxu (光绪帝), though the cause of death was not confirmed until 2008, 100 years after the emperor's face turned blue at the age of 37. To this day, the murderer of Guangxu remains somewhat of a mystery given that arsenic is colorless, odorless, tasteless and difficult to detect.

Throughout Chinese history, as often depicted on TV shows, the Chinese believed in a not-so-foolproof method to test for poisoning that involved the poking of a silver needle into food, drinks or bodies. As Song Ci instructs: "To confirm that poisoning has taken place, a silver needle that has been scrubbed in soapy water should be stuck into the victim's mouth. If the needle turns a blackish color that cannot be washed off, then poisoning can be confirmed."

However, modern science tells a different story. It appears that the only reason the silver needle worked occasionally with arsenic was the crude methods used to make arsenic; sulfide that commonly existed alongside arsenic in nature can turn silver black.

Aside from minerals, plants were readily available as alternatives. Given the Chinese obsession with and knowledge of herbal medicine, the appropriation of herbs as weapons is easy to understand. Shengnong (神农) - a legendary ruler of pre-dynastic China from the beginning of the third millennium BC, the discoverer of different qualities of herbs and father of Chinese medicine - died of a toxic intestine-rupturing herb. Although it sounds like a specific type of plant, it is the name used for a variety of lethal plants from different parts of China.

In some surprising cases, poison can cure as well as kill. One of most well-known examples of "counteracting one poison with another" (以毒攻毒) is perhaps an incident in the wuxia, or martial arts novel Legend of Condor Hero by Jin Yong, in which the protagonist, poisoned by datura, which also is known as angel's trumpet, was saved by taking a mythically horrifying and lethal intestine-rupturing herb.

Among the many bloodcurdling varieties in the "intestine-rupturing" family, one of the most toxic is hemlock (钩吻, Gelsemium elegans). In 2011, a Chinese local official murdered a deputy of the National People's Congress by putting this legendary poison in the man's hot pot. In the beginning, the victim feels a burning in the throat, followed by vomiting and excruciating pain in the abdomen. Eventually, victims of this poison die of respiratory failure.

见血封喉 (jiànxuěfēnghóu), literally "meets blood and seals throat", is another infamous poison and comes from the upas or poison arrow tree (Antiaris toxicaria). Once often used on arrowheads, when the poison contacts an open wound or blood, it brings nearly instant death. It is found in Yunnan and Hainan provinces. Locals in Yunnan describe its effect as "whoever's infected with the poison can only take seven steps forward or eight steps back before death" (七上八下九倒地).

But, poison isn't just for traitors and schemers: It was also used as a "gift death" (赐死, cìsǐ), used in euthanasia or to protect the honor of the soon-to-be deceased. One famous example is "China's Nostradamus", the military commander and prognosticator Liu Bowen (刘伯温), who was rumored to have been given a cup of poison wine from the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Those deemed worthy of an honorable death and a gift from the emperor, such as a doomed high-ranking official or concubine, would be offered either the rope with which to hang themselves, the dagger with which to stab themselves, or a nice cup of poisonous wine. As the Chinese saying goes: If his majesty wants my death, I have to die (君要臣死,臣不得不死). The toxic contents of the imperial poisonous wine were usually, according to legend, the crane's red crown, poison-feather bird zhen (鸩), or arsenic.

Many now believe that crane's red crown was merely a euphemism for arsenic, whereas the mythical poison of the zhen is pretty obviously an invention of Chinese legend. Described in the Classic of Mountains and Seas (《山海经》), an ancient Chinese classic text and a compilation of early geography and myth, the zhen was a purple and green bird the size of a falcon fed on the heads of venomous snakes. Often referenced in myths, poetry, and literature, the word 鸩 later became synonymous with poison, as merely dipping its feathers in any liquor guaranteed the drinker's death. Ancient texts record that these birds were hunted down and killed because the usage of zhen poison was too widespread and cruel.

Other bewildering poisons result in a cacophony of incredible symptoms. The three-laugh death powder, for instance, is rumored to be undetectable, and the victim dies after giving an eerie, sardonic grin three times. The legendary body-melting powder (化尸粉) works much like sulfuric acid, melting the body and clothes. However, even if these fantastical murder potions existed, their recipes have long since disappeared.

The zhen birds may be mythical (or extinct), but arsenic, hemlock, and even nerium oleander passed through history and into legendary fame, ensuring many a horrifying death.

Courtesy of The World of Chinese, www.theworldofchineses.com

The World of Chinese

(China Daily Africa Weekly 09/12/2014 page27)

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