Walks in the Apricot Forest: A Girl's Compassion Leads to a Cure For Leprosy

Hui Ye

PureInsight | July 7, 2003

[In Chinese, "Apricot Forest" is another term for the medical community. For more details see: http://www.pureinsight.org/pi/articles/2003/1/23/1368.html]

[PureInsight.org] A long time ago in China, there existed a special custom in certain areas in the south. When a young maiden was infected with leprosy, her parents would buy her a husband, usually a poor homeless man. They hoped through the marriage their daughter would be able to pass the leprosy to her unfortuante husband, and thus save her own life. This custom was known as "selling leprosy." This was certainly a myth that was not backed up by any medical proof. A woman with leprosy is likely to pass it to her husband through physical contact, but there is no proof that the woman herself would actually be cured of leprosy.

This custom eventually came to an end because of a very touching story, which goes as follows:

The daughter of a tavern owner suffered from leprosy. The tavern owner cut a deal with an extremely poor bachelor, who agreed to "buy" his daughter's leprosy by marrying her. But the kind-hearted girl did not wish to pass this awful, disfiguring and painful disease on to anyone else, so on her wedding night, she secretly gave the poor bachelor the money her father had promised to him and let him escape out the back door. Her father was furious when he found out that his daughter had let the man escape with the money, so he locked her in the wine cellar without food or water, intending to starve her to death. Out of hunger and thirst, she had no choice but to drink the wine from a giant barrel of wine in the cellar. There is a Chinese saying, "Wine is in itself a type of food." Therefore, it is believed that one can substitue food with wine to some extent. Whenever the poor girl felt hungry or thirsty, she drank from the giant wine barrel for nourishment. Several days later, her father assumed she had starved to death, so he ordered a coffin made and entered the wine cellar to take her body out. However, when he entered the basement, he was surprised to find his daughter alive and completely cured of leprosy. The tavern owner ordered his men to empty the giant barrel to inspect its contents, only to find a long-noded pit viper (Ancistrodon acutus) inside. Since then people began to drink wine with long-noded pit vipers to treat leprosy, and this soon became known as an extremely effective treatment.

Long-Noded Pit Vipers

The daughter of the tavern keeper did not leave her name behind. But because of her compassionate thought to save the life of the young bachelor, she not only ended up saving her own life, but blessed all the people of future generations suffering from leprosy by discovering this magical medicine.

This story must have occurred during or before the Tang Dynasty, since there is an exact record of using Ancistrodon acutus to heal leprosy in The Theory of Snake Hunters by Liu Zongyuan, a famous writer during the Tang Dynasty. The book says, "There is a bizzare type of black snake with white patterns in the wildness of Yong Prefecture. They can be used to cure leprosy, chronic rheumatism, numbness of the limbs, muscle spasms and scabies." Historically, this shows that the long-noded pit viper had already become a precious medicine by the time of the Tang Dynasty. It was common for the Chinese Government to encourage snake hunters to catch the vipers by offering handsome rewards such as tax deductions. [1]

According to Compendium of Materia Medica (or Ben Cao Gang Mu in Chinese), one of several writings from the legendary Chinese pharmacist Li Shizhen, long-noded pit vipers were also known as "Qi long-noded pit vipers" because those located in Qi Prefecture during this time (now southern Qichun County in Hubei Province) had even more powerful medicinal effects. Compared with other types of snakes, the long-noded pit viper has many unique charateristics. All other types of snakes have their nostrals pointing downwards, but long-noded pit vipers are distinguished by the presence of deep pits on each side of their heads between the eye and the nostril, a characteristic that makes their noses appear to point upwards. Therefore, the long-noded pit viper also came to be known as the "nostril snake." In addition, all other snakes close their eyes after they are dead, but a long-noded pit viper does not close its eyes after death, even after it becomes withered and dried up. According to Compendium of Materia Medica, the long-noded pit viper has "a head like a dragon, a mouth like a tiger, a black body with white patterns and twenty-four bead-shaped spots on its abdomen." "The tip of its tail resembles a Buddha's fingernail with a length of 1 to 2 cm. Its intestine is in the shape of stringed beads" [2] .

The Ancistrodon acutus of Agkistrodonae (or Bungarus multicinctus of Elapidae) belongs to the family Viperidae. It is extremely venomous and often bites people on the foot if provoked. Its general medicinal applications are to treat prolonged rheumatism, numbness of the limbs, muscle spasms, scabies (contagious itch), impetigo (an acute contagious skin disease characterized by vesicles, pustules, and yellowish crusts), obstinate tinea (fungal diseases of the skin), obstinate numbness of the muscles due to pathogenic wind or pruritus (itch) and tetanus (an acute infectious disease characterized by tonic spasm of voluntary muscles, especially the jaw).

Li Shizhen developed a special formula called "Pin Lake Herbal Wine Made of Ancistrodon Acutus," which was very effective in treating prolonged rheumatism, numbness of the limbs and muscle spasms, etc. Li Shizhen also developed a type of medical pill called "Three Snake Pill" for leprosy. If it hadn't been for the compassionate thoughts of the tavern owner's young daughter, none of these treatments would have been possible.

[1] Liu Zongyuan, The Theory of Snake Hunters. Also see Volume 16 of The CollectedWork of Liu Hedong. Liu Zongyuan was also know as Liu Hedong.

[2] Li Shizhen's Compendium of Materia Medica (or Ben Cao Gang Mu in Chinese), volume 43, Category of Animals with Scares.

Translated from: http://www.zhengjian.org/zj/articles/2003/5/31/21841.html

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